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Ecumenical plea for refugees to be resettled as PNG authorities clear former Manus detention centre

Australia cannot shy from the reality of the damage that has been done on Manus Island, church groups say

Melbourne Anglican Bishop Philip Huggins, the President of the NCCA, said: "It is difficult to understand how a nation like Australia has found itself in this situation. Other countries face far greater challenges with hosting refugees and struggling with unexpected arrivals."

By Mark Brolly

November 24 2017Australian ecumenical organisations have urged the Federal Government to resettle Manus Island refugees “safely, swiftly and with the greatest regard to family unity” as Papua New Guinea authorities said they had moved all of the remaining 328 men at the decommissioned detention centre on the island to new camps.

The National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA), Act for Peace and the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce (ACRT) issued a statement today, saying that they stood together to bear witness to the suffering that Australia’s bipartisan refugee policy of offshore processing had caused.

“We mourn the loss of justice for those refugees in PNG who are willing to put their own bodies in danger as the last cry of despair in the search for a safe future,” the organisations said.

“We pray for Australian Government leadership who may not have envisaged such suffering in re-enacting offshore processing, but who now cannot shy from the reality of the damage that has been done.

“We stand with the Manus Island and PNG people who are facing the presumption that they are not a safe and hospitable nation and cannot be trusted to host these vulnerable men.

“We plead that if the men are to remain in PNG for now, that force is not used to relocate them and that the Australian Government contributes to securing their dignity and safety.

“We request that the Australian Government ensure the processing of re-settlement for these men occurs safely, swiftly and with the greatest regard to family unity.”

The NCCA President, Melbourne Anglican Bishop Philip Huggins, said: “It is difficult to understand how a nation like Australia has found itself in this situation. Other countries face far greater challenges with hosting refugees and struggling with unexpected arrivals. Australia’s current situation has put enormous, unnecessary ethical pressure on all involved and needs to be resolved peacefully and swiftly.”

The ABC reported today that PNG authorities said they have moved all of the remaining 328 men at the decommissioned Manus Island detention centre to new camps, after police and immigration officials re-entered the site this morning.

Australian Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton also confirmed the centre was now clear, a day after around 50 men were removed from the centre in a similar operation, sparking tension between police and the refugees.

Iranian refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been held on Manus Island since August 2014 and who was arrested on 23 November, told the ABC: “The refugees are saying that they are leaving the prison camp because police are using violence and very angry.”

In The Guardian Australia today, Mr Boochani wrote: “I was put in jail, they (PNG police) sat me down on a chair. In the distance I could hear only moaning and yelling. They brought a camera and recorded me. They repeated the same accusations, they shouted down at me: ‘You’re guilty, you’ve damaged our reputation!’ And one extra accusation: ‘You’ve forced people to stay inside the camp, you’re responsible!’

“.. Moments later they forcibly transferred a group of refugees to the buses. In front of the gate they laid one more kick into them. We were like a small country that had been invaded. I could still hear the sound of moaning and yelling. That place was really a war zone. What was going on over there? Once again, I remembered Iran. The shouting continued: ‘Move! Move!’”

ACRT Chair and Anglican Dean of Brisbane, the Very Revd Dr Peter Catt, said: “We know that PNG has issues of concern for its own population and its nation. For the context on Manus Island, we recognise this is not the fault of the refugees, the PNG locals or their Government. Australia wanted a quick fix to a situation which has turned into a protracted and harmful experience for many.”

Ms Janet Cousens, Executive Director of Act for Peace (the international aid agency of the NCCA and its predecessor, the Australian Council of Churches, for almost 70 years), said: “There are many lessons to learn from this situation that show us that even with the intention to save lives at sea or reduce human trafficking, that damage and suffering has still been caused to many people.”

Mr Dutton said today that the Australian Government welcomed the departure for alternative accommodation of all men who had previously refused to leave the former Manus Island Regional Processing Centre.

“Advocates in Australia are again today making inaccurate and exaggerated claims of violence and injuries on Manus, but fail to produce any evidence to prove these allegations,” he said.

“What is clear is that there has been an organised attempt to provoke trouble and disrupt the new facilities.

“The Australian Government has been advised that some equipment has been sabotaged at the alternative accommodation centres, including damage to back-up generators.

“Vandalism has also occurred to water infrastructure.

“The equipment is being repaired or replaced and the Government understands these matters are under investigation.

“Advocates should now desist from holding out false hope to these men that they will ever be brought to Australia.

“Instead advocates should now encourage them to engage with PNG authorities for resettlement either through the US resettlement process or in PNG and for non-refugees to accept assistance packages to return to their home country.”