The Australian-sponsored programme to care for refugees exiled to Papua New Guinea has been riven by corruption, fraud and nepotism, a whistleblower within the PNG government’s immigration authority has alleged in a complaint sent to the country’s prime minister, James Marape.
The whistleblower also claimed that police investigations into corruption within the PNG immigration and citizenship authority (ICA) were abandoned under political pressure not to investigate.
The whistleblower, a current employee of the ICA, alleged there was documentary evidence supporting claims “the Australian taxpayer funding allocation for the management of refugees under the PNG Humanitarian Programme has been depleted or gone missing”.
But PNG’s chief migration officer, Stanislau Hulahau, has rejected the allegations as malicious.
“What is being said is not true. These allegations are false, and there has been no evidence provided.
“The moneys have not been corrupted or misused, the money has been used by the service providers who have provided those services. They were used legitimately. There is no element of corruption.
“I will make sure that we properly investigate those allegations and a proper report is provided to the prime minister and to our minister. And the officers who have raised those allegations will be asked to provide any facts, any evidence, so we are able to conclude this matter,” Hulahau said.
The allegations relate to the PNG Humanitarian Programme (PHP), established to provide support and welfare for the final refugees and asylum seekers left in PNG after the closure of Australia’s illegal offshore detention centre on Manus Island.
Australia funded PNG’s Humanitarian Programme through a secret contract signed in 2021 by the Morrison government – the details of which the Albanese government still refuses to reveal.
The money was provided out of Australia’s $303m (US$191 million) irregular maritime arrival “offshore management” budget and sent to PNG’s immigration and citizenship authority, from where it has been paid to PNG private contractors to provide accommodation, groceries, medical care and transport to refugees and asylum seekers.
But the money provided by Australia has essentially run out and the services required to support the 64 refugees and asylum seekers sent to PNG by Australia a decade ago have all been cut or drastically reduced.
A number of refugees have been threatened with eviction from their accommodation. Several PNG businesses, including motels where refugees are housed, transport companies, and security firms, are owed millions of dollars. Port Moresby’s main hospital is owed nearly $40m (US$25 million).
In a letter dated 09 October, the whistleblower alleged widespread corruption – particularly around the hiring of cars.
He claimed private vehicles were “cross-hired” so as to disguise the beneficiaries of contracts, and relatives of senior officials were allowing their private vehicles to be hired through a front company, in order to claim a personal benefit.
The whistleblower also claimed contracts were improperly awarded, without an open tender process, and given to companies with no experience providing the services required.
And he alleged PNG police’s fraud and anti-corruption directorate initiated investigations into six complaints made against the PNG immigration authority, but that these were discontinued under political pressure.
“For a while now, there have been rumours and claims amongst concerned Immigration and Citizenship Authority staff that the PNG Humanitarian Project funds have been depleted, which is the cause as to the months of non-payments to PHP service providers,” the complaint states.
“If the PHP funds have been depleted without justification and cause, then the most likely conclusion would be that PHP funds were embezzled (mismanaged and or misappropriated).”
Guardian Australia does not assert the truth of the allegations made, only that they have been made and are being investigated. The complaint requests that a committee of inquiry be appointed.
The 12-page complaint was addressed to deputy prime minister, John Rosso, who is also the minister for immigration. But the document was also sent to Marape, government ministers and senior civil servants and has caused major concerns with the PNG government.
Formal complaints have also been lodged with the PNG ombudsman commission and the office of the PNG police commissioner – citing conflict of interest, abuse of office, conspiracy to defraud, fraud and official corruption.
Rosso wrote earlier this month to Hulahau citing Guardian Australia reporting on Australia’s “confidential agreement” and “complaints of enormous amounts of outstanding bills”.
He noted the advice from the immigration chief that the Australian funding “has been exhausted and supplementary funding is required to maintain services”.
“The report should include details of the amount of funds we received from the Australian government, where the funds were held, who had access to the management of these funds, and following what established is this funding managed.”
Rosso said “cabinet has not received any policy updates” and that he, as responsible minister, “had not been adequately briefed on the management of his bilateral program, especially taking into consideration its potential to sever bilateral ties with the Australian government who are our traditional partner”.
On Monday, Guardian Australia revealed Hulahau believed some of the refugees still held in PNG would begin to be resettled “within weeks”, most of them in New Zealand.
Of the 64 refugees and asylum seekers still in PNG – the final cohort remaining from Australia’s unlawful offshore detention centre on Manus Island – Hulahau said he expected about 40 to be resettled in New Zealand. A group of about 16 has been identified as suffering acute mental and physical health problems and are set to be brought to Australia for medical treatment.
About 10 of the refugees and asylum seekers have expressed a desire to stay in PNG – most have married PNG nationals and have families.
“We are working to reduce the numbers right now,” Hulahau said.
“I am confident that in the coming weeks – in the next two weeks or so – there will be some movement,” he said.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS