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The Turnbull government will pay AUD$70 million (US$55.9 million) compensation to refugees and asylum seekers detained by Australia at Manus Island, after a Victorian court officially approved the settlement on Wednesday.
Law firm Slater and Gordon said it was believed to be the largest human rights class action settlement in Australian history, brought on behalf of 1923 asylum seekers held on the island between 2012 and 2014.
Victorian Supreme Court Justice Cameron Macaulay declared the $70 million pay-out "a fair and reasonable sum", which should be distributed urgently given the Manus Island centre is due to close next month.
The refugees and asylum seekers involved in the class action claimed they suffered physical and psychological injury as a result of the conditions of their detention in Papua New Guinea.
They also made a claim of false imprisonment, following a PNG Supreme Court ruling last year that declared their ongoing detention breached the PNG constitution.
The Turnbull government agreed on a provisional settlement in June – of $70 million, plus an estimated AUD$20 million (US$15.97 million) in costs – which was formally approved by Justice Macaulay on Wednesday.
In June, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the decision to settle was not an admission of liability or wrongdoing, but was preferable to a lengthy and expensive trial.
"An anticipated six-month legal battle for this case would have cost tens of millions of dollars in legal fees alone, with an unknown outcome," Dutton said at the time.
"In such circumstances a settlement was considered a prudent outcome for Australian taxpayers. The Commonwealth strongly refutes and denies the claims made in these proceedings."
Speaking on Wednesday after the pay-out was confirmed, Slater and Gordon practice group leader Rory Walsh said he was "very pleased" with the court's decision and the speed of the outcome.
He said 70 per cent of the original 1923 claimants had signed on to the settlement – "very high for a class action" – and he expected that number to grow before registrations closed next month. Less than 10 per cent of the group raised objections to the settlement.
"Of course there's no amount of compensation that would properly compensate these people for what has happened to them," Walsh told Fairfax Media.
"We were acutely aware that these people have been treated terribly and in a very high-handed way," he said. "There was always going to be some people who don't agree with the settlement, that's the nature of class action".
Refugees who spoke to Fairfax Media from PNG on Wednesday were sceptical about the promised pay out.
Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian refugee and journalist at the Manus RPC, queried how the compensation could be provided, because: "we don't have the right to have bank accounts in this country".
"The refugees are not happy with this money because it cannot cover more than four years' suffering." he said. "They accepted this settlement because they thought [they] don't have any choice."
Ben Moghimi, an Iranian refugee who is currently among a group of about 100 men transferred to a hotel in Port Moresby, said the pay-out could not compensate for his pain or the deaths of his friends.
"No amount of money could return back how I suffered in past years by [the] Australian government in here, and I am still suffering," he told Fairfax Media.
"Many of [the] guys here aren't happy about this but everyone is sick mentally so they had no choice so they had to accept it. I can see [from] the faces here that people are not happy with this."
Walsh said Slater and Gordon was investigating how money could be transferred to the men on Manus, or held in their name, and was confident of doing so.
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