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Four little girls hold up two cardboard crosses. One reads 'Life or Die' while the other says 'Freedom.'
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Refugee Action Coalition Sydney

Australia leaves refugees in limbo

August 18, 2016

The imminent closure of an Australian-funded camp for asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea leaves residents in the lurch. But one Australian state premier has offered to help, going against government policy.


Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Thursday reiterated the government's policy of not settling refugees from offshore detention camps in a third country, despite the agreed closure of one such facility in Papua New Guinea.

"There is no third-country option available for people out of Manus at this point in time. That's the reality that we deal with," Dutton told local ABC radio, referring to the camp on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

He said fewer than 20 people had opted to resettle in Papua New Guinea since the center had opened, with hundreds of others returning to their home countries.

A controversial Australian law allows the government to intercept would-be asylum seekers at sea and divert them to camps on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, or to Manus Island, without ever giving them an opportunity to make a formal asylum request, or to ever become eligible to resettle in Australia.

Four months after the PNG Supreme Court ruled the Manus detention center illegal and ordered it closed, the Australian and PNG governments on Wednesday announced the camp would shut, but gave no indication of when, or what would happen to the refugees other than that they would not be brought to Australia.

Controversial refugee center closed

Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy for the Human Rights Law, applauded the government's decision to close the camp.

"The Manus detention center has always been a dead end destined to produce nothing but human suffering," he said. "It can't close soon enough."

Next week the court will hold a hearing to assess the progress made since its ruling in April.

Liberal Party divide

Protesters on the island of Nauru hold up signs, including the largest one which reads: Stop the discrimination
Detained refugees on the island of NauruImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Refugee Action Coalition Sydney

The premier of the state of Western Australia has meanwhile broken ranks with the country's ruling Liberal Party by announcing his willingness to accept refugees from the detention centers on Manus and Nauru, which are facing growing pressure to help the 1,350 refugees trapped in the camps.

"We would certainly accommodate a number of them in Western Australia and we'd certainly support them as a state government," Colin Barnett told the ABC.

Barnett's position illustrates a rare public split in the conservative Liberal Party over the government's controversial detention policy.

In addition, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key on Thursday renewed his government's offer, first made in 2013, to accept 150 refugees. Canberra continues to refuse that offer.

Reports of widespread sexual and physical abuse at the camps, and an overall atmosphere of desperation have been an embarrassment for successive Australian conservative Liberal governments, now led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Despite the widespread domestic and international criticism, Turnbull's government says its hardline policy is necessary to prevent deaths at sea from dangerous boat journeys from Indonesia to Australia.

Webb, the human rights advocate, said it's clear what needs to happen.

"It's never been about tearing down the fences, it's about what to do with the people trapped behind them," he said. "There's absolute clarity about what should happen, but no clarity whatsoever about what will happen."

bik/tj (Reuters, dpa)