CANBERRA, Australia – An Australian minister on Friday predicted a conflict between Papua New Guinea police and hundreds of asylum seekers who have refused to leave a decommissioned immigration camp where many hold out hope of resettling in the United States.
The camp inside a Manus Island navy base was declared closed on Oct. 31 based on the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court's ruling last year that Australia's policy of housing asylum seekers there was unconstitutional. But the men who have stayed at the male-only camp fear for their safety in the alternative shelters available in the nearby town of Lorengau because of threats from local residents
Australian Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton said he was discussing with the Papua New Guinea authorities what steps would be taken if the asylum seekers stay on without power or running water.
"Our very strong preference is that people move of their own accord," Dutton told Melbourne Radio 3AW.
"We've got a group of core agitators, organizers, who will try and provide some sort of scene where there is a confrontation with police. They'll do that because they want that footage broadcast back here," Dutton added.
The Australian activist group GetUp! released video on Friday of the squalid conditions on Manus. Dutton accused the asylum seekers of "trashing the place."
Local authorities posted a notice at the camp on Thursday, saying: "You are ... instructed to vacate this compound immediately."
"If necessary, force may be used to relocate those who refuse to move voluntarily for your own sake," the notice added.
Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani said the use of force was unacceptable.
"We are not doing anything wrong. We are only resisting peacefully," Boochani said. "We are asking again for freedom in a safe third country," he added.
Papua New Guinea police said buses and trucks had been brought to Manus on Friday to relocate the asylum seekers.
Manus Provincial Police Commander Chief Inspector David Yapu said police were mindful that the transfers would be conducted "smoothly and orderly without use of force."
Asylum seekers reported police and immigration officers had entered the camp on Friday and began emptying the tanks and turning over the water bins being used to collect the rain water that has sustained the inhabitants for the past 10 days.
"They said it's an Order from ABF," asylum seeker Walid Zazai tweeted, referring to the Australian Border Force. "Thank you Australia," Zazai added.
The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an application to restore basic services on Manus on human rights grounds.
Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Australia-based Refugee Action Coalition, called on Australia to "end the siege and restore food, water and services."
"Everyone in the tropics knows how precious water is and how quickly dehydration can become a serious medical issue. Denied water and with medical help sometimes delayed for hours, refugee lives are being put at risk," Rintoul said.
Dutton said more than 100 of the 606 men in the center on Oct. 31 had since left.
The United States has agreed to resettle up to 1,250 refugees that Australia keeps on Papua New Guinea and the Pacific island nation of Nauru.
But so far only 54 have been accepted after a screening process that President Donald Trump describes as extreme vetting.
Australia will not settle any refugees who try to arrive by boat — a policy that the government says dissuades asylum seekers from attempting the dangerous ocean crossing from Indonesia. Australia has also prevented boats from reaching Australia since July 2014 by using the Australian navy to turn boats back.