Refugees panic over options as Manus Island detention center begins to close

Protesters on the annual Palm Sunday rally for refugees in Sydney assembled at Hyde Park Fountain where speakers addressed the rally before they marched to First Fleet Park at Circular Quay. File April 2017. (Credit: Rex Features via AP Images)

Asylum seekers in Australia’s controversial offshore detention center on Manus Island are panicking after an announcement today by officials: Portions of the compound will begin closing on May 28. By Oct. 31, the camp will shut down in its entirety, leaving asylum seekers few options if Australia refuses to accept them.

“You cannot stay at the regional processing center,” an unnamed official told detainees, according to a recording obtained by ABC and Guardian Australia. “You need to consider your options. No one will be resettled in Australia.”

According to Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian who has been detained on Manus for nearly four years, immigration authorities plan to move refugees who interviewed for resettlement in the U.S. to a transit center near the Papua New Guinea (PNG) island’s main town Lorengau – “which means forced settlement in PNG,” he wrote on Twitter.

For many reasons, including political instability, corruption, religious strife and a lack of resources, many do not believe Papua New Guinea is a suitable place to resettle refugees. Asylum seekers whose applications for refugee status have been rejected also face deportation by Papua New Guinea if they refuse to accept Australia’s financial package of up to $25,000 to voluntarily return to their home countries.

“Manus prison is full of tension,” Boochani, wrote in his next tweet. “The refugees are very angry with immigration’s plan to settle them in PNG.”

In initial reports by ReutersGuardian Australia and other media outlets, detained refugees said that officials announced the whole camp would shut down by June 30. But a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton disputed that claim today, saying, “The Minister has said on numerous occasions that the closing date is October,” according to The Australian.

A Papua New Guinea supreme court ruled in April 2016 that the center was unconstitutional and the detention of its more than 800 asylum seekers illegal. But refugee advocates have been calling for the shut down of Australia’s detention centers on Manus Island and nearby Nauru for years.

“Beyond the reports of physical and sexual abuse, including of children; inadequate medical attention; suicides and attempted suicides; even a murder; the extinguishment of hope has pushed people to the edge,” a coalition of organizations wrote in a joint call for action in February. “Many of these people have been recognized as refugees. We owe them protection and safety now.”

However, Australia has repeatedly refused to accept asylum seekers who arrive by boat, claiming that it will encourage human trafficking and deaths at sea.

“We’re just not going to allow the people smugglers to be out there again saying, ‘Look, if you wait you’ll eventually get to Australia,'” Dutton told Sky News in April.

To help shutter the controversial camps, the U.S. under President Barack Obama struck a deal with Australia to review up to 1,250 detainees for resettlement. In exchange, Australia agreed to resettle refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Although President Donald Trump threw the agreement – and U.S. relations with its longtime ally – into question in February when he called it a “dumb deal” in a tweet, Vice President Mike Pence confirmed last month that the U.S. will honor the swap.

But with the White House’s promise of “extreme vetting,” resettlement in the U.S. for those detained on Manus and Nauru remains far from certain.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.