Marni Cordell – Experts in refugee law have warned that Australia cannot pass off to Papua New Guinea its responsibility to process the claims of seven West Papuan asylum seekers.
The seven West Papuans told Australian immigration officials when they landed by boat in the Torres Strait last month that they feared for their lives after taking part in a protest against Indonesian human rights abuses in West Papua.
But instead of processing their claims Australia deported them to PNG, where they are now in a remote refugee camp close to the Indonesian border.
"We can't just ignore [their claim for asylum]," the director of the clinical legal program at Murdoch University, Anna Copeland, told Guardian Australia. "Because we're signatories to the UN refugee convention the whole obligation is that we don't just ignore it.
"We are supposed to implement [the convention] in good faith with the intention that it was set out, so this kind of manoeuvring to be able to refuse is a breach of our international obligations," she said.
The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, told the media that the seven were deported under a 2003 memorandum of understanding designed to prevent PNG being used as a transit country for asylum seekers hoping to make it to Australia.
Under the agreement, Australia is only able to return asylum seekers to PNG if they have spent more than seven days in that country prior to their arrival.
The West Papuans say they repeatedly told Australian immigration officials that they had only spent two days in PNG on their way to Australia. When questioned on this, Morrison said there had been "a concession agreed between the two governments".
Use of the memorandum does not merely allow Australia to wash its hands of them, according to legal analysis of the 2003 agreement by Dr Savitri Taylor, director of research in the school of law at La Trobe University.
Australia still has ongoing obligations under international law to ensure the group has a meaningful chance to have their asylum cases considered and that they are safe from persecution in the interim. The group said both of these conditions had been breached.
When Guardian Australia spoke to one of the seven, Yacob Mechrian Mandabayan, via phone from the remote border camp on Monday night, he said they were in fear for their lives because the camp was close to the porous Indonesian border. "We do not feel safe here because this place is not guarded by police or security guards," he said.
Mandabayan also said there was no immediate prospect of their asylum claims being processed. After the group's initial refusal to seek asylum in PNG – where they say they face the persecution – they now believe they have been dumped at the camp "to just stay until we die in here".
Mandabayan said the group lodged an application with Port Moresby Court on Friday 11 October to request a stay on their relocation to the camp. It was to be heard the next Monday. But on the Saturday, before this could happen, PNG immigration officials arrived at their hotel with "police officers with M16 guns" to take them by force to the airport.
He also described an incident last week in which an "Indonesian-looking" man arrived at the house in which they were staying and tried to take their photos.
"We don't want to seek asylum in PNG; we only want to seek asylum in Australia," Mandabayan told Guardian Australia. "In Australia we feel safe because it's far away from the Indonesian authorities."