November 12, 2014 | the guardian
Papua New Guinea’s immigration minister has granted refugee status to asylum seekers on Manus Island for the first time – but has only granted the 10 men one-year temporary protection visas.
The PNG immigration and foreign affairs minister, Rimbink Pato, announced on Wednesday that he had made the first 10 determinations. The refugees would stay temporarily at a facility in East Lorengau.
“Now that I have started to hand down refugee decisions, these people can start to take the first steps towards their new lives,” Pato said. “These initial 10 refugees have come from Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Myanmar … however, they can now call Papua New Guinea their home.”
He described the refugees who were granted the visas as a “special class of people”, who included an accountant, an engineer, a jeweller and a watchmaker.
Until his announcement, no decisions had been made on asylum seekers’ claims for protection on the island since offshore processing began. More than 100 interim decisions had been taken but these were recommendations to the immigration minister, who is the only person who has the power to grant protection visas.
Australia’s immigration minister, Scott Morrison, released a statement on Wednesday saying the determinations were a “key milestone” for both governments.
“Those who have been found to be refugees will receive a refugee visa and will then be provided with initial services in Manus province at an open facility at East Lorengau built by the Australian government, which will play a key role in transitioning people found to be refugees into the PNG community,” he said.
But Pato’s announcement raises further doubts over whether permanent protection will be offered to asylum seekers held on Manus Island.
The PNG prime minister, Peter O’Neill, last month told Tony Abbott that the existing resettlement agreement would be revised, and Pato reiterated last weekthat refugees granted visas “will not yet be permanently resettled”.
Pato’s statement does not indicate what opportunity asylum seekers will have to appeal the minister’s decisions if he refuses to grant them protection visas.
Amnesty International’s refugee campaign coordinator, Graeme McGregor, has previously called for a transparent appeals process.
“It is not clear what appeals process is available for those who are initially found not to be refugees,” he said. “In Australia, appeals by those who arrived by boat are traditionally upheld in the majority of cases.
“If PNG does not offer an appeals process to asylum seekers, Amnesty International is concerned that genuine refugees will be returned by force the countries that they fled.”
The Manus Island MP, Ron Knight, had earlier told Guardian Australia that if refugees were skilled they were likely to be welcome, but if they did not have skill sets it would be difficult to accept them. “Why would we take people into our overcrowded towns? Why would we adopt more problems?” he said.
Tensions on the island escalated in February leading to widespread unrest, dozens of serious injuries and the death of an Iranian asylum seeker, Reza Barati.
A Senate committee that is investigating the circumstances of the unrest is due to report to parliament in December.