Australia’s detention of asylum-seekers on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island is unconstitutional and illegal, a court ruled on Tuesday, prompting some refugee advocates to call for the camp to be shut down.
Canberra has come under international criticism for sending asylum seekers who attempt to enter the country by boat to remote processing centres on Manus or the tiny Pacific island of Nauru but said the finding would not change its policies.
Papua New Guinea’s then opposition leader Belden Namah challenged the Manus arrangement in court, claiming it violated the rights of asylum seekers.
In its 34-page finding on Tuesday, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court found that detaining asylum-seekers on the island was “contrary to their constitutional right of personal liberty”.
“The detention of the asylum-seekers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea … is unconstitutional and illegal,” it said.
The court ordered the Australian and Papua New Guinean governments to “take all steps necessary to cease and prevent” the continued detention of the asylum seekers and transferees on Manus.
It was not immediately clear how the ruling would impact the around 850 men held at the centre. Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the court’s decision “does not alter Australia’s border protection policies — they remain unchanged”.
“No one who attempts to travel to Australia illegally by boat will settle in Australia,” he said in a statement.
PNG’s immigration minister Rimbink Pato told Fairfax Media he would make a statement after digesting the decision and obtaining legal advice.
Under a policy accepted by both sides of politics in Canberra, asylum seekers found to be genuine refugees are denied resettlement in Australia. They are instead urged to return home or be resettled in PNG or Cambodia under a policy designed to stop people-smuggling boats.
Australia has long defended its policy, saying it has prevented the deaths of asylum seekers at sea and secured its borders. Under the previous Labor government, at least 1,200 people died trying to reach Australia by boat between 2008 and 2013.
Rights campaigners welcomed the court’s decision, saying it was time for the Manus detention centre to be shut.
“PNG’s Supreme Court has recognised that detaining people who have committed no crime is wrong,” said Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch in Australia. “For these men, their only ‘mistake’ was to try to seek sanctuary in Australia — that doesn’t deserve years in limbo locked up in a remote island prison. “It’s time for the Manus detention centre to be closed once and for all.”
GetUp! human rights campaigner Aurora Adams said some people had been detained for close to three years and needed to be brought to Australia.
“It is time to stop the abuse of vulnerable people who only ask for safety and the opportunity to rebuild their lives,” she said.
“The moral case is clear, there is no justification for locking people in offshore prison camps indefinitely.”
The Australian Lawyers Alliance said the ruling could open the door to asylum seekers making claims for damages for allegedly being falsely imprisoned.
“The decision also strengthens claims that Australia has breached its duty of care to those who come within its migration system by keeping them in conditions that are unlawful,” ALA spokesman Greg Barns said in a statement.
Reports said immigration authorities have recently been trying to move those classed as refugees out of detention in Manus and into a “transit centre”, allowing them to leave during the day.
A similar policy has been adopted in Nauru where the government last October said the Regional Processing Centre had been converted into an “open centre”, giving its inhabitants freedom of movement.