The Federal Government has agreed to pay $70 million to asylum seekers who suffered physical and psychological harm on Manus Island.
In a class action brought by 1,905 detainees held between 2012 and 2016, the plaintiffs alleged the government had falsely imprisoned them in light of a ruling by the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Supreme Court ruled that their detention was illegal. It was further alleged that the government breached its international obligations by detaining the asylum seekers in conditions which exposed them to physical and psychological harm.
The class action is believed to be the largest of its kind brought by detainees against the Australian government.
The government agreed to settle the case just moments before the trial was due to begin in the Supreme Court. The in-principle agreement, which is subject to court approval, will include payment of the plaintiffs’ legal costs, which are more than $20 million.
Individual amounts of compensation will be dependent on the individual experiences on Manus Island.
Human Rights lawyers see the settlement as a way for the government to avert the exposure of human rights abuses through the testimony of dozens if not hundreds of asylum seekers about their treatment in detention.
Not our responsibility
Although the government has effective control over the detention centre – funding the operation, choosing and overseeing the operators, and implementing rules of detention – it has repeatedly attempted to shift the blame for human rights abuses to PNG authorities.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton denied that settling the claim was an admission of guilt, but a better option than proceeding with a drawn out civil case, which would likely have cost tens of millions of dollars in legal fees alone.
Mr Dutton also blamed the former Labor Government for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection becoming the most litigated federal government department in history, pointing out that there are currently 5,800 cases in progress and legal expenditure in 2015-16 totalled more than $72 million.
Lawyers for the asylum seekers have called the settlement is “an important step towards recognising the extremely hostile conditions the detainees endured at Manus Island”. They point out that these people fled their home countries to escape persecution and violence, and have ended up in indefinite detention in conditions that have caused many of them life-long trauma.
Human rights abuses in detention centres
Australia has long faced international criticism for its poor treatment of asylum seekers.
In a petition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) earlier this year, the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and the Stanford International Human Rights Clinic described the “harrowing practices of the Australian state and corporations towards asylum seekers” as a crime against humanity. The petition asks the ICC to open an investigation into the facilities.
Manus Island was officially opened in 2001. It was closed down in 2008, but re-opened by the Gillard Government in 2012. Last year, the PNG government ruled that Australia’s detention of asylum seekers on the island was illegal, and the prime minister has announced that the centre would be closed later this year.
In 2015, the Australian government introduced the Border Force Act which made it an offence for people who work at Australian-run detention centres – including doctors – to disclose information about human rights abuses.
Such laws have been used to silence doctors, a child protection group and journalists who have sought to expose the horrendous treatment of asylum seekers in detention centres, including children who have been kept there despite being exposed to physical and sexual abuse.