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Amid reports of impending closure and an uncertain resettlement deal with the US, migrants seeking asylum in Australia are stuck in Manus Island's detention center and know alarmingly little about their future
For the so-called “boat people” unlucky enough to find themselves stuck in one of Australia's infamous offshore detention centers, the future is far from certain and a way out is unclear. The largest center is on Papua New Guinea's (PNG) Manus Island. According to the Australian government, as of December 2016, 866 men seeking asylum in Australia were being detained there.
However, PNG Chief Justice Sir Salamo Injia made a surprise announcement Monday that the Manus Island detention center had in fact closed - despite all of the detainees still living in the facility. According to media reports in PNG, the “closure” is merely a technicality.
The detention center has not been moved, but it is now being officially being considered part of the naval base on which it is built. Detainees are also reportedly free to move in and out of the compound.
The move is in ostensible compliance with a 2016 PNG Supreme Court order ruling that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island breached the right to personal liberty spelled out in the state constitution and was therefore illegal.
At the time of the ruling, both PNG and Australia appeared to be making progress in talks on how to close the center - although Australia's immigration minister, Peter Dutton, offered no specific details on the future of the detainees beyond a brief statement claiming that "a series of options are being advanced and implemented.”
On 01 March, dozens of asylum seekers being detained on Manus Island accepted a cash deal of up to 25,000 Australian dollars (17,800 euros) in exchange for voluntarily returning to their home countries. The 29 men who reportedly left represent the largest number leaving the island in four years.
Other efforts to resettle some refugees in PNG have failed, with many being forced to return to the detention center after being assaulted or robbed by locals.
The Director of Migration and Border Policy at the Lowy Institute for International Affairs in Sydney, Dr. Jiyoung Song, told DW that there are still too many uncertainties over where the detainees can be relocated to.
“I understand the government is still in negotiation with relevant parties,” she said. “Australia hopes that the United States will take them [asylum seekers], but it is still unclear whether the deal will be implemented on which scale or when.”
The potential US solution was the result of a deal made in November 2016 following a year of negotiations with the Australian government. The US had reportedly offered the one-off agreement to resettle refugees currently being held on both Manus Island and Nauru.
But a few months on, the future of the deal is looking less assured. The biggest concern at this stage is the unpredictablity of US President Donald Trump. Although the deal was organized under his predecessor Barack Obama, a change in US administration usually does not threaten finalized negotiations made by a previous government.
“President Trump's anti-immigration and US-first rhetoric has had an impact on his commitment to delivering his predecessor's agreed deal with Australia," said Song, "Mr. Trump abruptly ending his phone call with Prime Minister Turnbull doesn't look like a good signal for his commitment to the deal, although he did say he would honor the deal with extreme vetting over those to be transferred to US soil.”
The US's refugee processing system is notoriously long and rigorous, meaning applicants could wait up to two years in offshore detention while processing takes place - time which those stuck on the Manus Island detention center may not have. Shortly after the original deal was made, US Homeland Security officials arrived in Australia to begin the vetting process, although it is unclear if this process has been stalled.
Australia's prime minister has reiterated that recent events will not affect the US's original commitment to take refugees from the offshore detention centers.
But even if the deal is successfully implemented, the women and children being held at the other Australian detention center on Micronesia's Nauru Island are far more likely to be given preference for resettlement in the US, leaving the future of Manus Island detainees even more uncertain in the wake of its alleged imminent closure.
Pacific Islands News Association
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International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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