Australia border turmoil as Papua New Guinea closes asylum-seeker camp

Protesters react as they hold placards and listen to speakers during a rally in support of refugees in central Sydney, Australia. — Reuters photo

Protesters react as they hold placards and listen to speakers during a rally in support of refugees in central Sydney, Australia. — Reuters photo

SYDNEY: Australia’s hardline immigration policy was thrown into turmoil yesterday after Papua New Guinea ordered a processing camp to close, leaving the fate of hundreds of asylum-seekers hanging in the balance.

The move to shutter the Australian-funded Manus island facility follows a Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday that detaining people there was unconstitutional and illegal.

Piling further pressure on Canberra, just weeks out from an expected election campaign, an Iranian refugee set himself on fire during a visit by UN officials to Nauru, the other Pacific nation where Australia sends boatpeople.

Four others on the tiny outpost reportedly attempted suicide by drinking washing powder on Tuesday.

“Respecting this (court) ruling, Papua New Guinea will immediately ask the Australian government to make alternative arrangements for the asylum-seekers currently held at the Regional Processing Centre,” Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said of the Manus camp.

Papua New Guinea’s former opposition leader Belden Namah had challenged the Manus arrangement in court, claiming it violated the rights of asylum-seekers, leading to the centre’s closure.

In a 34-page finding on Tuesday, the Supreme Court found that detaining them on the island was “contrary to their constitutional right of personal liberty”.

Despite this, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton remained adamant that none of the 850 or so men held there would come to his country and that the government’s policy designed to deter others wanting to make the risky journey would not change.

“We want to see people off Manus and off Nauru, but they won’t be coming to Australia,” he told national radio ahead of O’Neill’s decision.

“The government’s been very clear and consistent in that message… we’ll work with PNG and provide what support is needed to them to help people return to their country of origin or to a third country.”

Canberra currently has an arrangement with Cambodia, along with Papua New Guinea, to resettle those found to be refugees, although only a handful have taken up the option.

Australian media have reported that it is also trying to negotiate deals with Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The court ruled that Australia and Papua New Guinea must “take all steps necessary to cease and prevent” the continued detention of asylum-seekers and transferees on Manus.

O’Neill did not set a timeframe for the closure.

He said he did not anticipate asylum-seekers being kept for so long at the Manus camp, which was reopened in 2012 by Australia after being closed five years earlier when the then Labor government abandoned offshore processing. — AFP