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Australia Refuses to Take Asylum Seekers as Papua New Guinea Says It Will Close Offshore Center

PNG's Prime Minister has ordered the controversial asylum detention center to close, and a refugee on the island of Nauru has set himself on fire in desperation — but Australia isn't budging.

by VICE News
Apr 27 2016, 11:10am

Pro-refugees protesters rally outside the Immigration Office in Brisbane, Australia, on February 5, 2016. Photo via EPA

Papua New Guinea (PNG) said on Wednesday it would close a controversial Australian immigration center on one of its islands after the country's supreme court ruled it unlawful — but Australia said it would not take any of the more than 800 asylum seekers detained there.

Also on Wednesday, a recognized Iranian refugee in another Australian offshore detention center on the island of Nauru set himself on fire during a visit by the United Nations, as people shouted "UN help us" and "ABF [Australian Border Force] shame on you." A group of other people, thought to number five, also self-harmed on Wednesday and two Iranian women are missing since Sunday, thought to have drowned, reported the Guardian.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said the detention center in Manus would close after the supreme court ruled on Tuesday that the detentions breached the country's constitution and would have to stop.

Speaking after the ruling, but before O'Neill's announcement, Australian Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton said it was still government policy that asylum seekers sent to offshore detention centers would never be resettled in Australia.

"Today, the government's position is very clear — that is we are not going to accept people who have sought to come to our country illegally by boat. They will not settle permanently in our country and the supreme court decision obviously is an issue for the PNG government and there are discussions including again this afternoon between legal representatives from my department and from the immigration department of PNG," Dutton told reporters in Melbourne.

Related: Australia's Offshore Asylum Seeker Detention Center Is Ruled Illegal

Following events in Nauru on Wednesday, he stressed the success of Australia's hardline asylum policy — which has been strongly criticized by the United Nations and human rights agencies — adding that anyone who thought self-harm or political protest could help get them to Australia was wrong, reported the Guardian.

Under Australian law, anyone intercepted trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to camps on the tiny Pacific islands of Nauru or to Manus Island off PNG. They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.

More than 900 people are detained on Manus on Australia's behalf, while another detention center on Nauru holds about 500 people, including 70 children. The detainees are mostly refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and South Asia.

The centers have been condemned by observers for harsh conditions and reports of widespread assault, sexual violence, and systemic child abuse. They are off-limits to journalists.

O'Neill said he would ask Australia to make arrangements for the asylum seekers held on Manus Island, adding that they would be able to stay in PNG if they wanted.

Lawyers acting on behalf of nearly all the Manus Island detainees will argue later this week in the PNG supreme court that they should be taken to Australia and be compensated for being held in custody.

Australia has a long and controversial history regarding its treatment of immigrants. The "White Australia" policy was one of the first acts passed when the current state of Australia was formed in 1901. It was fueled by the idea that Australia was an "outpost of the British empire" — and placed huge obstacles in the path of any potential immigrants who weren't white. Arguing in favor of the bill, the then-Prime Minister Edmund Barton said: "The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman."

Various forms of this law were in place until 1973.

A system of mandatory detention for non-citizens lacking visas has been in place since 1992, before which asylum seekers had their claims evaluated from within a community. Detention has increasingly been done offshore. The Australian government, under then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, made a deal in 2013 to send any asylum seekers granted refugee status to PNG. In return, the government said that they would pay "resettlement costs," as well as giving aid to the country to go towards hospitals and universities. However only eight of more than 1,000 asylum seekers who have been held there have moved into the PNG community.

In 2015 Australia made another deal with Cambodia, pledging $55 million of aid in return for the resettlement of hundreds of refugees — but only two have been successfully resettled there.

Australia spent about $1.1 billion Australian dollars between 2014 and 2015 on the two PNG centers. The government has also released ad campaigns warning no one who gets on a boat without a visa will ever make Australia home. "Families, children, unaccompanied children, educated, and skilled. There are no exceptions," explains a military general.

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Related: United Nations Condemns Australia Over 'Inhuman' Treatment of Asylum Seekers