The United Nations refugee agency on Tuesday urged Australia to accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees from an abandoned Australian-run detention centre in Papua New Guinea, as about 450 men remain barricaded inside without food or water.
The asylum seekers have been holed up inside the centre for the past two weeks defying attempts by Australia and Papua New Guinea to close the facility, saying they fear for their safety if moved to transit centres.
With many detainees complaining of illness bought about by the unsanitary conditions inside the camp, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged Australia to allow 150 of them to resettle in New Zealand.
“We urge Australia to reconsider this and take up the offer,” Nai Jit Lam, deputy regional representative at the UNHCR told Reuters. The asylum seekers are mainly from Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Syria.
Some 400 refugees rebuffed continued efforts by Papua New Guinea authorities to convince them to move from a shuttered Australian detention camp Tuesday as the tense standoff over their future drags into a third week.
The confrontation has drawn global attention to Canberra’s tough immigration policy, under which asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat are sent to remote Pacific camps on PNG’s Manus Island and the island nation of Nauru.
Most of the 600 refugees detained at the camp refused to leave when Australia officially closed it on October 31 after the PNG Supreme Court ruled the site unconstitutional, citing fears for their safety outside.
They are barred from resettling in Australia and Canberra has struggled to transfer them to third countries.
Kurdish-Iranian detainee and journalist Behrouz Boochani told AFP on Tuesday that the detainees were going to dig another well, a day after police moved into the camp to puncture or remove tanks holding the refugees’ remaining supplies of drinking water.
“It’s the moment to accept failure & let us go to a 3rd country,” Boochani, who has acted as a spokesman for the refugees, added in a tweet Tuesday.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier this month rejected a refugee resettlement offer from his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern, preferring instead to work through an existing refugee swap deal he negotiated with former US president Barack Obama last year.
Under that deal, up to 1,250 asylum seekers detained by Australia in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the South Pacific could be resettled in the United States in return for Australia accepting refugees from Central America. So far, the United States has accepted only 54.
Despite Turnbull rejecting the offer, Ardern this week said the offer remained on the table and that she would seek a second meeting with Turnbull to discuss the “unacceptable” situation inside the Manus island detention centre.
Running water and electricity to the Manus island detention centre were disconnected two weeks ago after Australian security withdrew and the camp closed on October 31. The centre had been declared illegal by a Papua New Guinea Court.
Papua New Guinea has threatened to forcibly move the men if they remain inside the centre. It has set three deadlines but all have passed largely without incident.
Australia’s “Sovereign Borders” immigration policy, under which it refuses to allow asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores, has been heavily criticised by the United Nations and human rights groups but has bipartisan political support in Australia.
Australia says allowing asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores would only encourage people smugglers in Asia and see more people risk their lives trying to sail to Australia.