In rare victory, Australia will pay $53 million to refugees in abuse case

“Money can’t bring back my four years I spent in hell,” one refugee said.

Protestors against asylum seekers being deported, gather for a rally in Sydney, Australia, Feb. 4, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rob Griffith
Protestors against asylum seekers being deported, gather for a rally in Sydney, Australia, Feb. 4, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rob Griffith

Thousands of people have suffered under Australia’s harsh detention and immigration policies. Now, the country is paying — a lot. In a settlement decision with 1,905 claimants detained on Manus, a Papuan island where Australia holds migrants and refugees, Australia’s government has agreed to pay AUS$70 million (or, US$53 million) in one of the largest human rights class action settlements in Australian history.

“The people detained on Manus Island have endured extremely hostile conditions, but they will no longer suffer in silence,” Andrew Baker, an attorney for the detainees, said in a statement, going on to detail the persecution and violence many of the refugees had faced prior to their arrival, only to be met with further abuse on Manus. “This was a long battle for social justice, but we hope that today’s result, and the three years of work preceding it, helps to ensure the voices of the Manus Island detainees have finally been heard.”

Members of the suit, detainees held on Manus between November 2012 and May 2016, say they were mistreated and falsely imprisoned by the Australian government. But Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton asserted that, despite the settlement, Australia “strongly refutes and denies the claims made in these proceedings.” Dutton emphasized that the decision to settle was a “prudent outcome for Australian taxpayers,” and would avoid an even more costly legal battle.

While the settlement will benefit the suit’s claimants, several refugees interviewed said that the money was little consolation.


“Money can’t bring back my four years I spent in hell,” one refugee told BuzzFeed. “We didn’t make this dangerous journey to get money or a luxury life, we just fled our home land to protect our life from danger. This injustice can not be undone with money to cover this awful history.”

Majid Kamasaee, a refugee from Iran and the case’s lead plaintiff, said the abuse he faced on Manus worsened a childhood injury and caused him physical agony.

“This case is not just about me, it is about every person who has been trapped on Manus Island,” Kamasaee said in a statement. “I was severely burned in a fire when I was a child, and needed more than 30 operations, including skin grafts. When I arrived on Manus they confiscated my medicine. Every day in the harsh sun my skin felt like it was on fire.”

He also noted his concern for those still on Manus. “The way we were treated at the Manus Island Detention Centre was degrading and cruel, but sadly, many of my friends are still there,” he said. “Our voices have never been listened to, but today we are finally being heard and I hope everyone’s suffering can be over as quickly as possible.”

Australia’s inhumane attitudes towards refugees are nothing new. Australia has long held refugees in a number of detention centers, the most infamous of which are on Manus and Nauru, an island country in Micronesia. Human rights organizations say refugees face appalling treatment at the centers, with many resorting to self-harm as a coping mechanism. A report from Amnesty International in October 2016 found that disintegrating mental health was leading many refugees to kill themselves — exactly the sort of pattern that prompted detainees to sue.


Still, the Australian government has maintained its immigration policies are humane. Following a 2015 UN report on Australian human rights abuses towards asylum seekers, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asserted that Australians were “sick of being lectured to by the United Nations,” dismissing claims of abuse. (Just two months earlier, more than 200 refugees on Manus had gone on hunger strike to protest their conditions.)

Under former President Barack Obama, the United States agreed to take 1,250 refugees from Manus and other Australian detention centers. In February, Trump clashed with Australian Turnbull over the topic, later taking to Twitter and labeling the plan a “dumb deal” in addition to incorrectly labeling the refugees as “illegal immigrants.”

Despite Trump’s response, his administration is still set to honor the deal — meaning more than a few of the claimants Australia must pay are likely to wind up in the United States. In return, Australia has agreed to settle refugees from the Central American Northern Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The exchange is part of the original agreement made under the Obama administration.

As for refugees left on Manus, their future is uncertain. With the island’s detention center scheduled to close this October, detainees were recently told to “consider your options” by an immigration official, who added, “no one will be resettled in Australia.”