Papua New Guinea ordered on Wednesday to close an Australian immigration center on a northern island after its Supreme Court ruled it unlawful, driving Australia’s hardline immigration policy into chaos and leaving hundreds of asylum-seekers with unknown fate.
The Supreme Court ruling said on Tuesday that detaining people in the camp was unconstitutional and illegal.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton stressed Australia’s hardline policy that has been strongly criticized by the United Nations and human rights agencies.
Under Australian law, anyone captured trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to camps on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru or to Manus Island off Papua New Guinea. They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.
The detention center on Nauru houses about 500 people and has been condemned by the United Nations and human rights agencies for harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse.
Before Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said the detention center would close, Dutton told reporters in Melbourne the following: “The government’s position is very clear – that is that 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,” he added.
“As I have said, and as the Australian government has consistently acted, we will work with our PNG partners to address the issues raised by the Supreme Court of PNG,” Dutton said in a statement after the announcement.
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 Papua New Guinea if they wanted.
A spokesperson for Dutton did not immediately respond for requests for comment on the closure but Dutton said in Melbourne that the Manus detainees could return home or go to another country willing to accept them.
While Australia maintains its hardline stance, a second case concerning the fate of the detainees on Manus is set to be heard by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court later this week.
Lawyers acting on behalf of nearly all the Manus Island detainees will argue that they should be taken to Australia and be compensated for being held in custody.
“Every hour that ticks past is another hour, is another day that Papua New Guinea has not abided by the Supreme Court decision,” Ian Rintoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, which is funding the second legal case, told Reuters. “It will add to the compensation we are requesting from the Supreme Court but particularly it is about freedom for the people that have been held on Manus Island for too long.”
Against such conditions, many of the detainees have self-harmed, with Dutton on Wednesday confirming that a 23-year-old man from Iran had set himself on fire on Nauru.
Dutton said the man would be evacuated from Nauru later on Wednesday.