Papua New Guinea relocates asylum seekers from Manus Island: Camp underlined Australia's harsh refugee policy

Papua New Guinea authorities said on Friday they had relocated the last asylum seekers who had refused for three weeks to leave a closed immigration camp for fear they would face violence in the alternative accommodations.

Police Chief Superintendent Dominic Kakas said police and immigration officials removed all 378 men from the male-only camp on Manus Island over two days and took them by bus to residences in the nearby town of Lorengau. "Everybody's gone. Everybody got on the buses, they packed their bags and they moved over," Kakas said.

Refugee advocates say officials used force and destroyed asylum seekers' belongings to make them leave Manus. Video and photos posted by the refugees on social media showed uniformed police on swinging and poking long metal poles at detainees and dragging them from their rooms towards buses bound for the transition centres.

Police, engaged in an operation they dubbed "Helpim Friends", had vowed not to use force against the refugees, who have been refusing to leave the camp since Australia declared it closed on 31 October.

Water, power and food supplies ended when the Manus camp ended officially closed on 31 October, based on the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court's ruling in 2016 that Australia's policy of housing asylum seekers there was unconstitutional. But asylum seekers fear for their safety in Lorengau because of threats from local residents.

Detainees and human rights groups, including the UNHCR, have said the new camps were not ready to take in the refugees and asylum-seekers in Manus amid concerns for their safety among a local population that has shown them hostility. "These men are scared, they are exhausted and they are despairing," Amy Frew, a lawyer at the Australia-based Human Rights Law Centre, said Friday. "After four and a half years of limbo and uncertainty they still have nowhere safe to go," she said. "This morning's actions show that whatever they do, wherever they go, their safety cannot be guaranteed until they are evacuated from Papua New Guinea."

Australia pays Papua New Guinea, its nearest neighbor, and the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru to hold thousands of asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and Asia who have attempted to reach Australian shores by boat since mid-2013.

Before confirmation that Manus Island had been emptied, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed news that asylum seekers were leaving. "I'm please to say in terms of Manus, that the reports we have are that busloads of the people at Manus are leaving, they're complying with the lawful directions of the PNG authorities and moving to the alternative facilities available to them and that's as they should," Turnbull told reporters.

 Papua New Guinea relocates asylum seekers from Manus Island: Camp underlined Australias harsh refugee policy

Image from the refugee camp being cleared out in Papua New Guinea. AP

"That is precisely what you should do, if you're in a foreign country. You should comply with the laws of that other country," he added.

Shen Narayanasamy, activist group GetUp's rights campaigner said in a statement: "I awoke this morning to frantic phone calls from refugees on Manus screaming: 'Help, help, they are killing us.' It is astounding that refugees being beaten and dragged out to buses has the support of the Australian government."

Police maintain no force was used.

The UNHCR said it was disturbed by the use of force by Papua New Guinea police. "UNHCR reminds Australia of its obligation to take full responsibility and provide effective protection, safety and lasting solutions for all refugees and asylum-seekers in cooperation with the Papua New Guinean authorities," the organisation said in a statement on Thursday.

The standoff with Papua New Guinea authorities has drawn attention to Australia's harsh policy of sending asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat to remote Pacific camps on Manus and Nauru. Australia will not settle any refugees who try to arrive by boat — a policy that the government says dissuades them from attempting the dangerous ocean crossing from Indonesia. The navy has also been turning back boats to keep them from reaching Australia since July 2014.

The United States has agreed to resettle up to 1,250 of the refugees under a deal struck by former President Barack Obama's administration that President Donald Trump has reluctantly decided to honour. So far, only 54 have been accepted by the United States.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Nov 24, 2017 08:35:22 IST