By Fr. Giorgio Licini PIME, General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea & Solomon Islands. This piece was first published in the Post Courier – 11 Feb 2019.

This week the Australian parliament is taking a crucial vote related to the health conditions of the asylum seekers and refugees in Manus, Port Moresby, and Nauru. It is not for us to suggest the Australian people representatives on how to vote on this specific instance.

We simply notice that the off-shore processing policy established by the Kevin Rudd government in 2013 has now become untenable and even absurd. First of all, after six years almost six hundred men still remain in Manus and PNG alone. Something must have gone terribly wrong.

Furthermore, the greatest “mistake” in an initiative clearly conceived as a deterrence strategy against new boats irregularly reaching Australia, has been that of detaining the same individuals since the early hour. Should a rotation have been applied at least every two or three years, the deterrence purpose would have been preserved, and the dire consequences we now observe would have been avoided.

The general public in Australia and Papua New Guinea may be unaware of the sharp decline in the health conditions of the detainees, and their loss of mental stability especially these last few months. To tell it clear in tok pisin, a good number of the men are now longlong to different degrees. Six years of uncertainty and deprivation of freedom is too much and must end here. At this point the government in Australia can no more deny to this men: first, immediate access to the mainland for proper medical attention; second, in due course, permanent stay or resettlement to a third safe country.  

Visiting Manus and some other accommodation and health facilities in Port Moresby, where some of the most serious cases are confined, you immediately feel deep in yourself a sense of disbelief and even of guilt. How is it that we allowed healthy and enthusiastic young people to deteriorate to the point of living on antidepressant and sleeping pills? How is it that in the year 2019 we identify them by a number rather than by their name? How can it be possible that human beings use other human beings for deterrence purposes of whatever sort for an indefinite period of time, regardless of the fact that they may completely go crazy or even die in the process? Sincerely speaking, all this escapes my understanding. Much more if this happens under our eyes in countries like Australia and Papua New Guinea, which are by no means rogue States or war and torture oriented societies. It is unfair and unjustified to blame these young people in mass of inexistent criminal records.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, since the beginning opposed the Manus project, clearly anticipating the nefarious consequences that are now under our eyes. We renew our appeal to the governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea to quietly put a dignified and humble end to this humiliating and sorrowful chapter. Damages can never be completely repaired, but at least contained.