Australia and Papua New Guinea on Wednesday said they had agreed to close a controversial Australian-funded asylum seeker detention center on Manus Island, although the ultimate fate of 800 refugees held in the camp remained unclear.
Under Australian law, anyone intercepted trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to camps on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru or to Manus Island off Papua New Guinea (PNG). They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.
Some asylum seekers have spent years in the camps, which have been criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups, with numerous reports of abuse and self-harm amongst detainees, including children.
Some in PNG are unhappy with the prospect of hundreds of asylum seekers being resettled into their country and there have been reports of asylum seekers being attacked by locals.
“Both Papua New Guinea and Australia are in agreement that the center is to be closed,” Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said in a statement.
“A series of options are being advanced and implemented. It is important that this process is not rushed out but carried out in a careful manner.” There was no mention of a closing date.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who met with O’Neill on Wednesday to discuss the camp, reiterated Australia’s position that it would not accept any of the refugees detained in Papua New Guinea.
“It has been the longstanding position of this government to work with PNG to close Manus and support those people as they transition into PNG or return to their country of origin,” Dutton said in a statement.
“Our position, confirmed again today with PNG, is that no one from Manus Island Regional Processing Center will ever be settled in Australia.”
The announcement came after a newspaper published leaked documents detailing more than 2,000 incidents of sexual abuse, assault and attempted self-harm, reported over two years at the Nauru detention center.
The harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse at the camps have drawn wide criticism at home and abroad.
Australia says the policy is needed to stop asylum seekers dying at sea on the dangerous boat journey from Indonesia to Australia. Hundreds of people died attempting the trip in the years before the policy was put in place.
The move was immediately welcomed by refugee advocates.
“Nearly a thousand men on Manus have already lost three or more years of their lives locked up in limbo for no good reason,” Elaine Pearson, Australia Director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“They’ve endured dirty, cramped conditions, inadequate medical care and violence. Finally, it is time to let them move on with their lives in safety and dignity.”
(This version of the story was refiled to correct day in paragraphs one and seven)