The Australian government and its offshore detention contractors will pay more than $70m in compensation to nearly 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers for illegally detaining them in dangerous and damaging conditions on Manus Island.
The government on Wednesday settled a class action brought by Slater and Gordon on behalf of 1,905 refugees and asylum seekers detained on the island, rather than proceed with a six-month trial that would have involved evidence before the court from detainees of murder inside the detention centre, systemic sexual and physical abuse, and inadequate medical treatment leading to injury and death.
The detention centre was ruled “illegal and unconstitutional” by the PNG Supreme Court in April 2016. It remains operational, housing nearly 900 men, but is slated for closure in October this year.
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The Australian government and its contractors have agreed to pay compensation of $70m plus costs.
Costs will run to at least $20m, Slater and Gordon said. But the total cost could climb beyond $100m, an immigration department source confirmed to The Guardian.
The settlement was reached on the provision that the Australian government denied any and all liability for the mistreatment and false imprisonment of people on Manus Island.
The breakdown of money to be paid by the Australian government, G4S, and Broadspectrum has not been made public, but it is possible that some of the settlement could be paid by Wilson Security, which was sued by Broadspectrum and brought into the class action as a secondary defendant.
The lead plaintiff in the case was 35-year-old Iranian Christian Majid Kamasaee, who fled his homeland to escape violent religious persecution. He said the settlement was a long-overdue acknowledgement of the unnecessary suffering endured by those sent to Manus.
“This case is not just about me, it is about every person who has been trapped on Manus Island,” Kamasaee said.
“I came to Australia seeking peace, but I was sent to Manus, which was hell. I was in pain every minute of every day and I cried every night until I had nothing left.”
Kamasee said his treatment in the Manus Island detention centre was degrading and cruel.
“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 class action – even without proceeding to trial – involved 200 witness statements, 200,000 documents, and more than 50 court dates. It detailed allegations of mistreatment from detainees themselves, as well as supporting evidence from health workers and security experts.
Slater and Gordon principal 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.”
Asked if he believed the Australian government had settled on the case to avoid scrutiny of detention conditions in open court, Slater and Gordon class action practice group leader Rory Walsh said: “yes”.
By denying liability as a condition of settlement, Walsh said, the government was able to continue to run that argument in other cases involving Manus and Nauru.
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“The extent to which a $70m plus costs settlement undermines the ability for them to do that, or whether indeed it passes the pub test, is a matter for others to comment on.”
The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said settlement in the case was not an admission of liability, and that the government “strongly refutes and denies the claims made in these proceedings”.
“The commonwealth is required by the Legal Services Directions to endeavour to avoid, prevent or limit the scope of legal proceedings,” Dutton said in a statement.
“An anticipated six-month legal battle for this case would have cost tens of millions of dollars in legal fees alone, with an unknown outcome. In such circumstances a settlement was considered a prudent outcome for Australian taxpayers.”
Dutton said the DIBP was the most litigated department of the Commonwealth, with an active caseload of nearly 5,800 matters. DIBP’s legal expenditure last financial year was more than $70m.
He said the cost of Australia’s border policies had been $13.7b to date, and accused the Labor Party, which re-opened the Manus and Nauru detention centres in 2012, of losing control of Australia’s borders.
However, 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. I’m saying only a little bit because we still don’t know how they are planning to pay the compensation. 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.”
Boochani said the future of the 900 men remaining on Manus Island remained 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 that anything.”
Sudanese refugee Abdul Aziz Muhammad said the settlement had given men in detention hope.
“I feel very excited that at least the Australian government has admitted to what they have done to us over the last four years.”
The class action, commenced by Slater and Gordon in the Victorian Supreme Court in December 2014, was run on behalf of 1,905 refugees and asylum seekers who were held at the Manus Island regional processing centre between November 2012 and December 2014.
That period included the riots of February 2014 during which more than 70 detainees were seriously injured. Over three days of violence, refugees were shot by police, were stabbed and had their throats slits when the camp was overrun by rioters from outside. Iranian Reza Barati was murdered by security guards.
The detainees alleged in the class action they suffered serious physical and psychological injuries as a result of the conditions in detention.
In 2016, a second claim for false imprisonment was added to the action, after the PNG supreme court ruled that the detention of asylum seekers was unlawful and unconstitutional.
Following the settlement announcement, the department of immigration and border protection has been approached for comment, but has not responded.
Legal and human rights groups accused the government of agreeing to settle in order to avoid evidence of condition inside the secretive offshore camps being heard in open court.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s Daniel Webb said the case was an “important and long overdue concession that it has knowingly caused profound harm to innocent people in its care”.
He said the men still held on Manus should be brought to Australia immediately.
“Throwing money at the abuses of yesterday won’t stop the abuses of today. Nine hundred men are still languishing on a painful and dangerous road to nowhere. These men have been shot at, beaten and unlawfully detained. They’ve also suffered the mental torment of not knowing if or when their ordeal would ever end. Manus is not a safe place for them.”
GetUp’s human rights director Matthew Phillips said the settlement was concession that Australia’s offshore detention centres were inherently abusive environments.
“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.”