SYDNEY (Reuters) – The UN refugee agency yesterday urged Australia to accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees from an abandoned Australian-run detention centre in Papua New Guinea, as about 450 men remain barricaded inside without food or water.
The asylum-seekers have been holed up inside the centre for two weeks defying attempts by Australia and PNG to close the facility, saying they fear for their safety if moved to transit centres.
With many detainees complaining of illness brought about by the unsanitary conditions in the camp, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged Australia to allow 150 of them to resettle in New Zealand.
“We urge Australia to reconsider this and take up the offer,” Nai Jit Lam, deputy regional representative at the UNHCR said.
Most of the asylum seekers are from Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Syria.
Australia’s “sovereign borders” immigration policy, under which it refuses to allow asylum-seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores, has been heavily criticised by the UN and human rights groups but has bipartisan political support in Australia. Australia says allowing asylum-seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores would only encourage people smugglers in Asia and see more people risk their lives trying to sail to Australia.
Two motions introduced in Australia’s parliament by the Labor and Green parties, and passed in the upper house yesterday, call on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to approve the New Zealand proposal.
“This is a foul and bloody stain on Australia’s national conscience,” Greens senator Nick McKim
Mr Turnbull this month rejected the refugee resettlement offer from his New Zealand counterpart, Jacinda Ardern, preferring instead to work through an existing refugee swap deal he negotiated with former US President Barack Obama.
Despite Mr Turnbull rejecting the offer, Ms Ardern this week said it remained on the table and she would seek a second meeting with Mr Turnbull to discuss the “unacceptable” situation inside the Manus island detention centre.
Water and electricity to the centre were disconnected two weeks ago after Australian security withdrew and the camp closed on October 31. The camp had been declared illegal by a PNG Court.
PNG has threatened to forcibly move the men if they remain inside the centre. It has set three deadlines but all have passed largely without incident.