SYDNEY (Reuters) - Hundreds of asylum seekers were barricaded inside a detention centre in Papua New Guinea after security guards left the compound and supplies were cut off ahead of a court ruling due on Wednesday on a lawsuit challenging its closure.
Around 600 detainees are defying attempts by Australia and PNG to close the Manus Island centre, saying they fear violent reprisals from the local community if they move to transit centres elsewhere in the Pacific island nation.
The Manus centre has been a key part of Australia’s disputed “Sovereign Borders” immigration policy. Australia refuses to allow asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores, detaining them in camps in PNG and Nauru in the South Pacific.
PNG’s High Court ruled last year that the Manus centre, first opened in 2001, was illegal. The United Nations and rights groups have for years cited human rights abuses among detainees in the centres.
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist held on Manus, tweeted late on Tuesday that electricity had been cut off in some parts of the camp, and detainees were stockpiling rainwater after the centre officially closed at 5 p.m. (0700 GMT).
Other detainees reported looting by locals. Video images shot by the refugees and sent to Reuters show vans loaded with furniture departing, though it is not clear where the vehicles were from.
“The refugees in Manus are going to sleep in fear, stress & hunger,” Boochani tweeted. “Some of them awake to keep watch.”
Most of the detainees come from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Syria.
Lawyers for some of the 600 men filed a last-minute lawsuit in PNG’s High Court on Tuesday to prevent the camp’s closure and allow the men to be relocated to a third country. A ruling is expected on Wednesday.
The camp’s closure is part of an Australian government plan to push refugees and asylum seekers to return to their home country, settle in PNG or move elsewhere, thereby dismantling part of the costly and contested offshore detention programme.
Detainees have consistently raised concerns over how they are treated by locals and authorities in PNG, a country that ranks 154th out of 185 on the United Nations Human Development Index.
PNG has said that Australia, which has promised to spend up to A$250 million (146.93 million pounds) to house the men for the next 12 months, must take responsibility. Just under 200 men have already been moved.
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.
Reporting by Jane Wardell; editing by Mark Heinrich