Australia and Papua New Guinea have agreed to close a controversial Australian-funded prison camp for asylum seekers on Manus Island, although the ultimate fate of 800 refugees held in the camp remains unclear.
Under Australian law, anyone intercepted trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to detention centres on Manus Island, off Papua New Guinea (PNG), or the Pacific island of Nauru.
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They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.
“Both Papua New Guinea and Australia are in agreement that the centre is to be closed,” Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said in a statement on Wednesday, following a meeting with Peter Dutton, Australia’s immigration minister.
“A series of options are being advanced and implemented. It is important that this process is not rushed out but carried out in a careful manner.”
There was no mention of a closing date.
Some asylum seekers have spent years in the camps, which have been criticised by the United Nations and human rights groups, with numerous reports of abuse and self-harm among detainees, including children.
Some in PNG are unhappy at the prospect of hundreds of asylum seekers being resettled into their country, and there have been reports of refugees being attacked by locals.
Australia says the policy is needed to stop asylum seekers dying at sea on the dangerous boat journey from Indonesia to Australia. Hundreds of people died attempting the trip in the years before the policy was put in place.
Following his meeting with the PNG leader, Dutton reiterated Australia’s position that it would not accept any of the refugees held in Manus.
“It has been the long-standing position of this government to work with PNG to close Manus and support those people as they transition into PNG or return to their country of origin,” Dutton said in a statement.
“Our position, confirmed again today with PNG, is that no one from Manus Island Regional Processing Centre will ever be settled in Australia.”
Reports of abuse
The announcement came after a newspaper published leaked documents detailing more than 2,000 incidents of sexual abuse, assault and attempted self-harm, reported over two years at the Nauru detention centre.
The harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse at the camps have drawn wide criticism at home and abroad.
“In April, there was a court ruling in Papua New Guinea saying that the prison camp was unconstitutional, and Papua New Guinea has made it clear that they have wanted that camp to close,” Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, reporting from Sydney, said.
“But this is the first time that Australia has suggested that it’s signed up to that as well.”
A spokesperson for the Australian ministry of immigration told our correspondent that the announcement “was not a big development”, but “merely another step along the road towards the ultimate closure of the prison on Manus Island”.
“There is a feeling here that there is momentum to get these prisons in other countries closed,” Thomas said.
The move to close the prison camp was immediately welcomed by refugee advocates.
“Nearly a thousand men on Manus have already lost three or more years of their lives locked up in limbo for no good reason,” Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“They’ve endured dirty, cramped conditions, inadequate medical care and violence. Finally, it is time to let them move on with their lives in safety and dignity.”
Also on Wednesday, protesters in Sydney interrupted a speech by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, demanding the closure of offshore prison camps.
Numerous people in the audience shouted “Shame on you” and “Shut down Manus and Nauru”, before they were escorted out of the event by security.
“That disruption … it was a relatively low number of people involved, but the platform, managing to interrupt the prime minister’s major speech on economic affairs, really does show what a big issue this is becoming,” said Al Jazeera’s Thomas.
The prime minister had been expected to make a major economic address to members of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.
The protesters, from a group called Whistle-blowers Activists Citizens Alliance, said the disruption was aimed at shaming Turnbull over his offshore detention policies.
“We have known for years that we are torturing, abusing and indefinitely detaining people on Manus Island and Nauru,” spokeswoman Sam Castro told Australia’s state-owned public broadcaster ABC.
“It is not good enough for the immigration minister to brush it all under the carpet and say, ‘there is nothing to see here’ … I think it is appropriate for our parliament to investigate these matters.”