Immigration adds voice to asylum camp criticism

By Greg Ansley

Former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard. Photo / NZPA
Former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard. Photo / NZPA

Plans for a new asylum-seeker detention centre on Papua New Guinea's remote Manus Island sound almost like a resort: sports fields, computer rooms, music and cooking classes, gym and fitness training, guided walks through the rainforest, swimming on uncrowded beaches ... .

But reality for the more than 200 detainees already on the island is vastly different, enduring steaming heat in army tents and World War II buildings near mosquito-infested swamps and lacking most basic facilities.

So grim are the conditions that Australia's Immigration Department has joined earlier condemnation by human rights groups and the United Nations, warning that the camp it is responsible for is unsafe and likely to lead to serious mental and physical health problems. It says a new centre is urgently needed, built to exacting standards required on the mainland and complying with international obligations, including Australia's responsibilities under the UN Refugees Convention.

The present camp, part of former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard's Pacific Solution to deter boatloads of asylum seekers, was reopened last November as the Labor Government buckled under mounting criticism of its failure to block arrivals.

While Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor described conditions as adequate, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees slammed the camp as "harsh, humid, inadequate and cramped".

Under new detention laws asylum seekers sent to Manus face as long as five years on the island, the largest of PNG's Admiralty group about 200km south of the equator. They are held under a requirement that arriving by boat provides no advantage over refugees applying for entry to Australia through official channels in transit countries.

Overcrowding and mounting pressures on the main detention centre on Christmas Island forced the early reopening of Manus Island, and of the other Pacific Solution camp on Nauru, with 276 people now held there.

Ahead of the first transfers from Christmas Island the army moved in, patching up wartime buildings, erecting portable cabins on skids, pitching tents and setting up temporary showers, toilets and catering facilities.

Families have beds in "hard-walled" areas. Single adults sleep on camp stretchers in tents.

In a submission to the parliamentary public works committee the Immigration Department says the tents, with wooden floors, present safety and health management risks, have a useful life of only 12 months and are decaying from humidity and high use. The reticulated 240v power lines connecting the tents can be unsafe in the wet.

Even with fans, the tents are humid and hot in daytime temperatures reaching 38C, contributing to what the department describes as "behavioural issues".

The department says the camp is cramped, and limited recreation facilities are in a poor state, contributing to boredom and increasing the potential for increased tensions and risks such as self-harm and mental health problems.

"Past experience ... indicates that limited amenity and space quickly leads to behavioural changes which in turn can lead to substantial increases in health and security costs," the submission says.

The department and the PNG Government want a replacement camp built as a priority, but not on the same site.

The new camp, to accommodate 600 asylum seekers and 200 staff, will cost A$171 million ($209 million) and is expected to be completed by the end of the year. A basic gym, sports fields, open space and shaded areas, a canteen, religious and multi-faith rooms, computer rooms, a library and a school are included in the plans.

Classes will include English, computer training, cooking, sewing and "life skills". Other organised activities will include games and team sports, trips around the island, and swimming at local beaches.

- NZ Herald

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