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Refugee Action Coalition

The Last Protesting Refugees Were Just Forcibly Removed From Australian Camp on Manus Island

Around 300 refugees and asylum seekers were removed from a defunct processing center on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island over the weekend, ending a three-week showdown that brought fresh waves of criticism to Australia’s refugee policies, according to the BBC.

Many of the men have reported being beaten with iron bars as they were pulled from the camp, according to the UN, and the new locations to which they were transferred are still under construction, despite claims by the government that they had been ready for weeks.

The refugees are being held in Papua New Guinea through a paid arrangement with the Australian government, which argues that the new camps are an upgrade and that the apparent lack of electricity, water supplies, and other amenities are a result of sabotage and vandalism. The government also calls claims of state-sanctioned violence “inaccurate and exaggerated.”

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Videos of the removal show crowds of refugees chanting for help with their arms up as police conduct the involuntary eviction. The incident sparked such concern that a group of prominent Australian doctors have offered to fly out to the island to offer free physical and mental exams.

The camp had been ordered to close to by an Australian judge earlier in the year because it was deemed unconstitutional for its record of human rights violations. The government was told to devise more humane alternatives.

Many of the refugees and asylum seekers have been waiting on the island for years and the shutdown posed an opportunity to demand better treatment, according to ABC Australia. Their refusal to leave was ultimately a form of protest.

Read More: Australia Will Pay $70 Million to Refugees Detained on Remote Manus Island

Before the removal, the men had been without water, electricity, and state-supplied food since Oct. 31, when the government announced that the camp had to be formally shut down and transportation would be provided to new camps. As the days went by, hundreds of men voluntarily left because conditions were too harsh.

The remaining men stayed, according to reports, because they feared worse treatment at other camps, violent attacks from locals, and a further extension of what already felt like an intolerable limbo period.

Since 2001, Australian law has forbid refugees and asylum seekers who arrive by boat from entering the country. Instead, those who take such drastic measures are intercepted and rerouted to processing centers on Manus and Nauru island, where they stay until a form of resettlement is determined. The intent is to discourage an influx of refugees by sea and avoid potential drownings.

Around 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers are held in this manner by the Australian government, which has paid Papua New Guinea hundreds of millions of dollars for the service. Manus Island solely holds men, while Nauru holds men, women, and children.

Critics say that the events of the past few weeks highlight the injustices of this approach.

Read More: Australian Tax Dollars Go Toward Abuse of Refugees, Report Argues

“The situation still unfolding on Manus Island presents a grave risk of further deterioration, and of further damage to extremely vulnerable human beings,” said Thomas Albrecht, regional director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in a press release.

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Many critics are calling for a complete overhaul of the refugee processing system.

“We call on the Australian Government to immediately evacuate the men on Manus Island, to ensure they are supported and assisted to recover and offer them the future they deserve,” Tim Costello, chief advocate of World Vision, said in a press release.

“And we call on the Australian Government to end the damaging regime of offshore processing and ensure people seeking asylum in Australia are never again subjected to indefinite detention,” he said.

Australian government officials have so far rejected these suggestions.

“Advocates should now desist from holding out false hope to these men that they will ever be brought to Australia,” Peter Dutton, Australian minister of immigration and border protection, said a statement.

“Instead advocates should now encourage them to engage with PNG authorities for resettlement either through the US resettlement process or in PNG and for non-refugees to accept assistance packages to return to their home country,” he said.

The US had agreed to take 1,250 refugees and asylum seekers from Manus and Nauru islands, but the fate of that pledge has become uncertain under the Trump administration.

Read More: Refugees From Notorious Australian Detention Centers Begin Arriving in US

New Zealand has offered to take in 150 men, women, and children from the islands, but Australia has rejected this idea because it could be a “back door” to the country.

The refugees and asylum seekers also have the option to apply for citizenship on Papua New Guinea, apply to go to Cambodia, or return to their home countries; few people have taken these options.

Whatever ultimately happens to the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island, the past few weeks have further instilled a sense of solidarity, according to reports. The weeks and months ahead may involve more protests and calls for change. After all, the three-week sit-in revealed global support for their cause.