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Asylum seekers stuck in limbo on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island

Amid reports of impending closure and an uncertain resettlement deal with the US, migrants seeking asylum in Australia are stuck in Manus Island's detention center and know alarmingly little about their future.

For the so-called "boat people" unlucky enough to find themselves stuck in one of Australia's infamous offshore detention centers, the future is far from certain and a way out is unclear.  The largest center is on Papua New Guinea's (PNG) Manus Island. According to the Australian government, as of December 2016, 866 men seeking asylum in Australia were being detained there.

However, PNG Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia made a surprise announcement Monday that the Manus Island detention center had in fact closed - despite all of the detainees still living in the facility. According to media reports in PNG, the "closure" is merely a technicality.

The detention center has not been moved, but it is now being officially being considered part of the naval base on which it is built.  Detainees are also reportedly free to move in and out of the compound.

The move is in ostensible compliance with a 2016 PNG Supreme Court order ruling that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island breached the right to personal liberty spelled out in the state constitution and was therefore illegal.

Australien Minister für Einwanderung Peter Dutton spricht (Getty Images/S. Postles)

Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has given little concrete imformation about closing the Manus center

At the time of the ruling, both PNG and Australia appeared to be making progress in talks on how to close the center - although Australia's immigration minister, Peter Dutton, offered no specific details on the future of the detainees beyond a brief statement claiming that "a series of options are being advanced and implemented."

On March 1, Reuters reported that dozens of asylum seekers being detained on Manus Island accepted a cash deal of up to 25,000 Australian dollars (17,800 euros) in exchange for voluntarily returning to their home countries. The 29 men who reportedly left represent the largest number leaving the island in four years. 

Other Efforts to resettle some refugees in PNG have failed, with many being forced to return to the detention center after being assaulted or robbed by locals.

The Director of Migration and Border Policy at the Lowy Institute for International Affairs in Sydney, Dr. Jiyoung Song, told DW that there are still too many uncertainties over where the detainees can be relocated to.

"I understand the government is still in negotiation with relevant parties," she said. "Australia hopes that the United States will take them [asylum seekers], but it is still unclear whether the deal will be implemented on which scale or when."

US deal in troubled waters

Papua-Neuguinea Internierungslager aud Manus (Getty Images/EPA/Department of immigration and citizenship of Australia and New Zealand)

An image of where detainees live on Manus provided by the Australian government

The potential US solution was the result of a deal made in November 2016 following a year of negotiations with the Australian government.  The US had reportedly offered the one-off agreement to resettle refugees currently being held on both Manus Island and Nauru.

But a few months on, the future of the deal is looking less assured. The biggest concern at this stage is the unpredictablity of US President Donald Trump. Although the deal was organized under his predecessor Barack Obama, a change in US administration usually does not threaten finalized negotiations made by a previous government.

"President Trump's anti-immigration and US-first rhetoric has had an impact on his commitment to delivering his predecessor's agreed deal with Australia," said Song, "Mr. Trump abruptly ending his phone call with Prime Minister Turnbull doesn't look like a good signal for his commitment to the deal, although he did say he would honor the deal with extreme vetting over those to be transferred to US soil."

The US's refugee processing system is notoriously long and rigorous, meaning applicants could wait up to two years in offshore detention while processing takes place - time which  those stuck on the Manus Island detention center may not have. Shortly after the original deal was made, US Homeland Security officials arrived in Australia to begin the vetting process, although it is unclear if this process has been stalled.

Australia's prime minister has reiterated that recent events will not affect the US's original commitment to take refugees from the offshore detention centers.

But even if the deal is successfully implemented, the women and children being held at the other Australian detention center on Micronesia's Nauru Island are far more likely to be given preference for resettlement in the US, leaving the future of Manus Island detainees even more uncertain in the wake of its alleged imminent closure.

'Ring of steel'

The Manus Island detention center was originally built in 2001 as part of Australia's so-called Pacific Solution - a government policy which saw asylum seekers transported to detention centers on Pacific island nations instead of the Australian mainland.

Although the policy enjoyed bipartisan support, the center on Manus Island was closed for a period of time in 2008 before controversially re-opening in 2012 due to an increase in irregular maritime boat arrivals.

Following an increased number of drownings at sea, the renewed policy centered on the premise that the ends justified the means. Since 2009, more than 600 asylum seekers have died en route to Australia.

 The area around the northern coast has subsequently been described as a "ring of steel" by Australian government sources.

Along with its Nauru counterpart, the Manus Island detention center has sparked much controversy, with numerous reports of assault, mental illness and self-harm among detainees.

Notable incidents include the riots in February 2014 which resulted in the murder of 23-year-old Reza Berati and the death of 24-year-old Hamid Kehazaei in August of that year after an urgent medical transfer to the Australian mainland was significantly delayed. In January 2015, up to 700 men took part in a hunger strike which lasted two weeks.

Scarcity of information

Any information coming out of Manus Island tends to raise more questions than it answers.

Immigration expert Song said the current outlook for detainees in offshore detention is bleak, with the Australian government quickly running out of options.

"Australia will have to find another third country option,” she said. "New Zealand has already offered but Australia turned it down as it's too close to Australia. It may try Canada, or go back to the Malaysia option again, which failed under the Gillard government."

"It may revisit the Cambodia option. As far as the public know, only five went there and three have left." Song added that asylum seekers didn't come to Australia to be settled in Cambodia, a developing and non-democratic country that is probably not entirely safe for asylum seekers. "Nobody wants to go, so this option, although it's still alive, is not a working one."

Watch video 00:41

Controversial refugee center closed

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