Siege fears as Australia asylum-seeker camp in PNG closes

Sydney (AFP) –


Hundreds of "scared" asylum seekers are refusing to leave an Australian detention camp in Papua New Guinea that is due to close Tuesday, as detainees and advocates expressed fears they could be forcibly removed by authorities.

Asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by boat are sent to two remote Pacific processing centres -- PNG's Manus Island and Nauru -- under Canberra's harsh immigration policy.

The Australian government agreed to close the Manus facility by the end of October after the PNG Supreme Court ruled last year that holding people there was unconstitutional.

More than 600 men housed in the camp have been told to move to three transition centres on Manus, with the centre's food and water due to be cut off later Tuesday.

The asylum seekers have been given the option of making a life in PNG, moving to the Nauru camp, returning to their homeland, or going to a third country like Cambodia. They are barred from settling in Australia, even if classed as refugees.

But many men have locked themselves in the centre due to fears for their safety in the local community, sparking concern of a possible siege at the camp, which the PNG military is set to take over once it has closed.

"Refugees adamant they won't leave detention. They are afraid but refuse to leave," one Manus detainee, an Iranian called Behrouz Boochani, tweeted Tuesday.

"The refugees locked the main gate for own protection. There is no safety here," he wrote, adding that all the camp's security officers had left their positions at 5am.

"I have to say SOS. The refugees are extremely scared. The situation is critical. Any time we are expecting attack by (the PNG) Navy."

Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said supporters had filed an injunction in the PNG Supreme Court to stop the camp's closure, demanding that food, water and other services are restored.

"There are real fears that the government will authorise force to be used against the asylum-seekers and refugees in the centre," Rintoul said in Sydney.

There was no immediate comment from Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. He has previously insisted the camp would close by October 31.

An Australian Broadcasting Corporation correspondent on Manus said he saw several busloads of Australian officials and workers heading to the island's airport with a police convoy on Tuesday morning.

A "final message" put up at the centre, posted online, stated that arrangements were being made to return the site to the PNG Defence Force.

"Move to alternative accommodation now," the message said.

"Anyone choosing to remain here will be liable for removal from an active PNG military base."

The camp houses both refugees and asylum seekers. According to PNG's Immigration Minister Petrus Thomas, some 600 asylum seekers who were taken to Manus have since returned home voluntarily, while seven were deported and five have died.

A total of 610 refugees and 201 non-refugees remain on the island, with some already living in the community, he added.