Shah Nawaz Hussain was just 19 years old when he fled his home in Pakistan to Indonesia to board a boat bound for Christmas Island.
He could not have imagined that what would follow would be a decade of life in Papua New Guinea, including years of detention on Manus Island as part of Australia’s “PNG solution”.
“The situation, to be honest, is getting worse every day,” he said.
“I faced a lot of difficulties, stress, depression… I have no words, I can’t explain what I experienced in 10 years.”
After Australia’s offshore detention program on Manus was ruled illegal by the PNG Supreme Court in 2016, asylum seekers from the island were transferred to Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby – a process which lasted several years.
In 2021, the Morrison government signed a “confidential bilateral agreement” with PNG with the aim of giving it responsibility for managing the remaining refugees and asylum seekers still awaiting third country resettlement.
This agreement remains secret.
But now – and with just 60 to 70 refugees and asylum seekers left in PNG – a dispute rages between the two governments over the funding that accompanied the deal.
PNG’s top migration official says the country has not been paid all year and there are “unpaid” bills, with tens of millions of dollars owed to service providers handling men.
But Australia’s Department of Home Affairs said the last payment was made in July 2022, in accordance with the agreement, and no payments were outstanding.
Refugees have nowhere to go
Mr Hussain said he and other refugees staying in the same building had received text messages and had in-person conversations with their accommodation provider about possible impending eviction.
This supplier has claimed in reports and text messages that it has not been paid for months – a claim echoed by PNG’s head of migration, Stanis Hulahau, who says suppliers are owed tens of millions of dollars .
Mr. Hussain has already packed a bag containing important documents and carefully arranged his clothes in case he has to leave in a hurry.
“We have no place left if they evict us,” he said.
“No choice or any other place, no help, nothing. Only one option, sleep on the road.”
Some men have moved their families to PNG from their home countries and fear having to fend for themselves.
They say they are easy targets for theft and many of them stay awake at night and don’t sleep until early in the morning.
“I left my country for security reasons,” he said.
“But in this country… here more than in my country, I was just traumatized, tortured.”
Mr Hulahau told the ABC that these eviction threats had not been brought to his attention, but that he was speaking to service providers.
“(The providers) were paid until the end of 2022,” Mr Hulahau said.
“Since January 2023, they have maintained the service while we communicate with the new team in Canberra.”
Mr. Hulahau said that under the agreement, funding “comes in batches” and payments have not been made this year.
“It’s funded every six months,” he said.
“At this stage, funding has not been received and the invoices are therefore unpaid.”
But in a statement, a spokesperson for Clare O’Neil, the Australian Minister of the Interior, strongly refuted the allegation.
“The agreement has been agreed to start in 2022 until the end of 2025 – with reporting until the end of 2023,” the spokesperson said.
“The last payment was made in July 2022, as per the agreement.
“There are no outstanding payments.
“In accordance with the agreement, the PNG Government is responsible for the integration, resettlement or return of this group of people who currently reside in PNG.”
That puts the two at odds, with meetings between the two departments taking place this week over the status of funding.
Mr Hulahau said he was in negotiations with the Home Office, with an option proposed to “relocate these refugees to Australia”.
“I have already discussed with my counterparts that it is very unlikely that we will be able to maintain this program for much longer,” he said.
“The sooner we get a response and an understanding of Australia’s position on this program going forward, the better for both countries and the better for the program.”
Advocacy groups call for refugee resettlement
Advocacy groups in PNG and Australia are calling for refugees to be brought to Australia amid uncertainty.
Asylum Seeker Resource Center advocacy director Ogy Simic said Australia had a “clear duty of care” to the men.
“It is now untenable for the Australian government to continue to abdicate its responsibility for the refugees it forced there more than a decade ago,” he said.
“It is vitally important that Australia acts as quickly as possible to get refugees here to safety, where they can access the medical care and services they need.”
Many of the men hoped to be resettled in the United States, and now in New Zealand since this route was opened. However, Mr Simic said these steps took “a lot of time”.
“We know that in reality the American way has completely stopped,” he said.
“People are no longer traveling to the United States, the path to Canada is incredibly difficult and the path to New Zealand is incredibly slow.”
In a statement from a spokesperson for Ms O’Neil, they said this was “not correct”.
“People are resettling to a third country almost every week, including people from PNG.”