Tensions were high on a Papua New Guinea island on Sunday as authorities prepared to close an Australian refugee camp, with local police calling for calm as some detainees refused to move. The Manus Island detention centre, to close on Tuesday, is one of two Pacific camps where asylum-seekers who try to enter Australia by boat are sent for processing under Canberra’s harsh immigration policy.
Refugees had been given the option of moving to the other centre on the island of Nauru but most detainees have shunned the offer, expressing fears that relocation could further prolong their agony.
Some have also refused to relocate on Manus, citing safety fears amid reports they would not be welcomed in local neighbourhoods.
“The guys (refugees) have said they will stay, they don’t intend to move,” Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul told AFP on Sunday.
“As of today, the mess is closed so food will no longer be available inside the detention centre and they (centre’s management) are going to be issuing food packs… for two days.”
The plan to close the Manus centre came after a ruling by PNG’s Supreme Court last year that holding people there was unconstitutional.
Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said previously the Manus facility would close by the end of October.
Conditions in both camps have been widely criticised by refugee advocates and medical professionals amid reports of widespread abuse, self-harm and mental health problems.
Detainees are barred from being transferred to Australia and Canberra has tried to resettle them in third countries.
It struck a deal with former US President Barack Obama for America to resettle an unspecified number of the detainees, but so far just 54 people have been notified of their acceptance and a group of only 24 have flown out.
Hundreds more remain at the camp.
PNG police said they would help move the detainees to temporary locations but warned today that the safety of refugees and government workers was “not to be taken for granted”.
There was a “small disgruntled faction among the refugees”, police commissioner Gari Baki said, while pleading with locals not to make the transfers — scheduled for Monday — difficult.
“The Commissioner of Police is appealing to the people of Manus not to create any uncertainty and let the transfer of the refugees be done as smoothly as possible,” a police statement said.
The calls for calm came as a report by Human Rights Watch released on Wednesday said the Manus refugees faced “unchecked violence”.
“While the October 31 deadline looms, refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island have been getting stabbed, beaten, and robbed,” Human Rights Watch’s Australia director Elaine Pearson said in a statement.
“The tragic irony is that moving these men from their squalid, guarded centre and settling them elsewhere in PNG will actually put them at greater danger.”