Sydney: Papua New Guinea will not force out the hundreds of refugees refusing to leave an Australian detention camp, a senior military official said on Thursday, as the tense standoff entered a third day.
The Manus Island detention centre, established to hold and process asylum seekers under Canberra’s strict immigration policy, was officially handed over to PNG’s navy on Wednesday.
Authorities were due to close the camp on Tuesday after it was declared unconstitutional by the PNG Supreme Court.
Water and electricity have been cut and little food is available for the 600 men, who have locked themselves in at the camp.
Advocate of the refugees, who were sent to Manus Island after trying to reach Australia by boat, say they fear for their safety if they move to transition centres amid reports that locals do not want them there.
But the PNG naval base’s commanding officer Begsy Karaki insisted the detainees “will not be forcefully removed”.
“There is no panic and those that have pre-conceived ideas developed by the asylum seekers, I reiterate that there is no threat,” he told PNG’s Post-Courier newspaper on Thursday.
Three transition centres have been constructed nearby although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative Nai Jit Lam, who is on Manus Island, said on Wednesday that one was not ready.
Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton insisted the new facilities were “much better” than being at the camp.
“I want to close Manus as quickly as possible, but it doesn’t help when you’ve got the Greens and others who are telling people not to engage, not to move,” he told broadcaster Channel Nine on Thursday.
Australian Greens senator Nick McKim visited the camp on Tuesday and has been providing a running Twitter commentary on the men’s fate.
The Manus detainees, barred from moving to Australia, have been offered transfers to another Pacific detention facility on Nauru, but reportedly few have accepted.
A third-country resettlement deal struck between Canberra and Washington has so far only seen 24 refugees flown to the United States.
Resettlement in New Zealand — raised in 2013 but never taken up by Canberra — could be viable again after new leader Jacinta Ardern said on Thursday she planned to raise the Manus situation with her Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull.
The pair are due to meet on Sunday for talks in Australia and Ardern told Sky News she would mention “New Zealand’s role and view on Manus Island in particular”.
Canberra has long defended its policy of denying asylum seekers resettlement in Australia, saying it has prevented deaths at sea.
The Manus centre was first opened in 2001 by the then conservative government, before being closed by the left-leaning Labor government in 2008. It was reopened four years later after an influx of boatpeople.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Australia must take immediate action to stop an “unfolding humanitarian emergency” that sees 600 asylum seekers barricaded inside an abandoned detention centre in Papua New Guinea without food or running water.
The detainees in the Manus Island Centre have for two days defied attempts by Australia and Papua New Guinea to close the camp, saying they fear violent reprisals from the local community if they are moved to other “transit centres”.
With food all but exhausted, many of the men are beginning to show the ill-effects of two-days without adequate nourishment, an environment the UN refugee commissioner said Australia must urgently resolve with Papua New Guinea.
“Australia remains responsible for the well-being of all those moved to Papua New Guinea until adequate, long-term solutions outside the country are found,” the UN body said in a statement on Thursday.