After holding refugees in legal limbo on Manus Island in some cases for years, and using them as miserable human deterrents to others thinking of attempting the journey, Australia is apparently eager to wash its hands of them.

The PNG and Australian governments are reportedly in a panic to clear the Manus detention centre of asylum seekers ahead of a PNG Supreme Court case that could find the centre is illegal under that country’s constitution.

According to advocate Ian Rintoul, asylum seekers at the centre have been told that their claims for asylum will all be processed as soon as possible and that those found to be refugees will be offered resettlement in PNG.

If the detainees refuse that offer — as many already have, claiming they are not safe there in the wake of the violence that killed Reza Barati — they reportedly will be forcibly removed from the country. “The message was clear for us — whether you are a refugee or not, they want to clear the detention centre. But there is no safety in PNG,” one detainee told Rintoul.

As Crikey has argued before, the kind of arbitrary detention that has been happening on Manus and Nauru is not refugee processing. But fast-tracked processing and the threat of forced removal is not a solution to Australia’s mismanaged offshore detention scheme, either, and will likely cause more unrest and violence at the troubled centre, and more protracted and expensive legal challenges for the government.

For two and a half years, this government has had the opportunity to craft a genuine regional solution to the asylum seeker problem. As the review conducted by Angus Houston, Paris Aristotle and Michael L’Estrange in 2012 recommended, offshore detention and processing could only ever be a temporary measure while an effective regional solution was developed.

But the only regional solution pursued by this government has been a bribe to the corrupt Cambodian regime to take just four asylum seekers, now reduced to just two. Now, it alone must pay the price for its laziness and hostility to regional engagement — Australia’s human deterrents, being held on Manus Island, have suffered enough.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey