CANBERRA – Australian Immigration Minister Tony Burke on Wednesday described as “horrific” explosive claims that asylum seekers at one of its processing camps in Papua New Guinea are being raped and tortured.
A former senior official at the Manus Island facility also detailed “almost daily” attempts by asylum seekers to harm themselves or commit suicide while warning that weapons were being accumulated in preparation for a breakout.
“I’ve never seen human beings so destitute, so helpless and so hopeless before,” Rod St. George, the former head of occupational health and safety at the center, told SBS television.
The allegations come just days after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that the facility would be massively expanded to accommodate 3,000 people, from the original 600, as part of a new hard-line policy of sending all arriving asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea.
“I took the position with every intention of making the place a safer environment but it proved quite rapidly to be an impossibility,” St. George said. Disgusted by what he saw at the facility, which has been off-limits to the Australian media, St. George quit.
Under Rudd’s strict new policy, unauthorized asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters will now be banished to Manus Island and elsewhere in the Pacific nation for assessment. But even if found to be “genuine refugees,” they will have no chance of being settled in Australia. Instead, they will have the options of remaining in poverty-stricken and lawless Papua New Guinea, returning home or being sent to third countries.
St. George, a former prison guard, said up to half a dozen young men were assaulted and raped by fellow inmates, while others were beaten and forced to sew their lips together to protest conditions at the camp. The men who were sexually assaulted were sent back to the same tents as the people who had raped them, he claimed.
“There was nothing that could be done for these young men who were considered vulnerable, which in many cases is just a euphemism for men who are being raped,” he said. “They had to stay where they were.”
He added that one man had his eardrum perforated when he had solvent poured into his ear, and criticized immigration department officials at the camp for their handling of the cases, adding that the Papua New Guinea nationals employed as guards were not up to the task.
Burke said he would fly to Manus Island this week to investigate, and that any troublemakers would be removed from the camp.
“I’ll be in Manus in the next couple of days and I’ll have a look for myself,” he told ABC radio.
“The allegations were horrific,” Burke continued. “I wish I’d had an opportunity to get the specifics of them earlier than last night because I would’ve started acting on them earlier than last night.
“There’s no doubt that what has been described involves some situations and crimes which must not be allowed to occur.”
Burke is also due to visit Australia’s other main Pacific processing camp on the tiny island nation of Nauru. That site was rocked by riots that razed buildings Saturday following Rudd’s announcement of the new policy.
Australia has struggled to stem an influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat, with record numbers turning up in 2012 and more than 15,600 so far this year. Hundreds have drowned making the perilous journey, with another boat sinking off Indonesia late Tuesday. Casualties were feared, but rescuers said they had saved at least 157.