SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia welcomed a pledge by Papua New Guinea to begin resettling refugees from an Australian immigration detention center, despite questions about how their safety would be guaranteed in one of the region’s most dangerous countries.
Papua New Guinea, which Australia says suffers from a “general atmosphere of lawlessness”, has not resettled anyone in the three years it has hosted the center and it says those who are resettled will face waits of up to eight years before obtaining citizenship.
Asylum seekers are a hot political issue in Australia and successive governments have vowed to stop them reaching the mainland, sending those intercepted on unsafe boats to camps on Manus island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the South Pacific.
However, Australia has struggled to find a permanent solution. A deal struck with Cambodia last year to relocate refugees there has struggled to get off the ground and many settled in Nauru have reported assaults amid reports of systemic child abuse.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Friday praised Papua New Guinea for the decision to begin moving those found to be genuine refugees into the community.
PNG has yet to resettle anyone from the center, where an Iranian asylum seeker died during a riot in early 2014. An Australian senate inquiry placed responsibility for the death on the Australian government.
“The PNG Government has shown with this announcement its commitment to permit those found to be refugees to get on with their lives and have a fresh start in this dynamic nation with a growing economy,” Dutton said in a statement.
Papua New Guinea struggles with endemic violence and poverty. On its travel advice website, the Australian government urges citizens to “exercise a high degree of caution” there because of “high levels of serious crime”.
Car-jacking, gang rape and a “general atmosphere of lawlessness” should all be taken into consideration before choosing to travel to the South Pacific island nation, the website says.
A transcript of a video message by PNG deputy chief migration officer Esther Gaegamin urges refugees to move to a transit camp, where they must complete language and cultural courses and obtain employment before they can be resettled.
Once resettled, the video says, they face waits of up to eight years before obtaining citizenship. They will receive support from a case worker for six months and be responsible for their own accommodation once earning an income.
Ian Rintoul, executive director of the Refugee Action Coalition, said many refugees were refusing to move into the transit center.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is under growing pressure to address hardline policies which overshadow the launch of Canberra’s bid to join the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday.[nL3N12J049
On Thursday, police in Nauru raided the offices of aid group Save the Children for a second time. Australia’s highest court is considering whether the policy of sending asylum seekers there is in breach of the constitution.
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Nick Macfie