Refugees in limbo as Manus detention centre shuts

More than 600 refugees will be moved out of the detention camp after PNG Supreme Court ordered the centre to be shut.

A Manus Island detention centre where more than 600 refugees have spent several years after trying to reach Australia will be closed on Tuesday by Papua New Guinea (PNG) authorities.

The 600 men that are held in the centre will be forcibly moved to new facilities in Lorengau, a city about five kilometres from the detention centre, officials said.

Australia has used Manus as an offshore detention centre since 2013, when the country struck a deal with PNG and Nauru to hold refugees fleeing to Australia in camps on the islands.

However, in 2015, the PNG Supreme Court ordered that the Manus detention centre should be closed because it is unconstitutional.

Parts of the camp have already shut. On Sunday, the mess hall was closed and food packages were handed out to the refugees.

A message posted inside the detention centre earlier on Tuesday stated that access to water and electricity would be cut off, and that the refugees were “advised to move to alternative accommodation now”.

“From tomorrow, arrangements will be under way for the return to this site to the PNGDF [PNG Defense Force]. Anyone choosing to remain here will be liable for removal from an active PNG military base”, the statement said, referencing the fact the detention centre is originally a naval base.

The final message posted at the Manus detention centre, urging refugees to move out [Courtesy of @ManusAlert Telegraam]
The final message posted at the Manus detention centre, urging refugees to move out [Courtesy of @ManusAlert Telegraam]

Nick McKim, MP for the Green Party in Australia, said the closure of the camp does not solve anything.

“In the absence of resettlement in a safe country, the closure of the centre is not a solution at all. The best and easiest solution to this humanitarian disaster is to resettle the men in Australia,” a spokesman for McKim told Al Jazeera.

“These men sought refuge in Australia and they remain Australia’s responsibility, legally and morally.”


Elaine Pearson, Australia Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera that the camp should be closed in line with the PNG Supreme Court ruling.

“But the people held there should be brought to safety in Australia or other third countries, not abandoned to stay in less-secure facilities run by the PNG government on Manus Island,” she added.

Uncertain future ahead

More than 600 refugees have lived in the detention centre since 2013.

Their treatment by Australia and PNG has been the centre of criticism by both people living in the camp and human rights organisations.

But despite the impending closure of the camp, the refugees do not want to move to Lorengau because they are afraid of what might happen to them there.


“Refugees don’t want to move because they don’t feel safe. They are terrified given an escalation in brutal attacks against refugees and asylum seekers in Lorengau town. Some have even occurred in daytime,” Pearson said.

“Police have failed to investigate these attacks.”

McKim’s spokesman echoed this sentiment.

“Many of them fear leaving the centre, having seen their friends being attacked by the local community. They are also deeply fearful of being forcibly removed and placed into danger somewhere else.”

The refugees confirmed these fears in a series of interviews with Al Jazeera.

“Right now, the only thing we can do is to resist the move, as we know death is waiting for us outside this centre,” Amir, an Iranian refugee, told Al Jazeera.

The over 600 refugees are afraid of moving out of the camp because they fear retaliation by the locals. [File: @ManusAlert Telegram]
The over 600 refugees are afraid of moving out of the camp because they fear retaliation by the locals. [File: @ManusAlert Telegram]

Despite the lack of water, food and electricity in the camp, Amir said that staying at the facility was their only option. “We know that without food and water, we are dead too, but at least we don’t walk to our death with our own feet,” he said.

The refugees are also uncertain what would happen to them if they indeed move to Lorengau. Those whose asylum applications are approved, are expected to blend into the local community.

Those who are denied asylum will be either sent back to their home country if it is deemed safe for them to go back, or they will be held in detention indefinitely until a third country offers to take them in.

In addition to feared hostilities by Manus locals, and the uncertainty about what will happen to them once they move to Lorengau, the current state of the centres there also worries the refugees.

“The new camps are not all finished, which means there simply are not enough beds ready for the men. This is untenable and unfair,” the spokesman for McKim said.

One of the solutions that Australia has offered is to move the refugees to third countries. Australia has a refugee deal with the United States, but the US has only taken in about 50 refugees as of yet, and has not stated how many it is willing to take in total.

Another option is New Zealand, which has offered to take in 150 refugees.

However, there are about 1,600 refugees in all of Australia’s offshore detention centres. Besides Manus, there is the Nauru camp as well.

“Like Manus Island, Nauru is not a suitable place for refugees. The Greens urge the government to close the Nauru detention centre and bring the men, women and children to Australia,” HWR’s Pearson said, adding that Australia is still responsible for those who do not get to move to thirds countries.


“The US deal is not an excuse for Australia to do nothing, which is what has happened. Australia still has a responsibility to these refugees to provide them a safe country to settle – and PNG is clearly not safe.”

Source: Al Jazeera