Concerns for the safety of hundreds of refugees have been raised after Papua New Guinea security forces stormed a former detention camp and forcibly removed about 60 men who refused for weeks to leave.
The operation on Manus Island began early on Thursday when police issued an ultimatum to the refugees remaining in the camp, saying they had an hour to leave or they would be forced out.
Once the hour was up, officers swept through the facility destroying personal property and supplies of food and water that had been donated by sympathetic locals.
Australia pays Papua New Guinea and the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru to hold thousands of asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who have attempted to reach Australian shores by boat since mid-2013.
Iranian journalist and refugee applicant Behrouz Boochani was taken into custody after briefly speaking to Al Jazeera by phone.
“The immigration officers and so many special forces suddenly attacked the prison camp,” Boochani said. “Immigration officers and police are destroying everything … The refugees are saying ‘We’re not going to leave this prison camp and go to another prison camp.'”
The police, special forces, police squad are now in their hundreds, spreading through the prison camp and around the prison. Navy soldiers are outside the prison camp. We are on high alert right now. We are under attack.
— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) November 22, 2017
About 60 men left the camp in buses, but some 300 others said they’re too afraid to go outside the former Australian-run facility, fearing attacks by hostile locals.
The prison camp was closed last month after Papua New Guinea’s supreme court ruled it was unconstitutional. Since then, the refugees have been living in increasingly filthy conditions without clean water, food, or medical supplies.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull denounced the holdout by the refugees.
“They think this is some way they can pressure the Australian government to let them come to Australia. Well, we will not be pressured. I want to be very clear about this … We will not outsource our migration policy to people smugglers,” Turnbull said.
Earlier this month, Boochani was a winner of the Amnesty International Australian Media Awards in 2017 for his work covering daily life on Manus.
Social media posts by refugees said security officers appeared to target Boochani and a second man, Abdul Aziz Adam, who had been reporting on the siege since the standoff began.
They are looking for me and Behrouz they found him but they are not going to find me. These are police are taking Behrouz. pic.twitter.com/G01bA46ETC
— Abdul Aziz Adam (@Abdulaziz_Ada) November 23, 2017
In response to Boochani’s arrest, the Australian journalists union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, issued a statement from its Chief Executive Paul Murphy describing the situation as an attack on press freedom.
“Behrouz has been one of the main sources of factual information about conditions inside the Manus Island detention centre for the past few years, and his reporting has been published in Australia and internationally,” Murphy said.
“His reporting in the finest traditions of journalism has been critical when the Australian and PNG governments have done everything they can to prevent media from having access to the asylum seekers on Manus Island.”
Boochani said he was released about two hours after being handcuffed behind the camp.
Besides food supplies and mobile phones, medicine for the sick was also allegedly destroyed by security officers.
Patrick McGorry, a professor of youth mental health at the University of Melbourne, said the refugees were likely suffering from psychological problems as well.
“These men are chronically suicidal, they’re extremely demoralised after four years of incarceration with no real hope about their future. Even though they are genuine refugees, there’s really no clear plan for resettlement for them,” McGorry said.
The UN refugee agency said in a statement the use of “excessive force” cannot be used against the holdouts.
“We urge both governments to engage in constructive dialogue, to de-escalate the current tensions and work on urgent lasting solutions to their plight,” said Volker Turk, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton blamed destruciton at the camp on the refugees.
“They’ve trashed the facility. They’re living in squalor,” Dutton told local media. “The Australian taxpayers have paid about $10m for a new facility – and we want people to move.”
Australia officially closed its Manus Island detention centre on October 31, but 600 men originally refused to leave citing fears for their safety.
While New Zealand made an offer to resettle 150 men, it was rejected by Australia’s prime minister on the basis it may revive the people-smuggling trade.