SYDNEY (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea and Australia will hold urgent talks about the fate of 900 asylum seekers after PNG announced the closure of the island detention center holding them, leaving Australia’s tough immigration policies in disarray in the midst of a general election campaign.
PNG’s High Commissioner to Australia Charles Lepani said on Thursday talks would take place early next week, but responsibility for what to do with the men rested with Australia which has remained firm against taking any of the detainees.
PNG’s decision to close the facility on Manus Island, which follows a ruling by its Supreme Court that the center is unconstitutional, is a significant blow to Australia’s hardline immigration policies.
The number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia is small compared with those arriving in Europe, but border security has long been a hot-button political issue and will likely be a key feature in campaigning ahead of the country’s July elections.
Measures such as intercepting and detaining boats of asylum seekers at sea, and returning them to their point of origin or transferring them to offshore centers like Manus while refusing them settlement in Australia, have been strongly criticized by the United Nations and international human rights agencies.
But such measures have played well with much of the electorate, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s predecessor Tony Abbott winning a landslide election in 2013 on the back of his “Stop the boats” slogan.
Lepani said the Manus center, where detainees include around 400 men who have been deemed to be genuine refugees, was never intended to be a long-term holding facility and accused Australia of allowing things to “drag on”.
“This was the original proposal, to process these people, not have them detained for such a lengthy place of time,” Lepani told Australian Broadcasting Corp Radio. “This is Australia’s responsibility.”
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said there was capacity for the detainees, mostly refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia, at another facility on Nauru. However, he said negotiations continued with PNG about resettling the men within PNG or at a third country.
“Not ever before have we had an election that is so important in terms of national security’ Dutton told reporters. “We need to make sure that we have strong, secure borders.”
Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs said Australia was increasingly out of step with international norms and PNG could bring Australia before the International Court of Justice to sort out the matter.
“The conditions on both Manus and Nauru are dangerous and unsustainable for legal and ethical reasons,” Triggs said.
Nauru already houses about 500 people and has been similarly criticized for harsh conditions and reports of systematic child abuse. A 23-year-old man from Iran set himself on fire at the center in recent days to protest his treatment.
Broadspectrum Ltd BRS.AX, which runs the detention centers on Manus and Nauru, declined to comment.