Thank you for the chance to briefly update you on UNHCR observations from our latest mission to Manus Island (Papua New Guinea).
What stood out the most from this mission at the time we were there, was a pervasive and worsening sense of despair among refugees and asylum seekers. I observed and people shared with us that many are staying in the rooms, not going out, and not meeting and talking with others around them.
Those that you see walking or meet are usually downcast. In our conversations with different people there’s a sense of desolation. People are grasping for hope. They ask many questions that we, as UNHCR, have previously heard and repeatedly raised as well – what will happen to them; when will this end; how long will they have to stay in these conditions? These questions are particularly concerning in the context where current services, as well as future solutions outside of Papua New Guinea, remain insufficient.
While the relocation of refugees to the United States is an ongoing and welcome process, the knowledge that many remain without any resolution is weighing on everyone.
More than 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers have been forcibly transferred by Australia to the offshore processing facilities since 2013. Currently, more than 500 refugees and asylum seekers are living in three sites in Wards 1 and 2 in Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
It was evident again from our last mission and after more than 100 days since the closure of Australia’s so-called Regional Processing Centre, that the need for greater mental health support, emergency medical care and specialised torture and trauma counselling remains critical and unmet.
I spoke with a refugee who shared with me his daily struggles and what he was going through. He told me how he was concerned about some of his friends who are suffering of depression, who were thinking of self-harm and how he tries to be there for them. He also shared how he felt unable to help on some days because he himself could not get the help he needed.
The services provided at the site are predominantly implemented by Australian-contracted providers. The Government of Australia is no longer playing a coordination role on Manus Island. This is in contrast with previous arrangements at the former Regional Processing Centre.
UNHCR staff have observed a consistent and ongoing lack of clarity on the designated roles for specific services amongst contracted providers. This continued confusion makes it hard for refugees and asylum seekers to obtain the necessary services and to understand if they are even provided. This highlights the lack of outreach services to people with mental health concerns. This is particularly important at this point as the most vulnerable aren’t able to seek assistance outside their accommodation sites.
We’ve already emphasised and it remains the case that the local health facility, primarily the Lorengal hospital, has very limited capacity and resources to assist refugees and asylum seekers with serious mental health concerns.
Another observation is the safety of the refugees in the community which remains a major concern. This is noted from the conversations with refugees and community leaders.
In the local community, while no curfew is in place, the police have advised all refugees and asylum-seekers that they should return to their accommodation by 06:00pm each evening to mitigate security risks, and to walk in groups and not alone.
We cannot emphasize enough that solutions must be found for all, outside of Papua New Guinea, as a matter of urgency. Australia remains ultimately responsible, as the state from which these refugees and asylum-seekers have sought international protection, for their welfare and long-term settlement outside of Papua New Guinea.
The Government of Australia should assume a clear coordination role with regard to the service providers it has retained, and adequately monitor and provide services in line with growing and evolving needs.
Clearly, much more needs to be done to bring the circumstances of refugees and asylum-seekers on Manus Island up to a basic minimum standard. These critical steps however, will only be a stop-gap measure until durable solutions are found and made available for them outside of Papua New Guinea.