What will happen to asylum seekers whom Australia refuses to let in?

Mehrdad Memarbashi and his family rarely leave their Port Moresby compound after a horrific home invasion and robbery last year.
“Four o’clock in the morning, rascals [PNG gangsters] they attack us. Two of them with machine guns, one with a handicraft knife,” Mehrdad said.
“They break down the door, go inside and take everything.”
Mehrdad, 39, an Iranian asylum seeker, lives with his Papua New Guinean wife Marie Resson, 25, and 16-month-old daughter Mania in the capital.

The current Australian government travel advice warns that Papua New Guinea is a dangerous place, especially during elections. Their new compound has a security guard and a recently arrived guard dog after they raised concerns about the insecurity.

View through the steel gate of a man holding a child and standing next to a woman

Merdad with his wife and daughter on their property in the PNG capital of Port Moresby. Source: SBS news / Stephen Armbruster

“We don’t go out too much because people will say bad things to people like refugees and local girls (who) get refugee boys,” Marie said.

Mehrdad is one of 104 male refugees and asylum seekers still in Papua New Guinea, or more than 1,300 sent by Australia to Manus in 2013 and 2014 for offshore processing. The Interior Ministry says they are not responsible for them.

Former PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who signed the original deal with then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, says he will restore the deal and Australia’s responsibility for men if he wins office in the country’s current elections.

Man, woman and child sitting together

Mehrdad Memarbashi with his wife Marie and daughter Mania in Port Moresby. Source: SBS news / Stephen Armbruster

The Home Office confirmed to SBS News that Australian taxpayers are still funding housing, meals and other expenses for men in Papua New Guinea, despite the official withdrawal from the deal on December 31st. It does not disclose the cost or how long the funding will last.

“I just want to leave this country and start my life, this is not the life we ​​are given,” Mehrdad said.

The Australian government announced the end of offshore processing in Papua New Guinea last October. All the remaining men received a letter from the country’s chief migration officer, Stanis Hulahau, who offered the former Manus detainees three options: return home, go to Nauru, or stay and be “managed” by the PNG government.

Family groups were not allowed to move to Nauru.

A man is squatting holding a child and looking at a dog in a cage.

Mehrdad, his daughter and guard dog of their complex. Source: SBS news / Stephen Armbruster

Mehrdad and Marie with our Manus. He asked for her phone number, and almost five years ago they fell in love.

“When I saw Mehrdad, I liked the way he speaks and I said, ‘He is a good person,’” said Marie.

Despite her family’s opposition to their relationship, she moved to Port Moresby to be with him and they married in 2020.

I just want to leave this country and start my life, this is not the life we ​​are given

Mehrdad Memarbashi

Mehrdad is a Christian who fled Iran after being brought before an Islamic revolutionary court. He was rescued from a sinking boat en route from Indonesia to Australia and taken to Manus Island.
“I am treated like an animal, the Australian government is making us sick, mentally, physically, everything,” he said.

He says he bears these physical and mental scars after the PNG Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the detention of all men at the Australian offshore processing center on Manus Island was unconstitutional and illegal.

The processing center was closed in 2017 and the detainees were moved from the island, which is about 450 km north of the PNG mainland. In 2018 former prisoner on Manus Island.
Mr. Rudd and Mr. O’Neill signed a controversial offshore processing agreement in July 2013. A few months later, the Coalition won the 2013 federal election, and then-immigration minister Scott Morrison honed offshore processing as a deterrent for people seeking to arrive in Australia by boat.

Both major parties support a policy that prevents people who wish to come to Australia by boat from settling permanently in the country. Tuesday, July 19 marked the ninth anniversary of the introduction of offshore processing by the Rudd government.

Peter O'Neill (left) and Kevin Rudd (right) are seated at a table with documents in front of them.

Then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (R) and Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill sign an offshore processing agreement between the two countries on July 19, 2013. Source: A MONKEY / DAN PELED

Offshore processing at Manus Island was supposed to be Australia’s short-term measure, but has now become a long-term issue for PNG.

“PNG got very bad publicity because of this, when we were just helping Australia, Australia didn’t stand up for PNG,” Mr. O’Neill told SBS News.
“Australia should have handled this better, especially the timely handling of refugees and repatriation.”
Elections are currently underway in Papua New Guinea and Mr O’Neill is challenging his successor and great rival James Marapa to become prime minister again.
The new government is to be formed on 4 August.

