Letter to Scott Morrison about Treatment of LGBTI Asylum Seekers and Refugees Sent to Manus Island, PNG

UPDATE: Sunday 20 July 2014

On Friday 18 July, I received the following response from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, to my correspondence about the treatment of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees:

Dear Mr Lawrie

Treatment of homosexual, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers

Thank you for your letter of 2 February 2014 to the Hon Scott Morrison MP, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, concerning the treatment of homosexual, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers. The Minister appreciates the time you have taken to bring these matters to his attention and has asked that I reply on his behalf. I regret the delay in responding.

As a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (the Refugees Convention), Australia takes its international obligations seriously. Australia is committed to treating asylum seekers fairly and humanely, and providing protection to refugees consistent with the obligations set out in the Refugees Convention, and other relevant international treaties to which Australia is a party.

The Australian Government has taken a number of measures to deter people smuggling and to ensure that people do not take the dangerous journey to Australia in boats organised by people smugglers. Under Australian domestic law, all illegal maritime arrivals (IMAs) entering Australia by sea without a visa will be liable for transfer to Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) where any asylum claims they may have will be assessed, and if found to be a refugee, they will be resettled in Nauru and PNG or in another country.

Any claims made against Nauru and PNG by an IMA, including claims concerning the treatment of homosexuals, bisexual, transgender and intersex asylum seekers in either country, are considered prior to transfer. Where an IMA makes such a claim, consideration is given to whether the IMA can be transferred to the proposed country, or an alternative country, or whether the IMA’s case should be referred to the Minister for consideration or exemption from transfer.

Nauru and PNG are also both parties to the Refugee Convention. The Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) they have signed with Australia on the offshore processing arrangements reaffirm their commitment to the Refugees Convention and to treating people transferred with dignity and respect in accordance with human rights standards.

The enforcement of PNG domestic law is a matter for the Government of PNG. The government is aware of laws relating to homosexual activity in PNG and understands that there have been no recent reports of prosecution under those laws.

If homosexual activity should occur in the OPC, there is no mandatory obligation under PNG domestic law for Australian officers or contracted services providers to report such activity to the PNG Government or police.

The department notes the release of the reports by both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Amnesty International on the Manus OPC. Any reports received by the department will be reviewed, and observations or comments verified. Where reports make practical observations that can be implemented and would improve the operations of the centres, the government will address these in partnership with Nauru and PNG to address any deficiencies in good faith.

Any claims of mistreatment at the Manus OPC would be primarily a matter for the Administrator of the OPC. The Manus OPC is administered by PNG under PNG law, with support from Australia. The PNG Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration appoints the Administrator of the Centre (a PNG national) under section 15D of the Papua New Guinea Migration Act 1978 (the Act). The Administrator, who, under the Act has control and management of the Centre (currently the Chief Migration Officer, Head of the PNG Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority) has an Operations Manager at the OPC reporting to him, who has oversight of the day-to-day operations of the OPC.

To assist PNG in the implementation of the MOU, the government has contracted appropriately trained and experienced service providers to ensure that transferees’ needs are adequately met, including through the provision of health and welfare services. Transferees can report any concerns to OPC staff.

Regarding the distribution of condoms, I can assure you that condoms are available at the Manus OPC, and the department’s contracted health service provider, International Health and Medical Service, conduct regular health information sessions on safe sex practices.

Thank you for bringing your concerns to the Minister’s attention.

Yours sincerely

[Name withheld]

Acting Assistant Secretary

Community Programmes Services Branch

9 / 7 / 2014

Some quick thoughts on the above:

  • Even though we are more than a decade into our post-Tampa nightmare of refugee policy in Australia, it is still shocking to see people simply seeking asylum in Australia described, by government officials, as Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMAs). And it is probably almost as shocking realising that the same government official doesn’t even need to spell out what an OPC is anymore, instead it is taken as a given.
  • While the letter acknowledges there is no mandatory reporting of homosexual activity under PNG law, it explicitly does not state that there is no reporting of homosexual activity to PNG Police, or refute the claim that asylum seekers have been told they will be reported if found to engage in such activity.
  • It is difficult to accept the statement that “[t]o assist PNG in the implementation of the MOU, the government has contracted appropriately trained and experienced service providers to ensure that transferees’ needs are adequately met” from the same Government that is responsible for the death, in custody, of Reza Berati just over two weeks after I wrote my initial letter.
  • It is obviously welcome that, at least on paper, the Government claims it makes condoms available to asylum seekers on Manus Island – although whether they are made available in reality would be difficult to verify (given the shroud of secrecy surrounding, and lack of journalist access to, the detention facilities in PNG and Nauru).
  • The main problem remains however, and that is there is no firm commitment not to send LGBTI asylum seekers for ‘processing’ to countries which criminalise homosexuality, and no commitment that LGBTI refugees will not be permanently resettled in countries where they are liable to punishment merely for sexual intercourse.
  • The process outlined in the letter – that an asylum seeker must make a claim against the laws of PNG or Nauru prior to their transfer, is farcical given what we know about the current way asylum seekers are being assessed: while they are detained on navy or customs vessels, on the open sea, through a short interview (with as few as four questions by some reports) via teleconference to officials in mainland Australia. It is outrageous to suggest that the only way a gay asylum seeker can avoid being sent to another country which criminalises their sexual orientation is to declare their sexual orientation at short notice, whilst intimidated by naval or customs personnel (and potentially while intimidated by other asylum seekers, including possible family members), and to specifically claim protection against countries which they may not even be aware they are being taken to, and may not know criminalise homosexuality.

