Earlier this year representatives from the UNHCR visited the island, and they've described the living arrangements there as harsh, and in some cases inadequate.
The report accuses the Australian and PNG governments of breaching international treaty obligations, with children being the hardest hit.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Richard Towle, UNHCR regional spokesman
TOWLE: I haven't been. It was a team that was partly composed of people from Canberra and the office up in Papua New Guinea.
COUTTS: And what was it that they found when they went there?
TOWLE: Concerns at a number of levels. The context of which people have already been transferred and some have been waiting there for more than two months is that there's simply no legal process or legal system in place for processing refugee claims. The second major area of concern is that people are still being held in mandatory detention settings, including children, without any real possibility of meaningful freedom of movement, which in these very difficult and sometimes harsh physical conditions, really is a serious question around international standards.
COUTTS: And are the fixtures and fittings more permanent. They're not living in tents?
TOWLE: When we were there, there were some people living in tents, some of the families were living in dongers with their children. There were single men, 66 single men living in tents and for 13 people, while we were there living under a very temporary tarpaulin, marquee, which was extremely muddy. They had to go from the mud straight into these rather transitory camp beds. So the situation at that time which has thankfully now been resolved, was very, very difficult for people.
COUTTS: And what about the children, are there schools for them? Will they get an education and the health facilities?
TOWLE: The service providers, Save the Children and the Salvation Army are really doing absolutely their best in what I can only describe as very, very challenging physical, legal conditions. Children are not routinely allowed outside the centres. They're not currently attending schools in the area. They're are makeshift schools in place for them or teaching for them inside the centres. But these are closed, mandatory and in our view arbitrary detention settings, which is no place for children to be held.
COUTTS: Now, the report accuses the Australian and PNG Governments of breaching international treaty obligations. What are the breaches?
TOWLE: The main ones are in relation to detention, the mandatory detention context, there is no proper legal system, people can't challenge the decisions on which they're being held. There is no real opportunity for freedom of movement, apart from some very limited and controlled excursions, which have only just begun since our visit.
The law relating to mandatory detention is a very serious one, the depravation of liberty, and that's an issue which we think both governments, particularly the Papua New Guinean Government needs to address pretty soon.
There are a number of other issues. If the sole purpose of transfer from Australia to Papua New Guinea was for the purposes of assessment, one would expect that there to be in place already appropriate assessment procedures, but they're a long way short in our assessment of reaching that goal.
COUTTS: Well, what apart from closing this centre needs to be done immediately to bridge these deficiencies?
TOWLE: In relation to children, we don't think any further children should be transferred to Manus Island until appropriate conditions are in place and in our view they are not currently in place. We think it would be helpful to move rapidly, at least on a temporary basis, to start looking at refugee claims, to provide some certainty and to avert the confusion that many people are facing there. They're isolated, they don't know why they're there. Many don't know why they as a group of 230 have been selected, whereas 8,000 or 9,000 people are still in Australia. So there's a profound sense of confusion and injustice amongst the resident population and children and their families are particularly exposed, and we think those issues need to be taken very seriously and they need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
COUTTS: Is there provision for the people on Manus being allowed out into the wider community?
TOWLE: No, there aren't. These are as we say at the time of the visit, mandatory closed detention facilities. Nobody was allowed to step a foot outside the centres. Since then, a very limited opportunity for excursions with supervision and appropriate escorts has been introduced, but that's a very tentative step.
Now we hope that the closed detention can be transitioned to an open centre as soon as possible, that's the direction in our view it needs to move as quickly as possible.
COUTTS: And is your report making any difference, is it being heard and read?
TOWLE: Well, it was published at midnight, last night, so we imagine it will be read very seriously. The governments of Papua New Guinea and Australia are really doing their best to improve the situation, as are the sterling efforts of the service providers out there on the island, Save the Children and the Salvation Army. But these are not optimum conditions for processing people. We've always said that if you take people to these remote Pacific Island locations, the ability to meet international standards and doing it properly is very, very challenging. We've seen it in the past and both our reports of Nauru, and Papua New Guinea of two weeks ago show exactly how challenging it is to do it properly.
COUTTS: And do you think they'll be any changes made, because the new Minister at the helm, Immigration Department, Brendan O'Connor. Any reason to think that he'll have a different approach or do it differently to his predecessor, Chris Bowen?
TOWLE: Well, we want to meet Mr. O'Connor as soon as possible and discuss the situation. He has been involved in related issues in the past and we've had a very good collaborative arrangement, discussions with him in the past and also with Minister Bowen.
UNHCR is not a single issue agency. We've got many strong and positive aspects of our relationship with this government and previous governments on refugee issues globally. The question of processing in the Pacific is one of particular concern to us, as it has been for some years and I've got no doubt we'll continue to have good, frank and concrete discussions around what can be done.
COUTTS: And the report is also calling for, a scathing report, for refugees to be, the practice of sending them to desist, well that's falling on deaf ears so far?
TOWLE: We made the recommendation last week to government that children should not be transferred. These are not optimum conditions for looking after children. It's not in their best interest and in the total absence of a legal system for processing them. And at the moment, a total absence of any legal framework on which they can look at their detention. We don't think this is an appropriate place for children. Mandatory detention is not an appropriate response for children.
COUTTS: You're not advocating separating children from their families?
TOWLE: We're advocating an open centre for those people, whether they're adult males or families or children who don't pose any health or security threats to the host community and we understand that most people have been through preliminary quarantine periods already, and there's no reason as far as we can see from this distance why they can't be allowed into an open centre arrangement.
COUTTS: Now, the Refugee Action Coalition is reporting five more suicide attempts by asylum seekers on Nauru last week. Now, this must be really concerning for UNHCR?
TOWLE: If you keep people in isolation, in limbo, both legal and physical, often people who are carrying the weight of trauma or torture from their earlier experiences of coming to the region, it's completely predictable that you will see a deterioration of psycho- social health in a fairly short period. We've again seen that in the past and we've started to see the same sorts of sequelae emerging from people on Manus Island and on Nauru. So it's precisely for those reasons that UNCHR has longstanding difficulties with these kinds of processing arrangements offshore.
COUTTS: And is enough being done, knowing what the conditions are for mental health ?
TOWLE: In our assessment, we're not a mental health agency, but it's clear that more can and should be done for people in these situations. But we don't think that some people should be transferred to these locations at all, and certainly we think it was premature to transfer children and families to these locations, given the absence of the legal and regulatory framework that should be in place before transfers.
Clearly, there is a need for greater mental health expertise and support for people in these places.