Media reports of growing incidents of robbery and violent attacks on Manus Island against asylum seekers emerged towards the end of July.
According to The Guardian, three asylum seekers who had been relocated out of Australian detention compounds to be relocated in accommodation in the Manus Island town of Lorengau alleged that they were robbed in violent attacks by Papua New Guinea locals.
Greg Barns, barrister and spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA), said that if the reports were true, the Commonwealth was ignoring its own laws concerning duty of care.
He also noted the Australian government’s $70 million settlement agreement entered into with asylum seekers, who had sought compensation from the Commonwealth based partly on the length of their detention on Manus Island. That claim was settled between the parties before the Victorian Supreme Court in June.
“The Commonwealth has just months ago agreed to a landmark settlement in which asylum seekers and refugees claimed damages for personal injury and false imprisonment,” Mr Barns said.
“This latest move indicates that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has not learnt its lesson, and continues to put the lives of vulnerable people at risk,” he said.
The class action, led by Slater and Gordon, followed a 2016 decision by the PNG Supreme Court that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was illegal and in breach of the island nation’s constitution.
Not long after that determination, Australia and PNG announced that Australia’s detention centre on Manus Island would close.
One of present concerns for asylum seekers on Manus is that as the detention compound transitions towards full closure, those who are relocated into the local community have subsequently lost essential amenities and security. In particular, existing medical and educational facilities have been closed as demolition of the Australian compound begins.
Last month, media reports said that asylum seekers on Manus had confirmed that the largest compound on the Island, known as ‘Foxtrot’, had its water and power supply cut to force people to into the transit centre located in Lorengau.
Mr Barns said that the department had a legal duty to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the health and safety of asylum seekers and refugees are not put at risk from work” it does. According to Australia’s Work Health and Safety Act 2011(Cth), this obligation extended to workplaces outside of Australia, he added.
“Cutting off essential services in the Manus detention centre in an attempt to force asylum seekers and refugees to move into the community, where they feel unsafe and have been attacked, appears to be in direct breach of the government’s obligations under workplace law,” Mr Barns said.
“Australia exerted its control over these people by bringing them to Papua New Guinea in the first place. According to the Federal Court, this means that they are owed a duty of care,” he said.
The barrister said that it was critical for Australia to bring those people it had relocated to Manus Island to another safe destination. Mr Barns suggested that the government had accepted a responsibility for the welfare of those currently on Manus when it forced them there in the first place.
The latest claims that some asylum seekers, all single men, who have been moved into the local community and are victims to alleged machete attacks must be investigated, he said.
“The Australian government […] can’t evade its responsibility now by forcing these men to live without essential services or move to an area where they are at risk. These moves are in direct conflict with the department’s duty under Australian law.”
“While the ALA has consistently called for the Manus detention centre to be closed, this must be done safely. Sending people to a town where they feel unsafe, and some have been violently attacked, is completely inappropriate,” Mr Barns said.