Why Australia is paying a $53m asylum seeker settlement

How will ‘landmark’ settlement between government and 1,905 Manu Island ex-detainees affect Australia’s refugee policy?

Manus Island
Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court deemed the Manus Island detention centre illegal last year [Eoin Blackwell/EPA]

“I came to Australia seeking peace, but I was sent to Manus, which was hell … Today we are finally being heard and I hope everyone’s suffering can be over as quickly as possible.”

This is how Iranian refugee Majid Kamasaee welcomed the news on Wednesday that the Australian government had agreed to pay $53m as compensation to 1,905 Manus Island detainees who were held at the Papua New Guinea-based facility between November 2012 and December 2014.

Australia to pay millions in compensation to refugees detained on Manus Island

The settlement came just before the Victoria state Supreme Court was set to hear the case in which the men alleged the government and two contractors that ran the detention centre were responsible for what they argued were physical and psychological injuries, as well as false imprisonment on Manus Island.

Under Australian law, anyone intercepted trying to reach the country by boat is sent to detention centres on Manus Island or the Pacific island of Nauru for processing.

The Australian government maintains they will never be eligible to be resettled in Australia.

It denied the claims of the lawsuit and said the settlement was not an admission of liability, but a “prudent outcome” for Australian taxpayers. Rights advocates argue, however, that the case is an acknowledgment that the government is responsible for the detainees and conditions at the detention centre.

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While the settlement is being celebrated in many circles in Australia, questions remain about the future of the nearly 1,200 people who remain at the facilities on Manus Island and Nauru.

To help us understand the significance of the case, Al Jazeera spoke to Kon Karapanagiotidis, the founder and CEO of the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, about what it means for Australia’s strict immigration policy.

Al Jazeera: The settlement is being called a “landmark case” by advocates, activists and media. What makes this particular case so significant?

Kon Karapanagiotidis: It’s a bittersweet outcome. The good is that it is really significant, not just in that it is the largest human rights settlement in Australian history, but it is significant because it unequivocally proves that the government itself is in control of what is happening on Manus. And that is big because the government spent the last four years hiding behind the fiction that they’re not responsible. The government has had to admit that its offshore policy is actually harming and damaging these men.

It is also significant in that it paves the way for other actions. The fact the government is conceding in this situation means they’re terrified of this being shown every day on our nightly news. Australians would have been beyond appalled if they actually knew what was being done.

What is problematic is that the settlement doesn’t actually deliver what these men wanted. The men who are behind initiating the case have all said that it has never been about the money. In reality, Australia has tortured these people for four years. It has deprived them of natural justice. It’s left them in squalor. It was never about the money. It’s always been about their human rights and having the acknowledgement that this country is violating the rights of these men.

There is no solution. The very conditions that gave rise to this settlement continue to exist.

by Kon Karapanagiotidis, Founder and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

The downside of the case is that these men are still there. There is no resolution. There is no plan. There is no solution. The very conditions that gave rise to this settlement continue to exist and as of April 30, the most recent statistics publicly available, 865 men are still on Manus.

The unfortunate thing in the refugees’ matter being settled is that it is a real shame that this wasn’t out in the public for six months because if the majority of Australians saw what the country was doing, it would have been the end of this [refugee] policy.

Al Jazeera: Had the case gone to trial, what information would you have expected to have been examined and revealed?

Karapanagiotidis: You would have heard from these men the stories of being fed food that at times contained maggots, worms, human teeth, and human hair. You would have heard stories of being held in a camp and facing life-threatening illnesses, without due processes, without basic human rights.

You would have heard guards, nurses, doctors, teachers and social workers talking about watching the neglect, seeing the abuse, and then seeing the abuses covered up.

More than 860 men are currently detained on Manus Island [Handout/Department of Immigration and Citizenship/EPA]
More than 860 men are currently detained on Manus Island [Handout/Department of Immigration and Citizenship/EPA]

Al Jazeera: What were the possible outcomes had the case gone to trial?

Karapanagiotidis: I think you would have seen a much bigger settlement or the government would have lost this case.

The conditions are well documented. They’re documented in inquiries, they’ve been documented by whistleblowers, they’ve been documented in the 80 witnesses and testimonies that Slater and Gordon, the law firm representing the plaintiffs, had already procured and more would have jumped on board once it got to a hearing. Unequivocally, the conditions are not open to debate.

The only way the government could have won this case is to be able to show that they have no causal relationship with what is happening and to try to argue that these conditions were not true. And the government had no chance of proving either.

Al Jazeera: Do you expect additional asylum seekers to file similar lawsuits? What can they expect and hope for?

Karapanagiotidis: Absolutely, and they should. You now have an admission of responsibility that the government is in control of what happens on Manus. The government is also conceding that it’s actually kept these men in conditions that has harmed them.

The debate that's missing in our country is that we're actually talking about human beings, not boats. If we turn people back at sea, it just means they die somewhere else.

by Kon Karapanagiotidis, Founder and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

The exact same awful conditions exist on Nauru so there’s no reason why a claim on Nauru wouldn’t have the same success and same outcome.

Al Jazeera: Australia’s tough refugee policy has been at the forefront of much debate and criticism in recent years. Where does the public currently stand on the policy? How does this differ from the actions of the government?

Karapanagiotidis: It’s fair to say at least in terms of industrialised nations, Australia has the most draconian, cruel and illegal policy when it comes to how it treats people who seek refuge. 

This policy of turning people back has been politically popular because it has really tapped into xenophobia, fear and racism, and while most Australians are not racist, racism is a really big issue in this country.

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The real challenge is here is a populist, xenophobic policy that has helped win multiple elections for two decades of stopping boats and stopping refugees and the debate that’s missing in our country is that we’re actually talking about human beings, not boats. If we turn people back at sea, it just means they die somewhere else.

We are dumbed down to fear refugees, see them as a threat and burden, rather than as a moral obligation, a humanitarian opportunity and that these people actually come sharing our values, wanting peace and to integrate and contribute.

Al Jazeera: What does the settlement mean in terms of Australia’s refugee policy?

Karapanagiotidis: I think in the immediate it doesn’t have much of an impact at all. There’s no shortage of money for bad ideas. This settlement is a drop in the bucket for the government. 

Where this settlement is going to have an impact longer term is recognising that the government actually has to defend it. They have to think longer term.

If there is a change of government, the new government will be more concerned in terms of the legacy of the settlement because there will be more cases and it will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years.

So politically it doesn’t play well. It will potentially hurt them at the ballot box because it is the Australian government spending money that [may be seen] as a waste.

Al Jazeera: Papua New Guinea ruled last year that the Manus Island facility is “illegal”. It is set to close the detention centre in October. What are the options for asylum seekers who are still at the facility?

Karapanagiotidis: The real challenge with Manus is that only around a third of the men there are being considered under the US resettlement deal. Two-thirds are not and they’ve all been getting letters saying, “you can go home and we can help you voluntarily go home”. The government is giving these letters to people who have been found to be refugees. So the government is telling people who have demonstrated a well-founded fear of persecution to return to their home country or settle in the broader Papua New Guinea community that doesn’t want them, where they have no future, where they’re not safe.

The local PNG (Papua New Guinea) public has a mistrusted fear of the men and the men have a fear of the community. So unfortunately it’s this unresolvable scenario. The PNG government is tired of having people there, the people on PNG don’t want them there so they’re creating a real powder keg disaster.

In the next couple of months, it’s all going to implode in the worst kind of way. People will be harmed, more refugee lives will be damaged, more people will be at risk.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Follow Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath on Twitter: @ElleDubG

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Source: Al Jazeera