Australia shuts down Manus Island detention center, leaving hundreds of refugees stranded

 In World

An undated image released Wednesday shows detainees fixing a perimeter fence at the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea. (Refugee Action Coalition/Reuters)

For four years, Australia has detained hundreds of refugees on a remote island belonging to Papua New Guinea. From the start, those refugees, who had attempted to reach Australia illegally by boat from all over the world, protested the detention center’s terrible conditions. They clamored for the center’s closing, and many in Australia took to the streets with signs that read: “Bring them here.”

On Tuesday, Australia delivered on that first wish, shutting off electricity and plumbing and ending food services at the Manus Island facility. The Oct. 31 closing date has long been known — Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court set the date in April 2016 when it ordered the center shut.

But the 606 people — all men — who remained in the center on Tuesday were left in the lurch. Despite the long lead time, the United Nations says new accommodations for the refugees are far from ready, and detainees say they are surviving on boxed food packets and digging in the ground to get water.

Detainees and locals are terrified of one another after repeated violent, and sometimes deadly, clashes between the groups. The detention center’s privately contracted security guards have left the island. On Tuesday, local media and human rights groups reported numerous instances of looting by locals, who tore down some of the center’s perimeter walls once they were left unguarded.

The detention center has become an embarrassment for a country widely thought of as an upholder of human rights.  The center has been the site of horrific incidents, including riots, prolonged hunger strikes and dozens of gruesome suicide attempts, some involving the swallowing of razor blades or scissors. In one incident, local police and gangs allegedly infiltrated the facility and attacked detainees, injuring 77 and killing one by dropping a large rock on his head. A United Nations report found that 88 percent of detainees examined by doctors on Manus showed signs of depressive, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorders.

Of the 606 men, Australia has deemed 440 to be legitimate refugees. More than half of the rest have had their applications for refugee status denied, while about 50 refused to be processed as a way of protesting their detainment. Today, the stranded detainees are refusing to leave the very detention center they were once so desperate to leave.

The detainees are “terrified about the possibility of [Papua New Guinea] security forces forcibly removing them from the main center,” said Elaine Pearson, the Australia director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s cruelly ironic that they have barricaded themselves inside a center where they have been shot at and attacked in the past, but they are terrified of moving. Further bloodshed is likely if they move to less secure facilities in the main town.”

Even if they wanted to move to the new facility on Manus Island’s main town of Lorengau, it wouldn’t be ready for them. Nat Jit Lam, a regional representative for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said he had inspected two of the three sites and told ABC Radio that “major earthworks were still in progress” and “fences were still being put up.”

Nick McKim, an outspoken refugee rights advocate and Australian senator from the Greens party, visited Manus this week. Of the preparations in Lorengau, he said Wednesday, “So, even if all the guys came out today, there would be 150-plus of them who would be left on the side of the road in Lorengau, where there have been brutal attacks.”

An undated image released Oct. 31, 2017, shows Australian Sen. Nick McKim sitting among detainees as they protest inside the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea. (Nick McKim/Reuters)

By granting 440 of the men refugee status, Australia has implicitly acknowledged their inability to safely return to their home countries. But Australia has also held fast to a policy that does not allow resettlement within its borders of anyone who tried to reach the country illegally by boat. It credits the policy with almost entirely eliminating attempted arrivals of that kind.

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