The government of Port Moresby will formally investigate allegations of widespread corruption and mismanagement within the refugee support program in Papua New Guinea, which is funded by Australia.
Following accusations from a confidential source within PNG’s immigration department that large sums of money may have been mishandled, PNG’s deputy prime minister and immigration minister, John Rosso, has initiated an investigation to track the funds’ usage.
Rosso stated that due to the serious accusations made by the whistleblower and other parties, as well as the widespread media coverage and the commitment of the Australian government to investigate, our government must conduct our own audit of the program.
He stated that he had contacted Stanis Hulahau, the chief migration officer of PNG, requesting a report on the refugee support program funded by Australia. However, both Port Moresby and Canberra have consistently refused to disclose the information to the public.
Rosso stated that the report should encompass the current program management, bilateral funding, and the procedure for managing the funds, including a list of all service providers.
Last week, Hulahau stated to the Guardian in an interview that the accusations of corruption were untrue and driven by malicious intent.
He stated that the statements being made are false and there is no evidence to support them.
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The funds have not been tainted or misappropriated, but rather have been utilized by the service providers who rendered the services. They were used lawfully and there is no indication of any corrupt behavior.
In 2021, the Morrison administration, at the time in power, entered into a concealed agreement to financially support Papua New Guinea’s humanitarian efforts. Despite a change in government, the Albanese administration continues to withhold information about the contract.
The arrangement was to offer housing, medical care, and additional assistance to refugees banished to Papua New Guinea by Australia as a component of the offshore detention system previously operated on Manus Island. This center was subsequently forced to close by the PNG supreme court.
The last group of 64 refugees and asylum seekers from the Manus detention centre have been in Papua New Guinea for ten years and are experiencing significant physical and mental health issues.
Funding for the assistance program was drawn from Australia’s budget of $303 million designated for managing irregular arrivals by sea. The money was then transferred to Papua New Guinea’s immigration and citizenship authority, which used it to pay private contractors for services such as housing, food, healthcare, and transportation for refugees and asylum seekers.
However, due to delays in resettlement, largely caused by Covid-related travel limitations, the funds allocated by Australia have been depleted. As a result, the necessary services for refugees and asylum seekers have been either reduced or eliminated.
Some refugees may face the possibility of being forced to leave their temporary housing. A number of businesses in Papua New Guinea, such as motels that provide housing for refugees, transportation companies, and security firms, are owed large sums of money. One hospital in Port Moresby is owed almost $40 million.
The whistleblower sent a letter to Rosso, accusing the program of widespread corruption, specifically related to the hiring of vehicles.
He alleged that private cars were being “cross-hired” in order to conceal the recipients of contracts. He also claimed that the relatives of high-ranking officials were using a front company to rent out their personal vehicles and reap personal benefits.
The person who reported the issue also claimed that contracts were given out unfairly, without a fair bidding process, and to companies without the necessary experience to fulfill the required services.
The directorate for fraud and anti-corruption in the PNG police has initiated probes into six grievances filed against the country’s immigration authority. However, these investigations were halted due to political influence.
According to a source familiar with the program, although the focus on the allegations by political figures is appreciated, there is a concern that the investigation into the whistleblower’s report may be hindered.
He stated that the refugees were still stuck and had no clear timeline for their future. “The remaining refugees are running out of time and the outcome is unknown.”
Hulahau stated that the majority of refugees, approximately 40 individuals, will be resettled in New Zealand. However, 16 refugees who are critically ill and require advanced medical treatment will be transported to Australia for care. Approximately 10 refugees and asylum seekers have expressed a desire to remain in PNG, primarily due to marriage to PNG citizens and the presence of their families.