Stranded: Australia Cuts Lifeline to Remaining PNG Offshore Detainees

Information on this page was reviewed by a specialist defence lawyer before being published. Click to read more.
Lifeline support

Of the 4,194 people who arrived by boat in Australian waters seeking asylum after the Gillard Labor government recommenced offshore processing in 2012 on the pretext that refugees would be resettled in third countries, there remains 60-odd detainees seeking asylum in Papua New Guinea.

After having been transferred from years of detention in the illegal Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, these remaining refugees have spent the last few years living in accommodation in the nation’s capital Port Moresby and have now been cut off from all supports.

These people fled their homelands facing persecution and were then denied the refuge our nation should have granted under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

But rather than follow international law, Australia has been paying PNG to look after these people despite their being our responsibility. At least that was until two months ago.

The questioning of Independent Senator David Pocock uncovered a secret deal that the Morrison government struck in December 2021, which involved paying its PNG counterparts to provide welfare and support to the remaining refugees via local service providers.

Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) Sydney spokesperson Ian Rintoul told SCL that our government last provided support funding to the refugees in July this year, and as of October, the money began running dry, which means these people have had difficulties in obtaining food.

Cut off from all support 

Rintoul adds that there are now 62 asylum seekers left in PNG, as two flew out to Canada on Tuesday. The refugee advocate has been raising the alarm about these people having had their electricity and transport cut off since early October.

With weekly spending allowances and food vouchers long gone, the refugees are now completely stranded after a decade of detention, and the only thing they still maintain is their accommodation. However, landlords are now serving evictions notices as no one is paying the rent.

“Phone calls to the service provider Namora, who is responsible for the payments, have not been answered,” Rintoul wrote on 11 October. “PNG immigration issued a notice that the transportation service that allowed refugees to travel safely in Port Moresby will also be cut.”

The activist further highlighted that the secrecy around the government’s deal has led to suspicions about whether certain entities have been syphoning off the funding. Indeed, until Pocock asked his questions, the Albanese government had done its utmost to avoid discussing the arrangement.

According to Rintoul, “Morrison’s secret deal was designed to fail, while individual providers and potentially corrupt bureaucrats have been lining their pockets with millions meant for refugees.”

Cut off from supports, cut off from family

Abdulzaher Sharifi is one of the remaining refugees living in Port Moresby. In his mid-forties, the Afghan national was detained at Manus Island from late 2013 to 2019, he’s since been transferred to accommodation in Port Moresby, and has now received an eviction notice.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Abdulzaher Sharifi about the drastic circumstances he finds himself in, as he fled his homeland over a decade ago, only not to find asylum but rather criminalisation at the hands of a rich Global North nation a party to international refugee law.

Abdul, you’re one of the remaining asylum seekers that the Australian government has had detained in Papua New Guinea for about a decade now. Can you tell us about yourself?

My name is Abdulzaher Sharifi. I am from Afghanistan. I came in Australia, Christmas Island, on 11.11.2013.

But after three days, the Australian immigration transferred me by force in Papua New Guinea Manus Island camp.

In 2019, Manus Island closed, and I am transferred by force to Port Moresby, the Papua New Guinea capital.

That’s where you are now?

Yeah. Still, I am here. But before days, they had supported everything. Vouchers, weekly money or sometimes they would call and ask about my family, about myself.

But for two months, they have stopped everything. Just they give the accommodation unit and no power, no hospital, no transport bus, no voucher, no weekly money – everything has stopped.

They never responded to my messages. They changed the office.

Where do you live in Port Moresby?

Borko Kanuni Villa in Port Moresby. Before PNG immigration pay. But now I don’t know who pays.

A few days ago, an owner messaged, “Please check out. Leave my villa”. But nobody checked out. All of us have stayed.

If you want us to check out, okay. You bring the police and then we check out.

So, the Australian government has been paying for this, but then services started being cut off about two months ago. How many people are caught up in this?

More than 60. But in my villa, there are four guys. There is plenty of accommodation, not one place. There are different apartments.

With money, services and food cut off, how are you living right now?

Really, things are not good. Very suffering life – a very suffering time.

What have you been told about the reason for the funding to be cut?

I don’t know. You ask this question of Australian immigration. Australian immigration pay money to PNG immigration. PNG immigration contracts with local people to look after the refugees.

The PNG immigration is too late with the money. The local minister didn’t pay the local contractors. The contract money stopped supporting everything. 

“Why?” I asked him. He just said, “Immigration didn’t pay my money. No support.”

You used to be held in Manus Island immigration detention centre. Most of the asylum seekers detained at that facility have since left PNG. Why are you and the other refugees still there?

Because the Australian government has an unjust and dangerous policy. They know everything. They never wanted us to come to Australia.

But all cases are under process – Canada, New Zealand, America and Finland. I applied to Canada in 2018 and still I am on the process. But I don’t know why.

They don’t want us to leave PNG. They are doing business. They are taking money from the Australian government.

My medical check finished last year. I’m just waiting for a ticket. They called me for four-five months about Canada. When I call them, they say, “Just be patient.”

Today, the morning, two guys flew to Canada.

Canada, New Zealand, America and Finland – they can’t do anything. Everything belongs to Australia. When Australia says, “Okay, today, Abdulzaher Sharifi flies.” Canada first take me.

All things belong to Australia. Australia won’t take me to Canada. They’re getting money from Australia because of refugees.

If refugees in Papua New Guinea finish, how will the minister save money? Refugees are good business for them.

And lastly, Abdul, if the funding has been cut for two months and there are increasingly less services available, what will happen to you now?

I don’t know about the future. Nobody can say.

I want to leave this country, because it is eleven years and I have nobody looking after my family in Afghanistan.

You know Afghanistan situation is very bad. My family cannot go to work and cannot go out.

I have a problem with Taliban. When I left Afghanistan, after me. Taliban killed my father. I have no father, no brother, just my five kids and my wife.

Only just I’m thinking about them.

Main photo: PNG refugee family forcibly removed from accommodation in September. Photo supplied by Refugee Action Coalition Sydney

Receive all of our articles weekly


Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

Your Opinion Matters