“Each individual refugee is under the responsibility of the Australian government, I don’t know why this has changed, but we will return to this position,” he said.

Peter O'Neill in suit holding his right hand up

Former Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill is running again in the country’s federal elections. Source: AP / Aaron Favila

Mehrdad says he is responsible for his daughter. He is not classified as a refugee and is not eligible for a job or visa, only a driver’s license.

Papua New Guinea now manages their accommodation and food, which are still funded by Australia, but the Home Office has not confirmed the cost or how long this will last.

A letter from Chief Migration Officer Stanis Hulahau offered single men 700 kin ($285) a week for food and living expenses and 1,000 kin ($408) for families, with a total minimum annual cost of $1.54 million for 104 men.

The Australian government is responsible for each individual refugee, I don’t know why this has changed, but we will return to this position.

Peter O’Neill

Living like Mehrdad’s “in an apartment with Class A security” in the capital’s notoriously expensive housing market is valued at 2,000 kin ($816) a week, with another $4.4 million a year in the account. Add in service provider fees and other costs that add up to the billions of dollars Australia has spent on offshore processing in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
“PNG has always been responsible for administering regional processing arrangements and for individuals in PNG,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement to SBS News.

“Australia’s association with regional processing in Papua New Guinea ended on December 31, 2021…and service provision has been transferred to the independent management of Papua New Guinea.

Manus Island Detention Center

Part of the detention center on Manus Island, photographed in 2008. The center opened in 2001 and closed in 2017. Source: LightRocket / Jonas Gratzer/via Getty Images

“Australia has provided PNG with a funding package to support its independent governance.

“PNG should define its framework for settlement and funding of support and services to the remaining individuals.”
The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling on the illegality of the detention regime on Manus Island determined that Australia was jointly responsible for the men.
The Queensland Coroner’s Inquiry into the death of Iranian refugee and detainee Manus Hamid Khazai found that Australia “remains responsible for the care of individuals who are often relocated to offshore processing countries for extended periods”.
United Nations rapporteurs have previously said that Australia has a “clear and undeniable” responsibility.

These judgments and conclusions are not recognized under Australian common law.

Italian priest Giorgio Licini has worked in Papua New Guinea for two decades and is currently the general secretary of the influential Papua New Guinea Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is a leading advocate for refugees in Papua New Guinea, thousands of West Papuans and men sent to Manus.
“We are a little amazed and surprised that nine years have already passed. Finished, completed. We are going to the 10th year, and there are still 104 people here,” he said.
“We believe that Papua New Guinea has some responsibilities officially and publicly, but financial support is still coming from Australia, still a large amount of money. This blaming PNG is actually more words than it actually is,” he said.
Father Giorgio describes the conditions in which some of the remaining men found themselves as “appalling”.

“This is something I have never seen before in my life, it shocked me,” he said.

Giorgio Licini's father in a polo shirt.  There is a crucifix on the wall behind him.

Father Giorgio Licini says asylum seekers were “sold”. Source: SBS news / Stephen Armbruster

“Keeping people for so many years in such uncertainty, to the point that they drive people to absolutely irreversible mental health, drive people to serious self-harm, drive people to suicide, take things to such an extreme.

“Don’t worry about how much suffering may be inflicted on them for the sake of this containment (policy).”
Father Giorgio assisted in the resettlement of hundreds of Manu refugees to third countries and denounces this process.
“Don’t forget that they were brought to PNG by Australia in exchange for money and projects, these people were victims of human trafficking,” he said.
“As far as I understand under the domestic laws of the two countries and international law, all this is illegal.”

He estimated that around 30 people could receive resettlement in a third country, leaving around 70 asylum seekers and those who refused to participate in offshore processing. About 10 people have serious and debilitating mental health problems.

This is something I have never seen in my life, it shocked me

Father Giorgio Licini

Merhdad, like dozens of remaining men, was interviewed for resettlement in the US, but years later he is still waiting to hear.
Canada and New Zealand may accept some people from Papua New Guinea under separate arrangements.
“I don’t want to go to Australia, they always want to mark you as a ‘refugee’, I don’t want to be a refugee, I want to be free,” Mehrdad said.
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