January 20, 2015 / 12:27 AM / in 3 years

Australian refugee camp protest over, but not tensions

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A protest involving hundreds of asylum seekers at an Australian immigration detention center in Papua New Guinea, some of whom had sewn their lips shut in protest, has ended without serious violence, authorities in both countries said on Tuesday.

Australia uses offshore detention centers in Papua New Guinea and the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru to process would-be refugees trying to reach the country, often in unsafe boats after paying people-smugglers in Indonesia.

The detention center on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea was the scene of riots in February 2014, in which one asylum seeker was killed and more than 70 injured after residents overran the camp, attacking detainees.

The protests began last week after the refugees were told they would be moved into new accommodation, which they feared would make them more vulnerable to attack by Papua New Guineans opposed to their presence, and had escalated in recent days.

Journalists are barred from visiting Manus Island, so information about the protests cannot be verified independently.

A spokesman for Papua New Guinea’s chief migration officer, Mataio Rabura, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that a peaceful end to the protests had been negotiated.

Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton seemed to contradict that statement after footage smuggled out of the camp and seen by Reuters appeared to show riot police forcing their way into the compound.

The footage shows shield-wielding police forcing their way into a compound that had been barricaded by detainees during the protest, followed by banging sounds and shouting from inside.

“There was a degree of force, if you like, that was used, and I think that’s appropriate, but there wasn’t, it didn’t escalate to a point where police had to present themselves and be in conflict with the people that are in the center,” Dutton told Sky News.

A group of 58 refugees have been placed in a nearby prison as punishment for their involvement in the protests, according to the Refugee Action Coalition, while others are being held in isolation in the camp’s medical facilities.

Under Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s tough line on people smuggling, none of the thousands of asylum seekers will ever be eligible for resettlement in Australia, even if they are found to be genuine refugees.

Several detainees reportedly swallowed razor blades or detergent as acts of self-harm, citing the despair of endless detention as a major factor in the protest.

“Every day ... they’re telling us something like ‘tomorrow, we are going to release some people tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, the day after now,’ - it’s almost two years and nothing happened,” a detainee calling himself Dave told the ABC on Monday.

Earlier Dutton, who did not respond to requests for comment, said protesters could be resettled in Cambodia under a controversial deal signed last year, but under no circumstances in Australia.

Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry

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