While I certainly wasn’t expecting to take much comfort from this response from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, it is still depressing to realise that, yet again, so little solace is to be found.

ORIGINAL LETTER

The Hon Scott Morrison MP

Minister for Immigration and Border Protection

PO Box 6022

House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

Sunday 2 February 2014

Dear Minister

TREATMENT OF LGBTI ASYLUM SEEKERS AND REFUGEES SENT TO MANUS ISLAND, PAPUA NEW GUINEA

I am writing regarding the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) asylum seekers and refugees sent to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, both for offshore processing and permanent resettlement.

In particular, I am writing about concerning allegations raised in the Amnesty International Report This is Breaking People: Human rights violations at Australia’s asylum seeker processing centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, which was released on 11 December 2013.

Chapter 8 of that report, titled ‘Asylum claims on the basis of sexual orientation’ (pages 73-75), details a range of serious allegations about the mistreatment of LGBTI asylum seekers sent to Manus Island for processing.

Specifically, Amnesty International found that:

  • Section 210 of the PNG Penal Code, which makes male-male penetrative sexual intercourse a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment, applies to asylum seekers detained on Manus Island
  • Section 212 of the PNG Penal Code, which makes other sexual activity between men, termed ‘gross indecency’, a criminal offence carrying a maximum penalty of 3 years’ imprisonment, also applies to asylum seekers detained there
  • Asylum seekers held on Manus Island have been informed that if they are found to have engaged in male-male sexual intercourse, they will be reported to PNG Police (despite no requirement for mandatory reporting)
  • Gay asylum seekers have reported being subject to bullying and harassment from other detainees and staff, including physical and verbal abuse and attempted molestation, but are not reporting this abuse because of fear of prosecution for their homosexuality
  • Interviewees have indicated that some gay asylum seekers have changed or are considering changing their asylum claim, from persecution on the basis of sexual orientation to persecution on another ground, in order to avoid prosecution (thereby jeopardising the chances of their claim ultimately being accepted)
  • Interviewees have indicated that some gay asylum seekers have chosen to return home, despite the risks involved to the personal safety/liberty, rather than be subjected to ongoing mistreatment because of their sexual orientation on Manus Island and
  • Condom distribution has been banned within the Manus Island detention facility, despite the risk of HIV transmission.

In these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ms Renate Croker, the senior official from the Department of Immigration & Border Protection located at the Manus Island detention facility, told Amnesty International that “she was unaware of any asylum claims being made on the basis of LGBTI identity.”

Not only is this contradicted by the Amnesty Report – which interviewed a man who reported that his claim was based on persecution due to his sexual orientation, and who expressed concern about being transferred to Manus Island for this reason – it also ignores the fact that some gay asylum seekers may have changed their claims to other grounds (for the reasons outlined above), or that some asylum seekers may happen to be LGBTI but their claim is in fact based on persecution on other grounds (for example, race or religion).

Irrespective of how their claim is being dealt with, the Australian Government has a responsibility to protect the human rights of any and all LGBTI asylum seekers who have sought protection in Australia. This includes the right to freedom from prosecution on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, the right to claim asylum and the right to health.

From the information contained in the This is Breaking People report, it seems the Australian Government is falling well short of its obligations in this area.

I should note at this point that I am strongly opposed to the offshore processing and permanent resettlement of any asylum seekers by the Australian Government. This policy does not constitute a humane response, nor does it live up to our international humanitarian and legal responsibilities.

However, the mistreatment of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees raises particular problems, problems that do not appear to be recognized by the Australian Government. Nor does there appear to be any evidence the Government is taking action to remedy them.

Even if the offshore processing and permanent resettlement of refugees continues, this must not include the processing and resettlement of LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees in countries which criminalise homosexuality (which both PNG and Nauru currently do).

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and therefore Minister responsible for the welfare of asylum seekers and refugees, cannot guarantee that sections 210 and 212 of the PNG Penal Code do not apply to detainees on Manus Island, then you cannot send LGBTI people there in good conscience.

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, cannot guarantee that LGBTI asylum seekers and refugees will not be subject to homophobic bullying and harassment, and will be free to lodge claims for protection on the basis of persecution due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status, then you must not detain them in such facilities.

If you, as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, cannot guarantee that all asylum seekers and refugees, including but not limited to LGBTI people, have access to condoms, then you are potentially endangering their lives and you should be held accountable for any health problems which occur as a result (noting that HIV continues to be life-threatening in the absence of treatment).

It has been clear since the reintroduction of offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, passed by the previous Labor Government and supported by the Liberal-National Opposition in mid-2012, that the criminalisation of homosexuality in these countries constituted a significant threat to the human rights of LGBTI asylum seekers sent there.

Indeed, I wrote to you as Shadow Minister for Immigration expressing my concerns about this exact issue in September 2012. I did not receive a response addressing the subject of LGBTI asylum seekers prior to your assumption of the role of Minister for Immigration and Border Protection in September 2013.

I sincerely hope, now that you are the person directly responsible for the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers and refugees, and especially after the Amnesty International Report This is Breaking People has confirmed that these human rights abuses are real, that you take this issue, and your responsibilities, seriously.

I look forward to your response on this important issue.

Yours sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

A copy of the Amnesty International Report This is Breaking People, can be found here: <http://www.amnesty.org.au/images/uploads/about/Amnesty_International_Manus_Island_report.pdf

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