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,” 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.
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 by boat - would not change.
“As I have said, and as the Australian government has consistently acted, we will work with our PNG partners to address the issues raised by the Supreme Court of PNG,” he said in a statement after O’Neill’s decision.
“It is also the case that the government has not moved from its position that people who have attempted to come illegally by boat to Australia and who are now in the Manus facility will not be settled in Australia. We will continue discussions with the PNG government to resolve these matters.”
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.
Offshore processing, and the use of Manus, was first introduced in 2001 as a deterrent to people-smuggling by Australia’s former conservative government of John Howard in a punitive scheme known as the “Pacific Solution”.
“For those that have been deemed to be legitimate refugees, we invite them to live in Papua New Guinea only if they want to be a part of our society and make a contribution to our community,” O’Neill said.
“It is clear that several of these refugees do not want to settle in Papua New Guinea and that is their decision.”
The comments come after an Iranian man set himself on fire on Nauru yesterday during a routine visit by a UN High Commissioner for Refugees delegation. Dutton said the man was in a serious condition and would be air-lifted to Australia.
The Refugee Action Coalition, an activist group, said the four others who attempted suicide were treated by medical staff on the island.
Dutton made clear any asylum-seeker looking to come to Australia for medical treatment would not be allowed to stay.
“What we’ve been very clear about is that if people come to Australia for medical assistance they’ll be returning back to Nauru once that medical assistance has been provided,” he said.
“I can inform you that there was a 23-year-old male who had originally come from Iran, by boat, was on Nauru and outside of the detention centre, in fact in one of the settlement areas, had set himself alight, self-immolated this morning,” he told a press conference.
“He’s in a very serious condition and the plan is to provide an air-lift for him later tonight but he is in a very, very serious condition and his outlook is not good at all.”
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