Notorious Refugee Detention Center Is Being Closed — But Refugees Refuse to Leave
The refugees say they're fighting for their human rights.
On Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, more than 700 men no longer have access to water beyond makeshift rain collection contraptions. Their food supply has been cut off so they’re stockpiling biscuits. They have no electricity or landline phone system, no freedom of movement or trauma counseling center.
They may soon be forcefully removed and relocated, according to CNN.
That’s because these men are refugees and asylum seekers who have been kept in a legal limbo of sorts by the Australian government for years.
Australia has a policy of prohibiting resettlement for refugees who try to reach the country by boat. All attempts are intercepted by the government’s coast guard and the captured men, women, and children are sent to either Papua New Guinea’s Nauru Island or Manus Island, where the Australian government spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year providing basic services and amenities.
Now the detention center on Manus Island, which houses men, is being closed and the residents, who fear what lies ahead, have to refused to leave, according to BBC. The government, meanwhile, says that accommodations for the refugees are taken care of in the new locations.
A barricade has been erected by refugees in the detention center. Outside the camp, angry locals are chanting “don’t come out,” BBC reports.
The situation has created a multifaceted showdown between refugees, the Australian government, the citizens of the Manus islands, and local authorities. It’s a showdown that, ultimately, reflects the tensions at the heart of Australia’s refugee policy.
How It Came to This
Since 2001, the Australian government has paid Papua New Guinea to house refugees and asylum seekers because it wants to deter people from traveling to the country by boat and asking for protection, as has happened in Europe in recent years.
The government believes that if even one refugee arrives on the coast, more will follow.
The two most populated camps that Australia pays for are held on Nauru Island and Manus Island.
Over the years, they’ve both acquired reputations for rampant human rights violations for providing poor medical attention and meager living accommodations, for physically and psychologically harming refugees, and for generally limiting the freedom of inhabitants.
After the Australian government was forced to pay $70 million to refugees on Manus Island for these abuses, the government of Papua New Guinea mandated that the detention center be shut down.
As a result, the Australian government arranged to open two new camps for refugees and a third for asylum seekers elsewhere on the island. The government says that all three camps are fully functioning and capable of housing those slated to live there.
But the refugees and asylum seekers who are being asked to leave are wary of what will come next, according to CNN.
"The refugees don't feel safe in the community, because the local community is not ready to accept them," Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish refugee, told CNN. "The refugees don't want to leave."
That’s because in recent months tensions have escalated between citizens of Manus Island and the inhabitants of the detention center, after the refugees were allowed to leave the camp and roam the island, according to CNN.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, "groups of local young men, often intoxicated and sometimes armed with sticks, rocks, knives, or screwdrivers, have frequently assaulted and robbed refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island."
The refugees also worry that their uncertain situation could become further entrenched if they leave the camp by permanently keeping them in a legal limbo — unable to become citizens anywhere.
So the refugees have lodged a lawsuit, with the help of legal and human rights advocates, asking for either the camp to stay open or to be transferred to Australia or to a third country, according to BBC.
What Comes Next
"The advocates can bleat all they want, they can protest all they want. We have been very clear those people are not going to settle in our country because that would restart the people trade," Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton told CNN affiliate Sky News earlier in the year.
As that quote suggests, the Australian government is firm in its decision to shut down the detention center.
During the past few days, contractors have cut the water pipes, emptied water tanks, and disabled much of the camp’s infrastructure, according to BBC. Local authorities may begin forcibly removing residents of the detention center and relocating them.
The lawsuit against the Papua New Guinea government alleges that the closure is a violation of the constitution.
"The men are vulnerable to attacks and physical harm so we are seeking to ensure their constitutional rights are not breached and there is a resumption of the basic necessities of life," Greg Barns, who has assisted in the lawsuit, told BBC.
"The men have been dumped on the street, literally,” he said. “What is going on is unlawful."
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