I VISITED Manus and the refugee camp in December 2013. I was supposed to join Bishop Ambrose Kiapseni MSC of Kavieng-Manus diocese but he was not well at the time.
My intention for this visit to Manus was twofold: to listen to the clergy, religious, and lay leaders on the issue of the bilateral agreement between the governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea in regard to the asylum seekers and to find out how the asylum seekers were coping and how they were treated.
I brought with me three documents.
He first was the Regional resettlement arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea, signed by the Hon Kevin Rudd, MP (as Prime Minister of Australia) and the Hon Peter O’Neill CMG MP (Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea).
I also brought the Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea and the Government of Australia, relating to the Transfer to, and Assessment and Settlement in Papua New Guinea of Certain Persons, and related issues, signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration of the PNG Government on 6 August 2013 and the Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea on 5 August 2013.
Finally, I carried Fact Sheets 1–4 on the Regional Processing Centre on Manus: Economic Opportunities as at 1 October 2013.
Regarding the bilateral agreement
It was a surprise to me to find out that no one among those who came to meet me on the evening of 12 December (about 50 to 60 people) had seen any of the three documents I brought with me.
Among the people who came there was the Mayor of Lorengau, Mrs Ruth Manracamu, and the former Provincial Administrator, Mr Michael Hamou. The next day I met former Governor Michael Sapau, again Mr Hamou, and Mr Otto Molian.
I was told that, according to them, the Memorandum of Understanding was practically a sell-out by the PNG Government to the Australian Government. A previous draft of MOU was protecting the interests of Manus and it was more demanding on the Australian Government.
The interventions were mostly negative: people were not aware of the implications on the province and on the country and there had not been sufficient dialogue among the various levels of government. The Mayor of Lorengau mentioned she has no say in what is happening in Lorengau.
The project is considered an Australian project. It seems that the Australians can do what they want. They can bend the rules at their own discretion. While PNG citizens are strictly screened before entering Australia, there are direct flights from Australia to Manus with no customs’ duties, no quarantine. One of the speakers even mentioned that guns are brought in.
Of course the issue of economic opportunities was brought up. Some people believe that the people of Manus are missing out; that the national government is getting a lot of money.
Of the long list of economic opportunities spelled out in Fact Sheets 1-4, only the kit houses for 20 schools seem to be in progress. The floating hotel docked at Lombrum has reduced the income of guest houses, eateries, and small businesses around the area.
On the other hand, people believe that the “money component” is silencing those who should be vocal and speak out, either because they received benefits or because they hope to receive them.
Among the people who saw me, in the two days I was at Lorengau, were also five priests, three religious sisters (OLSH) and a Lutheran Pastor.
While the Sisters told me that, in the past, when there were about 60 Vietnamese Catholics, they used to visit the Centre and provide spiritual assistance to them, since the present issue of the asylum seekers have come up, they were not allowed to visit any more; the same for the priests and the pastors.
There was an initial meeting organised by the Major of the Salvation Army. Nevertheless, after that initial meeting, nothing more happened. They are asking themselves: “Why are they kept in the dark? Why are they (those in charge) not getting the Council of Churches involved? What are they hiding?
The humanitarian issue
During the meeting on the evening of 12 December, only one person spoke positively about the whole issue.
First of all, he said that the term used at the Processing Centre is “transferees” rather than “asylum seekers”. He then mentioned that the living conditions of the transferees were much better than those of any ordinary Papua New Guinean: they are properly fed, taken care of, they drink mineral water, etc…
In the course of his intervention, though, he mentioned that there are only men at Lombrum, because the women and children were transferred elsewhere.
This final comment disturbed me. And so I encouraged my listeners to think about our brothers who are at Lombrum against their own will, some of whom were now separated from their own women and children.
When I visited the Processing Centre I was hoping to be able to make contact with some of the transferees or asylum seekers. The Vicar General of the Diocese of Kavieng, Fr Dominic Maka, had tried to contact some people who could help us to visit the Centre.
We were able to drive into the Navy Base and travel around. I took pictures of the floating hotel and of the accommodations of the transferees – mostly container vans – which are provided with air conditioning.
We were advised to contact the Salvation Army, whose staff were having a meeting at the floating hotel. We were able to speak with a gentle Salvation Army lady, who apologized to us for not being of great help since their leader was not present.
She did provide some useful information: about the number of transferees: 1,200, whose majority are Islamists; some are Hindus; Christians are a minority. When I asked if there were Catholics, she did not know.
When I asked her if some of the men present at the Centre were separated from their wives and children, she seemed to hesitate to answer, but then she said: “Yes, they were separated”. I then asked her: “Where the wives and children were taken”, and she answered: “Perhaps to Nauru or to Christmas Island”.
The MOU states that it is the responsibility of PNG to assess those who are eligible for refugee status. In addition PNG will settle in PNG those it determines are refugees. Are Papua New Guineans aware of this? Does Papua New Guinea have the capacity to make such an assessment?
If I were to go to CIS at Kerevat and tell the guards on duty that I would like to meet some of the inmates, I am sure I would be allowed to do so; not so at Lombrum! Are the men at the Processing Centre of Lombrum worse criminals?
It seems that only officers and/or volunteers of the Salvation Army are allowed access to the transferees, while the other main-line churches are not allowed and/or welcomed. While this might be considered as a privilege, the Salvation Army could be held responsible of collusion with the evil practices of the Australian and PNG Governments.
For example: did the Salvation Army publicly distance itself from the decision of the Australian and PNG Governments in regard to the separation of men from their women and children?
I believe it is a very serious responsibility of the Salvation Army to tell the truth about the physical, psychological, social, human, and spiritual condition of the men at Lombrum. It is also the right of those men to worship according to their belief and the right of the mainline churches to reach out to their members.
Even though certain major decisions have already been made, it is not too late to organise sessions for awareness and dialogue among stakeholders, including the mainline churches. There is a lot of discontent among people, but also the willingness to move forward.