Australia-funded refugee program under scanner in Papua New Guinea

The administration in Port Moresby has committed to conducting an official investigation into the allegations of widespread corruption and incompetence inside the refugee support program in Papua New Guinea that Australia sponsors.

Following claims made by a whistleblower working within PNG’s immigration authority that millions of dollars may have been improperly spent, John Rosso, the deputy prime minister of PNG and also the minister for immigration, has mandated an investigation into the whereabouts of the funds in question.

“The serious allegations made by the whistleblower, separate complaints raised by other parties, the local and international media coverage on it, and the undertaking by the Australian government to investigate the program require our government to carry out our own audit into the arrangement,” said Rosso. “The local and international media coverage on it has also made it necessary.”

He stated that he had written to PNG’s chief migration officer Stanis Hulahau, demanding a report on the covert Australian-funded refugee help plan. The contents of the scheme have been continually rejected to be made public by both Port Moresby and Canberra.

“I directed that the report should cover the current management of the program,” Rosso stated, “the bilateral funding that is involved, and the process involved in the management of the funds with a list of all of the service providers.”

Hulahau stated that the claims of corruption were untrue and were motivated by malice in an interview that he gave to the media a week ago.

He declared, “What is being said is not true,” and he meant it. These assertions are untrue, and you have not supplied any proof to support them.

“The funds have not been stolen or misappropriated in any way; rather, the money has been utilized by the service providers who have carried out the services in question. They were employed in a proper manner. There is not the slightest hint of impropriety.”

PNG’s humanitarian program was made possible by Australia through a contract that was signed in 2021 by the then-Morrison government. The specifics of this deal were not made public at the time, and the Albanese government continues to refuse to disclose them.

Refugees who were exiled to Papua New Guinea by Australia as part of the offshore detention regime that was originally maintained on Manus Island before the PNG supreme court ordered the center to close down were supposed to be provided with housing, medical care, and other forms of support under the terms of the agreement.

The majority of the 64 refugees and asylum seekers who are still being kept on Manus Island, the final cohort from the Manus detention center, have been detained in Papua New Guinea for the past ten years and are in bad physical and mental health as a result.

The funding for the assistance program came from Australia’s “offshore management” budget of $303 million for irregular maritime arrivals. This money was sent to Papua New Guinea’s immigration and citizenship authority, which then paid private contractors in Papua New Guinea to provide refugees and asylum seekers with housing, food, medical care, and transportation.

However, as a result of a slower-than-anticipated resettlement, which was in part caused by travel restrictions imposed by Covid, the Australian government has, for all intents and purposes, run out of money, and the programs necessary to help refugees and asylum seekers have been eliminated or substantially reduced.

There have been reports of migrants being threatened with being kicked out of the shelters they are staying in. Several different businesses in PNG, such as motels that host refugees, transportation companies, and security agencies, are due a combined total of millions of dollars. A hospital in Port Moresby is owed approximately $40 million dollars.

The allegations of systemic wrongdoing within the program were made by the whistleblower in a letter that was addressed to Rosso. The allegations focused specifically on the hiring of automobiles.

He asserted that families of high-ranking officials were enabling their private automobiles to be hired through a front firm so that they could receive a personal profit and that private vehicles were “cross-hired” in order to conceal the true beneficiaries of government contracts.

The person who blew the whistle also claimed that contracts were improperly allocated, without an open competitive procedure, and given to businesses that did not have experience providing the services that were required.

In addition, he stated that the PNG police’s Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate had initiated investigations into six complaints lodged against the PNG Immigration Authority; however, he also stated that these investigations were halted due to political pressure.

“I have serious concern that investigations into the whistleblower’s complaint will be suppressed,” a person who is familiar with the program said, despite the fact that the political emphasis on the claims is welcome. “I have serious concern that investigations into the whistleblower’s complaint will be suppressed.”

In addition, he stated that the refugees were still stuck in an area with an unknown and undetermined future. The refugees who are still alive are running out of time, and nobody knows what will happen next.

Hulahau has stated that Papua New Guinea has plans for the majority of the refugees, which is estimated to be about 40, to be relocated in New Zealand, while the 16 refugees who are in critical condition and require high-level medical care would be transferred to Australia for treatment. About ten of the refugees and asylum seekers have voiced their intention to remain in Papua New Guinea; the majority of these individuals have done so due to the fact that they have married PNG citizens and started families there.

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