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Australia has stranded hundreds of refugees on remote Manus Island

Australia shut down a detention center on Papua New Guinea’s Manus island on Nov. 2, leaving more than 600 asylum seekers stranded. (Video: Reuters)

For four years, Australia has detained hundreds of refugees on a remote island belonging to Papua New Guinea. From the start, those refugees, who had attempted to reach Australia illegally by boat from all over the world, protested the detention center's terrible conditions. They clamored for the center's closing, and many in Australia took to the streets with signs that read: “Bring them here.”

On Tuesday, Australia delivered on that first wish, shutting off electricity and plumbing and ending food services at the Manus Island facility. The Oct. 31 closing date has long been known — Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court set the date in April 2016 when it ordered the center shut.

But the 606 people — all men — who remained in the center on Tuesday were left in the lurch. Despite the long lead time, the United Nations says new accommodations for the refugees are far from ready, and detainees say they are surviving on boxed food packets and digging in the ground to get water. They are now facing their third night without any basic services.

Detainees and locals are terrified of one another after repeated violent, and sometimes deadly, clashes between the groups. The detention center's privately contracted security guards have left the island. On Tuesday, local media and human rights groups reported numerous instances of looting by locals, who tore down some of the center's perimeter walls once they were left unguarded.

The detention center has become an embarrassment for a country widely thought of as an upholder of human rights. The center has been the site of horrific incidents, including riots, prolonged hunger strikes and dozens of gruesome suicide attempts, some involving the swallowing of razor blades or scissors. In one incident, local police and gangs allegedly infiltrated the facility and attacked detainees, injuring 77 and killing one by dropping a large rock on his head. A United Nations report found that 88 percent of detainees examined by doctors on Manus showed signs of depressive, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorders.

Of the 606 men, Australia has deemed 440 to be legitimate refugees. More than half of the rest have had their applications for refugee status denied, while about 50 refused to be processed as a way of protesting their detention. Today, the stranded detainees are refusing to leave the very detention center they were once so desperate to escape.

The detainees are “terrified about the possibility of [Papua New Guinea] security forces forcibly removing them from the main center,” said Elaine Pearson, the Australia director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s cruelly ironic that they have barricaded themselves inside a center where they have been shot at and attacked in the past, but they are terrified of moving. Further bloodshed is likely if they move to less secure facilities in the main town.”

Trump said the Australians were ‘worse than I am’ on immigration. A tragedy may prove his point.

Even if they wanted to move to the new facility on Manus Island's main town of Lorengau, it wouldn't be ready for them. Nat Jit Lam, a regional representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who says he has inspected two of the three sites, told ABC Radio that “major earthworks were still in progress” and “fences were still being put up.”

Nick McKim, an outspoken refugee rights advocate and Australian senator from the Greens party, visited Manus this week and spoke Wednesday of the preparations at Lorengau. “So, even if all the guys came out today, there would be 150-plus of them who would be left on the side of the road in Lorengau, where there have been brutal attacks,” he said.

By granting 440 of the men refugee status, Australia has implicitly acknowledged their inability to safely return to their home countries. But Australia has also held fast to a policy that does not allow resettlement within its borders by anyone who tried to reach the country illegally by boat. It credits the policy with almost entirely eliminating attempted arrivals of that kind.

Australia and Papua New Guinea, commonly referred to as PNG, are locked in a legal battle over which of them bears responsibility for the men. International legal opinion and that of the United Nations broadly agree that Australia is responsible, as PNG simply hosted the men in return for various forms of compensation from the Australian government. The Australian government also paid private security contractors to operate the facility.

The Obama administration had struck a deal with Australia to resettle hundreds of the refugees detained on Manus and at another facility on the even more remote Pacific island of Nauru. In a heated phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, President Trump lambasted the deal shortly after he took office. According to the Associated Press, the United States has taken 54 refugees from Manus and Nauru in recent weeks.

New Zealand has repeatedly offered to take 150 of the refugees, but Australia has so far declined each time.

One of the refugees who remains on Manus is Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist from Iran seeking asylum. Amid the lack of electricity, he has been charging his phone — which he uses as an advocacy tool — using solar power. For years he has acted as an unofficial spokesman for the group. Over the past days, his Twitter timeline has highlighted the plight of the stranded detainees in wrenching detail.

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