By Bryan Yeoh Quan Jin, International News Writer
Tensions continue to escalate on Manus Island where more than 700 male refugees insist on remaining within the compounds of an Australian-run immigration processing center.
Manus Island which is located in Papua New Guinea (PNG) has been used by the Australian government as an offshore processing center for asylum seekers since 2001. This move was part of former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s immigration policies dubbed the “Pacific Solution”. Since then it has gone through a series of closures and reopenings.
Both the Australian and PNG governments had issued statements announcing the shutdown of the center on October 31. According to CNN, a final notice distributed before the shutdown said that accommodation and services had been transferred to other locations, and the refugees, all of whom are men, had until 5 p.m. local time to move or “be liable for removal.” The center currently does not have access to food or water.
The PNG Supreme Court had ruled on April 2016 that the refugees should have access to the local community. The years of detainment within the compound of the immigration center without a right to venture out constituted a deprivation of the refugees’s personal liberty.
Tension and conflict arose from that point onwards. According to former Manus Island MP Ron Knight’s statement to CNN, the sudden presence of refugees, all men, from places like Iran, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar, in a town of 6,000 people, caused suspicion and conflict. He further elaborated his statement saying that social and familial issues arise when these refugees who are now free to roam around the town form secret relationships with the local women. Local families generally frown upon such relationships and it becomes a big issue when they are found out.
Because of this tenuous relationship, refugees are wary of venturing outside of the center’s gates. The refugees have reported cases of assault, abuse and robbery by local men. These refugees distrust the local community because of such incidents. Thus, it has been neigh impossible to convince them to move from their current location to the “other locations” mentioned in the final notice. The Australian government has designated the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Center or West Lorengau House as alternatives for the men currently in the Manus Island facility. Asylum seekers who have yet to be identified as refugees are to be placed in the Hillside House facility.
The Manus Island issue is part of a larger overarching immigration issue that the Australian government has to face. Australia holds a large number of asylum seekers in its immigration-processing centers but has no long term plans to resettle them. Prime Minister Tony Abbott had instituted stricter policies which barred asylum seekers from resettling in Australia.
As of now, the refugees have the option to settle in either Papua New Guinea or Cambodia, return to their country of origin or transfer to Nauru. The United States has taken in 45 refugees held in Australian immigration centers in Manus and Nauru. However it is uncertain how many more will follow as the US has a strict vetting process. New Zealand on the other hand had offered to take 150 refugees back in 2016 but the Australian government declined the offer.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, November 7th print edition.
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