Australia asylum: Inquiries promised on PNG camp violence

File photo: A man walks between tents at Australia's regional processing centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea There are around 1,300 asylum seekers in the Manus Island centre

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Australia and Papua New Guinea have both pledged to investigate violence at a detention centre that left one asylum seeker dead and 77 injured.

Clashes broke out at Australia's immigration detention centre on Manus Island in PNG on Sunday and Monday.

There are conflicting reports on what sparked the violence on Monday night, with reports PNG police fired shots.

Rights groups have called for an urgent and transparent probe, warning Australia it is failing asylum seekers.

Australia sends asylum seekers arriving by boat for detention and processing in offshore camps in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific territory of Nauru.

Conditions in these camps have been strongly criticised by UN agencies and rights groups.

Also on Wednesday, the government said it had accidentally revealed the identities of around 10,000 asylum seekers online. Refugee NGOs said this could potentially endanger the asylum seekers and their families.

Fences breached

On Sunday, 35 asylum seekers briefly escaped after breaking a fence at the detention centre. The incident reportedly came after detainees were told that they would not be resettled in Australia.

On Monday, another outbreak of violence led to the death of one asylum seeker, with 77 injured. Most of the injured suffered head wounds, while one was shot in the buttocks.

Detainees riot at the Manus Island Detention Centre on 16 February 2014 in this still image taken from ABC footage Unrest at the centre first broke out on Sunday evening

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said Monday night's violence happened after asylum seekers broke fences at the detention centre, breaching internal and external perimeters.

PNG police "were reported to have fired shots" on two occasions, but "there's no suggestion they fired at asylum seekers", he said.

It was unclear whether the violence took place inside or outside the Australian-run centre, he added.

The NGO Refugee Action Coalition told Australian media that PNG police and locals had broken into the centre and attacked asylum seekers.

Security firm G4S, which provides security in the detention centre, said in a statement: "Claims that the transferees breached the fence following internal attacks on them by local residents are unfounded."

"A number of transferees were injured after they breached the perimeter fence and the matter became a law enforcement issue for PNG authorities," it said, adding that G4S staff restored order without the use of force.

Map

Australia has announced an inquiry into the incidents, led by the head of the Australian Immigration Department.

PNG has also sent a delegation to the island to investigate. President Peter O'Neill said the government "will not tolerate anyone breaking the laws of PNG".

He said that the asylum seeker who had died was an Iranian national.

"PNG remains committed to the resettlement programme and finding a lasting solution to the global challenge of human smuggling," he said.

'Inadequate safeguards'

Meanwhile, Gillian Triggs, head of the Australian Human Rights Commission, told broadcaster ABC that the inquiries into the unrest could fall short.

Australia and asylum

  • Asylum-seekers - mainly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran - travel to Australia's Christmas Island on rickety boats from Indonesia
  • The number of boats rose sharply in 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and dozens of people have died making the journey
  • The Labor government reintroduced offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea - conditions in its detention camps there have been condemned by UN agencies and rights groups
  • It also reached a deal with PNG that any asylum seekers found to be refugees would be resettled in PNG, not Australia
  • The Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National coalition government, elected in September 2013, introduced "Operation Sovereign Borders", putting the military in control of asylum operations
  • In January reports emerged of Australian navy vessels turning asylum boats back to Indonesia - the UN refugee agency says such tow-backs may breach international law
  • In January, Australia apologised for multiple violations of Indonesia's territorial waters by navy vessels on asylum operations
  • Relatively small numbers of asylum seekers are involved: UNHCR's Asylum Trends 2012 report said Australia received only 3% of global asylum applications in 2012

"The difficulty with inquiries by the varied parties that are being challenged, or whose practices are being investigated, is always less than optimal," she said.

The Australian inquiry should be headed by "somebody who has objectivity, and who would be able to look at the development of the facts", she said, adding that a "retired civil servant" would be preferable.

Amnesty International also called for an "urgent, independent investigation", describing the asylum seeker's death as "a result of Australia and Papua New Guinea's unlawful policy of offshore processing".

Manus Island is one of two offshore processing camps in which asylum seekers are detained.

Australia has also initiated a new policy where people who are accepted as refugees will be settled in Papua New Guinea rather than Australia.

UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said: "UNHCR is very concerned about the recent developments on Manus Island."

"UNHCR has consistently raised issues around the transfer arrangements and on the absence of adequate protection standards and safeguards for asylum seekers and refugees in PNG.

"Significant shortcomings in the legal framework for receiving and processing asylum-seekers from Australia remain, including lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions."

'Unacceptable breach'

Separately, Australia's Immigration Department said that it had mistakenly released the personal details of nearly 10,000 asylum seekers online.

File photo: Scott Morrison Scott Morrison said his department would investigate the data breach

The details were said to include the names, nationalities and locations of the asylum seekers.

Refugee advocacy groups said this could lead to asylum seekers being identified, potentially endangering them if they were returned to their country of origin.

Experts have said that this could lead to more asylum seekers' claims being accepted, because their identities have been compromised.

The information, which was made available on 11 February, has since been removed, the department said.

Mr Morrison described it as "an unacceptable incident" and a "serious breach of privacy".

The department has asked auditors KPMG to investigate the leak. Australia's Privacy Commissioner said he would also investigate the incident.

The information was first discovered by The Guardian's Australian edition. The Guardian alerted the Immigration Department to the breach.

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