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Canberra’s policy of sending asylum-seekers who arrive by boat to outposts on Papua New Guinea and the tiny Pacific state of Nauru was thrown into turmoil in April when a PNG court ordered the Manus Island centre closed.
“Both Papua New Guinea and Australia are in agreement that the centre is to be closed,” PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said in a statement following talks with Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in Port Moresby.
“It is important that this process is not rushed but carried out in a careful manner.”
Canberra has been under pressure to shut the Australian-funded Manus facility, which as at June 30 held 854 men, following a PNG Supreme Court ruling declaring that holding people there was unconstitutional and illegal.
The centre was in the spotlight this week after Australian media published graphic images of two bloodied Afghan men who had allegedly been attacked with an iron bar by locals on Manus.
The government is also facing criticism about the plight of some 442 asylum-seekers on Nauru, after thousands of leaked incident reports last week detailed allegations of widespread abuse and self-harm, including children wanting to kill themselves.
“Today we can announce… the closure of the Manus Island detention centre and that’s a very good outcome,” Dutton told Sky News, without specifying a time frame.
Closing the camp shows the government’s policy of refusing to resettle asylum-seekers in Australia was working, he said, adding that the policy would not change.
Under ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia by boat — even if they are refugees — are either sent back to where they departed from or transferred to Nauru and Manus.
The policy has been criticised by rights groups as essentially placing refugees in indefinite detention on remote Pacific islands, with a protester on Wednesday interrupting a speech by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to urge him to “close the bloody camps”.
But the government says it has stopped deaths at sea after a spate of drownings.
Asylum seekers to go home?
Dutton said Australia and PNG would work together to support asylum-seekers and refugees transition to lives in the developing Pacific nation or return to their country of origin.
“We are very adamant, very clear in our messaging so far… when the detention centre closes, that our position is not going not change,” Dutton said, adding that this could see people accept settlement packages to return home.
Refugee advocates welcomed the decision to close Manus Island, but called on the government to resettle refugees in Australia.
“The Australian government has for many years been shamefully outsourcing to PNG and Nauru its responsibilities to protect and fairly process hundreds of people who are seeking safety,” Amnesty International’s Anna Neistat said.
“The government set up a system of deliberate abuse of and cruelty towards almost 2,000 men, women and children who are simply looking for a safe place to rebuild their lives.”
Australia director of Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson said the men on Manus should immediately be moved to Australia or a safe third country.
“Nearly 1,000 men on Manus have already lost three or more years of their lives locked up in limbo for no good reason,” she said.
“They’ve endured dirty, cramped conditions, inadequate medical care and violence. Finally, it is time to let them move on with their lives in safety and dignity.”