Asylum seekers caught in PNG brawl

Andrew Probyn Federal Political Editor
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Asylum seekers caught in PNG brawl

Tent city: The Manus Island detention centre. Picture: Dept. of Immigration.

Asylum seekers detained on Manus Island have accused Australian officials of abandoning them when a violent brawl erupted between rival Papua New Guinean security forces.

In what witnesses say was a potentially lethal confrontation, Royal PNG Constabulary officers clashed with PNG Defence personnel on the outside perimeter of the detention centre on Friday.

Dozens of people were involved in the incident, with armed PNG police being pushed and shoved by members of the PNG Defence Force carrying rocks and sticks.

Workers at the detention centre, including those from Immigration, the Salvation Army, security firm 4GS and contractor International Health & Medical Services, were moved into a secure area of the compound in case an evacuation was ordered to HMAS Choules.

At the time, the centre had 1061 asylum seekers, some of whom used social media to criticise Australian officials for leaving them to fend for themselves in a potentially dangerous situation.

One detainee told Perth-based refugee advocate Victoria Martin on Facebook: "There was no one and i saw many officers aussy officers they were taking bags and run to the ship side (of the island) and no one was there to protect us."

When Department of Immigration official Renate Croker later emerged from the lockdown to assure detainees that the situation had been "brought under control", it is understood detainees angrily protested about being left without protection.

The West Australian can reveal a simmering rivalry between PNG security forces worsened after a drunk PNG sailor broke into the house of a Manus Island resident last week, only to be badly beaten up by the resident.

The sailor is believed to have told his PNGDF colleagues that he was a victim of PNG police brutality, after which his mates decided to avenge his attack by targeting police guarding the detention centre.

Sources said there was a "tinderbox" environment at the centre, where detainees are packed 40 to a tent in muddy and miserable conditions. There are also concerns about the ill-trained PNG forces on Manus Island and tension among the locals about land ownership and the level of compensation for the expanded centre.

Ms Martin, from the Refugee Rights Action Network, said Manus asylum seekers remained Australia's responsibility and must be properly protected.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who last week sought to suppress details of the incident, yesterday acknowledged reports asylum seekers had been "frightened" by the incident.

"Initial reports that firearms had been drawn have not been confirmed and appear to be without basis," he said in a statement.

"It does appear, however, that members of the PNGDF were sighted carrying rocks and sticks and the incident occurred within view of some transferees - some of whom were reported to have been frightened."

Mr Morrison said the IHMS contacted the Department of Immigration to advise that an evacuation to HMAS Choules had been ordered and that firearms had been drawn in the incident.

The advice was incorrect.