21 July 2024


PNG faith leaders demand Australian government evacuates refugees

Clergy in PNG want the Albanese government to transfer refugees to Australia. Picture: iStock.

Jenan Taylor

18 December 2023

Religious leaders in Port Moresby are urging the Albanese government to transfer to Australia all the remaining refugees it detained in Papua New Guinea under an offshoring arrangement, amid mounting concerns for their mental health.

The Catholics Bishop Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands wrote to Home Affairs Minister Claire O’ Neil in mid-December, urging her to show humanity and end the suffering of the 61 men stuck there.

It comes as more than 500 Australian health professionals raised serious concerns about the refugees’ health, including severe depression symptoms and their reduced intake of food.

In an open letter, the general secretary of the PNG Catholics Bishop Conference said the organisation saw healthy men were succumbing to the ruthless arrangement put in place by the previous Australian government.

The Reverend Father Giorgio Licini wrote that the men were wandering the streets with no food, and that he wished the Australian officials could see and feel their suffering, too.

Read more: Churches sponsor new start for humanitarian refugees

He told The Melbourne Anglican his group’s major concern was that some of the refugees were critically ill with mental health conditions.

Mr Licini said the group knew of at least 12 refugees who were severely ill, and they were worried about the prospects of those men, in particular.

“Staying here without the support they need is unthinkable, in the sense that they will be out in the streets unable to look after themselves, where they are at risk of dying or being taken away somewhere [against their will]” Mr Licini said.

“Which country will accept people with those conditions? It must be solved between Australia and New Zealand, there is no other choice. It will take time, maybe years and costs for whatever country takes them to rehabilitate them, but it must be done before it is too late.”

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said in a statement it was more than seven weeks since Australian and PNG authorities said they would evacuate 16 refugees suffering serious health conditions to Australia for medical treatment.

Mr Licini said since the Australian government ceased funding refugee service providers, including hospitals and hotels, in PNG they faced immense hardship.

Read more: Refugee women walk from Melbourne to Canberra for freedom, permanent visas

He said because of that the refugees’ rentals could not be paid, the vouchers they were given for food and other material needs were not being released anymore.

Mr Licini said some faith groups were giving some support, but they were reluctant to provide financial aid.

“That will allow the government to think that somebody’s looking after them one way or another, so we don’t consider finances, especially when the money that Australian government threw into this was in the order of billions,” he said.

According to the Refugee Council of Australia the federal government spent $343 million for offshore processing in PNG and Nauru in 2021-2022.

Mr Licini said people who wanted to help the refugees should insist the Australian government transfer them to Australia.

On 19 December a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said the Australian government had provided PNG with funding to support its independent management of the residual caseload to a confidential funding arrangement.

The management of, and service delivery arrangements for individuals remaining in PNG was a matter for the PNG government, the spokesperson said.

The Diocese of Melbourne passed a motion at the 2023 synod to call on the Albanese government to bring the PNG refugees and asylum seekers here, and let them live in the community while their resettlement options were being considered.

That motion asked synod members to sign an Open Letter from People of Faith to call on the Albanese government to bring the refugees to safety.

This article was updated on 20 December to include the Department of Home Affairs’ response about funding the PNG government’s management of service delivery arrangements for the refugees.

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