SYDNEY (Reuters) - Asylum seekers refusing to leave a detention centre in Papua New Guinea began digging wells on Thursday to try find water as their food supplies dwindled, in a stand-off that human rights groups warn could become a humanitarian crisis.
Australia and PNG are trying to close the Manus Island centre, one of two remote Pacific camps that Canberra uses to detain asylum seekers who arrive by boat. The camps have drawn widespread international condemnation.
The remote Manus Island centre has been a key part of Australia’s disputed “Sovereign Borders” immigration policy under which it refuses to allow asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores, detaining them instead in PNG and Nauru in the South Pacific.
Around 600 detainees on Manus Island are defying the attempts to close the camp, saying they fear violent reprisals from the local community if they are moved to other “transit centres” in PNG.
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish asylum seeker and journalist, posted on Twitter that the men were digging into the ground to find water. Photos showed a group of men using wooden poles to dig deep holes, using torches to light their task in the dark.
Without running water, advocates fear a rapid decline in sanitary conditions of the camp. Boochani stressed that the men were not on a hunger strike and called on the Red Cross and Medicines Sans Frontiers to take action.
“Australian government exiled us, kept us in prison then left us without protection,” Boochani tweeted after the men refused to board a bus on Wednesday to a transit centre. “People here are struggling with hunger and with tropical insects.”
The loss of power also threatens to dampen morale of the detainees, nearly all of whom are suffering from mental health issues, according to a United Nations report in 2015. Many rely on mobile phones to maintain communication with supporters outside the camp.
Australia has said the men should move to the new centres, after the Manus camp was ruled illegal by the PNG High Court last year, and had pledged A$250 million ($195 million) worth of food and security for the next 12 months. [nL4N1M05PI]
However, Jit Lam, a regional representative for the UNHCR, said accommodation in at least one of the three sites was not ready when he visited on Wednesday.
“There was still major earthworks in progress,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio. “There was heavy machinery on the ground as well, fences still being constructed.”
The relocation of the men is designed as a temporary measure, allowing the United States time to complete vetting of refugees as part of a refugee swap deal that Australia hopes will see it no longer responsible for the detention of nearly 1,400 asylum seekers who have been classified as refugees. [nL4N1DE02J]
Those not accepted by the United States would likely be resettled in PNG or in another developing country, dashing hopes of coming to Australia.
Vehement opposition among Manus residents to the asylum seekers has raised fears within the camp of potential violence, stoked further by the departure of Australian-employed private security guards on Tuesday. [nL4N1N56RM]
Lawyers for some of the 600 men filed a last-minute suit in PNG’s Supreme Court on Tuesday to prevent the camp’s closure and for services to be returned. A ruling is expected later on Thursday, although it has been delayed each day so far.