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  • Nigel Akuani 

Ordeal among Asylum Seekers & Refugees Revealed

Port Moresby: A detailed insight into the sad and oppressive reality faced by Asylum Seekers and Refugees brought to Manus Province by the government of Australia in 2013, was presented during a special talk session from representatives of the Catholic Bishops Conference of PNGSI.

The talk held on Friday 2nd July 2021, at the Catholic Theological Institute (CTI) in Bomana, had as its keynote speakers Rev. Fr Giorgio Licini PIME, General Secretary of CBCPNGSI, and Director of Migrants and Refugees Desk, Mr Jason Siwat.

In his recollection of his visit to the Manus Detention Centre in January 2019, Fr Giorgio described how the detention posed a serious threat to their lives both physically and mentally. “What struck me the most was the mental condition, the depression, tiredness, self-harm, and attempted suicide with three cases reported in two days,” he said.

He went on to say that, “The detention centre caused many of the refugees to develop acute mental health problems that became more and more noticeable. Many endured precarious health conditions that only when it became a matter of life or death where they transferred out of the province to seek medical treatment.”

He admitted to being appalled by the circumstances endured by the detainees, but maintained that his visit served as an appeal to his conscience to help the migrants and refugees out from their ill treatment.

Speaking of how certain asylum seekers were deported and forced to return to their home countries, Fr Giorgio said the fact remained that there was no guarantee of the safe return back for a lot of them. “When they return to their country there is no reassurance that they will have a good life, there is also the possibility that some become victims of rascals, organized crime, violence and the extreme policies inducted by governments,” he said.

He dwelled on (Matthew 2:13) and told of how Jesus as an infant was an asylum seeker when his parents were forced to leave Bethlehem and seek sanctuary elsewhere, but then later showed in His teachings compassion toward those whose only choice was to flee their land to escape persecution and death. Referring to Leviticus 19:33-34, he read, “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. You must treat the foreigner living among you as native born and show them the love and sincerity you would normally give for yourself.”

Due to the extreme nature surrounding people’s reasons behind leaving their countries, the phrase ‘People on the Move’ was hence dubbed to be fitting. Mr Siwat in his description of ‘People on the Move’, said there are three groups that are referred to by this expression. “They are migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers and sometimes these words are used interchangeably but there is a distinct difference between these categories of people,” he said.

Emphasizing the role of the Papua New Guinea Government in aiding migrants and refugees, Mr Siwat said the country being a signatory of the 1951 ‘International Convention on the Status of Refugees’ had an obligation to fulfill its duties. “As PNG subscribed to this international convention, the State is obliged to provide protection to someone seeking asylum, and this is supported by our domestic legal framework contained under Article 15 of the Migration Act 1978, where the Foreign Affairs Minister has the power to determine someone to be a refugee,” he said.

He said at present there were three groups of refugees residing in PNG. They are the West Papuan refugees, those transferred to PNG under the 2013 MOU between Australia and PNG, and those who arrived in PNG individually. He said however, that there was a serious lack of protection mechanisms in domestic legal frameworks available to refugees in PNG. Non-refugees who cannot return to their countries of origin also need some complimentary protection from the state. “The government of PNG does not have a legal framework that provides for ‘Complementary Protection’ to ensure that these groups of people are taken care of,” he said.

Mr Siwat further added that, “Durable solutions have to be initiated by means of assisted voluntary return when there are no longer risks for refugees to return to their country, local integration where they can be integrated in communities of the host country, and resettlement where PNG sends refugees to a third country.”

He spoke on the issue of people smugglers and the stern laws that were being initiated by governments particularly Australia in curbing uncontrolled boats and vessels entering their borders and said this was mainly done to target human smugglers who profited from the plight of people seeking refuge.

President of Catholic Theological Institute, Rev. Fr Joseph Vnuk OP recalled how his father was a refugee who migrated from Slovakia before finally settling in Australia.

Present at the session was an audience of about one hundred people that included priests and staff of CTI, seminarians, and media personnel from Radio Maria PNG.

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