The federal government and its offshore detention contractors will pay more than $70 million in compensation to 1905 refugees and asylum seekers for illegally detaining them in dangerous and damaging conditions on Manus Island.
In what may be Australia's largest ever human rights-related settlement, on June 14 the government settled out of court before the class action, brought on behalf of the refugees and asylum seekers detained on the island, began.
In settling the case, the government avoided a long and damaging six-month trial that would have involved evidence of murder, systemic sexual and physical abuse and inadequate medical treatment leading to injury and death.
Lawyers for the asylum seekers Slater and Gordon confirmed the government had agreed to a conditional settlement of $70 million plus costs, to be distributed to asylum seekers based on the length of their detention and severity of their injuries. Costs will run to at least $20 million.
The settlement was reached on the proviso that the government denied all liability for the mistreatment and false imprisonment of people on Manus Island.
The lead plaintiff in the case was 35-year-old Iranian Christian Majid Kamasaee, who fled his homeland to escape violent religious persecution. He claimed on behalf of the group that his treatment on Manus Island during 11 months of detention in 2013–14 was degrading and cruel.
He said the settlement was a long-overdue acknowledgement of the unnecessary suffering endured by those sent to Manus Island.
“This case is not just about me, it is about every person who has been trapped on Manus Island,” he said.
“I came to Australia seeking peace, but I was sent to Manus, which was hell. Sadly, many of my friends are still there.
“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.”
The 166-page statement of claim detailed allegations of mistreatment from detainees, as well as supporting evidence from health workers and security experts.
It alleged detainees were housed in lacklustre facilities that were dirty, overcrowded and overheated, were subject to violent and anti-social behaviour from security staff and other detainees, and routinely had insufficient drinkable water, hygiene products and medications, among many other complaints.
A further claim of false imprisonment was added to the class action last year.
Slater and Gordon lawyer Andrew Baker said the people detained on Manus Island endured extremely hostile conditions, but had refused to suffer in silence. “Most were fleeing religious persecution and violence and came to Australia seeking protection, only to be denied their basic human rights,” he said.
“While no amount of money could fully recognise the terrible conditions the detainees endured, we hope today’s settlement can begin to provide them with an opportunity to help put this dark chapter of their lives behind them.”
Iranian journalist and refugee Behrouz Boochani told the Guardian from Manus that the settlement was a concession by the Australian government its policy of offshore detention was illegal.
“The people are very happy because it’s the first time they smell a little bit of justice from Australia,” he said. “The government has kept people in this prison for four years and must answer to the people it has damaged physically and mentally.
“This shows the government recognised that they committed a crime by sending us to this prison. It proves that the government lied to the people.”
The Manus Island detention centre was ruled “illegal and unconstitutional” by the PNG Supreme Court in April last year. It is slated for closure by October.
Boochani said the future of the 900 men remaining on Manus Island remains uncertain, despite the class action settlement.
“It’s time to take us from here and give us freedom in a safe place. Freedom is more important than anything.”
GetUp! Human Rights Director Matthew Phillips said: “Make no mistake — this is hush money.
“Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton will throw around a seemingly unlimited amount of taxpayer money to avoid public scrutiny of evidence of abuses occurring within Australia’s detention regime and to protect the private contractors complicit in those abuses.
“This settlement is an acknowledgement of the abusive environment on Manus Island, an environment that is unsafe for refugees and people seeking asylum.
“Eight months since the US Deal was announced, still not one refugee has been taken to safety. The camps must be urgently evacuated and the men the Australian government detains there brought to Australia.”
Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul said the settlement is an admission that the Australian government is responsible for detention on Manus Island. It puts the lie to the continual claims from Peter Dutton that Manus Island is the responsibility of the PNG government.
“No amount of money can compensate the asylum seekers sent there unlawfully for the damage that has been done to them. They, and their families, have lost almost four years of their lives. Three people have died.
“Now the government will pay for unlawfully imprisoning them. But there won’t be justice until the refugees and asylum seekers are brought to Australia.