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Siege fears as Australia asylum-seeker camp in PNG closes

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Sydney (AFP)

Hundreds of asylum-seekers were refusing to leave an Australian detention camp in Papua New Guinea that authorities closed Tuesday, citing fears for their safety, despite food, water and electricity being cut off.

Staff have abandoned the camp on Manus Island, and one resident said detainees had locked themselves in because they were terrified of what could happen to them outside its gates.

The standoff is the latest development in a long-running and bitter dispute over Australia's controversial off-shore detention policy.

Asylum seekers who try to reach the country by boat are sent to two remote Pacific processing centres -- PNG's Manus Island and Nauru.

They are barred from settling in Australia, even if they are ultimately found to have a legitimate case for asylum.

Canberra says the policy is designed to discourage people from attempting the risky journey by sea.

Human rights groups have been campaigning for years to have Manus shut down, amid reports of widespread abuse, self-harm and mental health problems.

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. The present site is to be handed over the PNG military.

But many men have locked themselves in the centre.

"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 power will be cut after 5pm. The refugees know that it will be very hard to stay, but are saying we will stay in a peaceful way."

He added that detainees had locked the camp's main gate to protect themselves.

Detainees told Fairfax Media earlier Tuesday that locals had started to loot equipment from the camp as PNG authorities looked on.

Others told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation they were storing water in wheelie bins to sustain themselves.

Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton insisted the detainees were not welcome in Australia.

They have been told "there is safe and secure alternate accommodation where health and other services will be maintained," he said.

"These people sought to subvert Australia's laws by paying people smugglers to bring them illegally to Australia by boat -- none will ever resettle here," he said in a statement Tuesday.

Refugee advocates say the transition centres are not secure, leaving the detainees defenceless against a hostile host community.

"They are vulnerable to attacks from locals. We've seen so many victims and casualties already because of those kinds of attacks," refugee advocate Ian Rintoul told AFP.

- Fears of forcible removal -

Manus detainees 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 or the US.

So far, just 54 people have notified of their acceptance by the US, with 24 flown out to America in September.

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 added.

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.

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

But the PNG government sought to dispel fears the detainees would be removed, saying "do not expect any force".

"We are not going to move the refugees by force, it's going to be a voluntary movement by refugees and non-refugees out of Manus Regional Processing Centre," PNG Immigration Minister Petrus Thomas told the Post-Courier newspaper Tuesday.

Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report saying the Manus refugees faced "unchecked violence" and that they "have been getting stabbed, beaten, and robbed" ahead of the October 31 dateline.

"The tragic irony is that moving these men from their squalid, guarded centre and settling them elsewhere in PNG will actually put them at greater danger," Human Rights Watch's Australia director Elaine Pearson said.

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