Summer 2018-19

Highlighting the plight of Manus refugees

The Catholic Bishops Conference and the Catholic Professionals Society PNG hosted a forum in Port Moresby on 1 November to discuss the refugees’ plight and the effects of their detention in PNG. 

The forum panellists included: Benham Satah, a Kurdish asylum seeker; Fr Clement Taulam, Kavieng Lorengau Diocese; Powes Parkop, the Governor of National Capital District; Esther Gaegaming, Deputy Chief Migration Officer; Alithia Barampataz, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Paul Harricknen, Human Rights Lawyer and President of Catholic Professionals Society of PNG.

Nearly 100 people attended the event, including students, teachers, professionals, lay people, government representatives and Church personnel.

After a prayer by Bougainville Bishop Bernard Unabali, a video was screened to show the situation of refugees all over the world.

Kurdish refugee Benham Satah, living in PNG for five years as a refugee on Manus island and currently in Port Moresby for the last seven months, spoke on the health problems and medical care the refugees needed.

‘We had several people who lost their minds. Seven have died. All their deaths were preventable by proper mental and physical health care, which hasn’t been provided in the past five years,’ he said.

Fr Clement Taulam, a priest from the Kavieng Lorengau diocese, has been in contact with the refugees and has dealt with many issues pastorally, morally and culturally.

‘We now have to deal with the fifth group of refugees’, he said. ‘These are the children of the refugees,’ he continued.

Ms Alithia Barampataz, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, spoke on standard human rights and the understanding of what a refugee is.

Ms Esther Gaegaming, Deputy Chief Migration Officer, then spoke on her role as an immigration officer.

Paul Harricknen, Human Rights Lawyer and President of Catholic Professionals Society of PNG, challenged the present arrangement for the refugees. He spoke on his involvement with the asylum seekers issue on Manus as a lawyer and his concern for the rights of every human person.

‘We have always maintained that the detention of the asylum seekers was and is unconstitutional, unlawful and inhumane and to this day, that argument stands,’ Mr Harricknen said. He added that this is the stand of the Catholic Church as well.

Governor of NCD, Hon. Powes Parkop, shared his personal conviction on the arrangement of refugees from the perspective of the PNG and Australian governments and the possible way forward. He stated that he was trying to understand the government’s decision to accept the arrangement.

‘From the side of the government, it’s probably based on compassion in terms of trying to have a process in which people don’t get onto risky boats to get to Australia. But perhaps there can be a proper way by which they can be processed’.

‘It is based on respect for one’s neighbour, Australia. Being close neighbours and having a history with Australia, the government looked at the bigger picture in terms of a relationship with Australia. Our Constitution and our own value system accommodates our friend, Australia.’

‘Everyone can agree that we helped Australia but Australia took us for granted and left the problem with us, now it seems like they are washing their hands and they’re saying that it is our problem. Australia needs a more ethical outcome that is good for everyone. It is good for Australia, it is good for PNG and most importantly, it is good for the asylum seekers,’ said Hon. Powes Parkop.

Question Time gave the audience the opportunity to ask questions about the many issues concerning the refugees on Manus and the effect on the social fabric of the people on Manus and Port Moresby. An outcome of the Panel Discussion was the ‘Christmas present’, a statement issued and voted upon by the participants.

The program was coordinated by Fr Ambrose Pereira sdb and Paul Harricknen, with the assistance of many at various levels. Special thanks to Rebecca Lim for her passion to highlight the plight of the refugees. Several participants expressed their thanks for a very inspiring and thought-provoking program.


Abigail Seta is the assistant to the secretary for communication and youth at the Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.

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