Bowing to public pressure, Australia and Papua New Guinea Wednesday announced an agreement to close an Australian prison camp for asylum seekers on Manus Island, although it's not at all clear what will happen to the nearly 800 refugees currently housed in the detention center.
Manus Island is off the coast of Papua New Guinea and under Australian law, anyone intercepted trying to reach the country by boat is sent there for processing.
They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.
"Both Papua New Guinea and Australia are in agreement that the centre is to be closed," Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said in a statement on Wednesday, following a meeting with Peter Dutton, Australia's immigration minister.
"We have known for years that we are torturing, abusing and indefinitely detaining people on Manus Island and Nauru," spokeswoman Sam Castro from the group told ABC. "It is not good enough for the immigration minister to brush it all under the carpet and say, 'there is nothing to see here' … I think it is appropriate for our parliament to investigate these matters."
The announcement follows the recent leak of confidential documents disclosing more than 2,000 incidents of sexual abuse, assault and suicide attempts by despairing detainees at the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre. The revelations only fueled an already white-hot grassroots campaign to close the center which has long been rumored to treat detainees inhumanely.
Unaware of the announcement to shut down Manus, protesters from Whistle-blowers Activists Citizens Alliance on Wednesday interrupted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s speech, demanding the closure of all offshore prison camps such as Manus, shouting slogans such as "Shame on you!" and "Shut down Manus and Nauru!"
"Both Papua New Guinea and Australia are in agreement that the centre is to be closed," Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said in a statement on Wednesday, after a meeting with Peter Dutton, Australia's immigration minister. "A series of options are being advanced and implemented. It is important that this process is not rushed out but carried out in a careful manner."
Under Australian law, anyone attempting to reach country by boat is sent for processing to detention centres on either Manus Island, off Papua New Guinea, or the Pacific island of Nauru. They are never allowed to be resettled in Australia, a stance the country has maintained.
"It has been the long-standing position of this government to work with (Papa New Guineau) to close Manus and support those people as they transition into PNG or return to their country of origin," Dutton said in the statement.
None of the detainees will be resettled in Australia, however.
Some asylum seekers have spent years in the camps, which along with the instances of abuse, have been criticised by the United Nations and human rights groups. Hundreds have also died attempting to make the trip from Indonesia to Australia.
Many in Papua New Guineau expressed disppleasure at the prospect of hundreds of asylum seekers being resettled into their country, with reports of refugees being attacked by locals.
"In April, there was a court ruling in Papua New Guinea saying that the prison camp was unconstitutional, and Papua New Guinea has made it clear that they have wanted that camp to close," said Al Jazeera's Andrew Thomas, reporting from Sydney. "But this is the first time that Australia has suggested that it's signed up to that as well."
The move to close the prison camp has been welcomed by activists and refugee advocates.
"Nearly a thousand men on Manus have already lost three or more years of their lives locked up in limbo for no good reason," Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, as reported by Al Jazeera. "They've endured dirty, cramped conditions, inadequate medical care and violence. Finally, it is time to let them move on with their lives in safety and dignity."
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