SYDNEY • Hundreds of asylum seekers were refusing to leave an Australian detention camp in Papua New Guinea (PNG) that the authorities closed yesterday, citing fears for their safety, despite food, water and electricity being cut off.
Staff have abandoned the camp on Manus Island, and one resident said detainees had locked themselves in because they were terrified of what could happen to them outside its gates.
The stand-off is the latest development in a long-running and bitter dispute over Australia's controversial offshore detention policy.
Asylum seekers who try to reach the country by boat are sent to two remote Pacific processing centres - PNG's Manus Island and Nauru.
They are barred from settling in Australia, even if they are ultimately found to have a legitimate case for asylum.
Canberra says the policy is designed to discourage people from attempting the risky journey by sea.
Human rights groups have been campaigning for years to have the Manus camp shut down, amid reports of widespread abuse, self-harm and mental health problems. The Australian government agreed to close the facility by the end of last month after the PNG Supreme Court ruled last year that holding people there was unconstitutional.
More than 600 men housed in the camp have been told to move to three transition centres on Manus. The present site is to be handed over to the PNG military.
But many men have locked themselves in the centre.
"Refugees adamant they won't leave detention. They are afraid but refuse to leave," one Manus detainee, an Iranian called Mr Behrouz Boochani, tweeted yesterday. "The power will be cut after 5pm. The refugees know that it will be very hard to stay, but are saying we will stay in a peaceful way."
He added that detainees had locked the camp's main gate to protect themselves.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton insisted the detainees were not welcome in Australia.
They have been told "there is safe and secure alternate accommodation where health and other services will be maintained", he said. "These people sought to subvert Australia's laws by paying people smugglers to bring them illegally to Australia by boat - none will ever resettle here," he said in a statement yesterday.
Refugee advocates say the transition centres are not secure, leaving the detainees defenceless against a hostile host community.
"They are vulnerable to attacks from locals. We've seen so many victims and casualties already because of those kinds of attacks," refugee advocate Ian Rintoul told AFP.
Manus detainees have been given the option of making a life in PNG, moving to the Nauru camp, returning to their homeland, or going to a third country like the United States. So far, just 54 people have been notified of their acceptance by the US.
"The tragic irony is that moving these men from their squalid, guarded centre and settling them elsewhere in PNG will actually put them at greater danger," Human Rights Watch's Australia director Elaine Pearson said.