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Manus Island centre ‘to close’, but where will the people go?

Asylum-seekers look through a fence at Australia's Manus Island detention centre, which the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments say will be closed. Picture Reuters

Australia, PNG governments offer no date, no hope to hundreds detained in brutal conditions on remote island

Manus Island centre ‘to close’, but where will the people go?

Australia and Papua New Guinea have confirmed the Manus Island detention centre will be closed, but will not say when or what will happen to the 854 men held there.

Australia says none of the refugees will make it to “the Lucky Country”, although the Western Australia state government says it is prepared to take asylum-seeker families.

In another development, official correspondence shows Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Attorney-General George Brandis all received an extensive dossier in May that outlined “numerous child rights violations” at the Nauru detention centre.

Australia’s offshore detention regime has been under unprecedented pressure since The Guardian published the Nauru Files last week. The papers detailed 2100 reports of physical and sexual abuse, many against children, humiliating treatment and harsh conditions, and widespread self-harm and suicide attempts.

Manus’ future has been in doubt since the PNG Supreme Court ruled in April that the centre was “illegal and unconstitutional”. A second challenge goes before the court next week, and it’s been suggested that yesterday’s announcement was designed to pre-empt another embarrassing ruling.

Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been found to be a refugee, but was held on Manus for more than three years, said the men on the island were wary of “good news”.

“They did not mention that when they will close this hell prison. We want to know when exactly we will get freedom and where we will go. This is our right – to know about our future.

The centre has had a troubled existence since being reopened in 2012. In 2014 three days of unrest and an invasion by PNG police and others saw more than 60 asylum-seekers seriously injured. One man was shot, another had his throat slit and Reza Barati, 23, was murdered by up to 15 guards who beat him with a nail-studded piece of wood, and kicked and dropped a rock on his head.

Rape, physical and sexual assault and drug abuse are common, the water supply has failed, and detainees are fed expired food. Suicide attempts and acts of self-harm are common, and some men have alleged they have been beaten and tortured in solitary confinement.

Efforts to resettle refugees in PNG have foundered. Of the handful resettled outside the centre, almost all have been forced to return to detention after being assaulted, robbed, and in one case, left homeless in other parts of the country.

The Guardian also reported today that, in addition to the dossiers sent to the government’s “top table”, Dutton was extensively briefed about the impact prolonged detention was having on children held on Nauru before he dismissed the reports as “hype” and “false”.

Dutton also received an earlier personal briefing in August 2015, to which he personally responded, and met Save the Children Australia CEO Paul Ronalds after receiving the first written report.

The full report remains secret. Save the Children Australia is unable to release it due to laws that make it a criminal offence to disclose information about the detention regime.

It recommended child asylum-seekers and their families not be transferred to or forced to remain in locations where they were at serious risk of harm, that they be subject to ongoing independent oversight and that they be given access to effective remedies to address human rights abuses.

Dutton declined to respond personally, and instead a departmental official wrote in May 2016 that they noted the recommendations made and said Australia “remains committed to the regional processing and settlement arrangements in place on Nauru”.

Despite UN and worldwide condemnation, it is current Australian government policy that all asylum-seekers who arrive by boat are detained offshore, and that none will ever be settled in Australia. Paradoxically, the policy does not apply to people who arrive on planes.

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