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Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced the closure of the infamous Manus Island detention center, bringing new hope to the hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees held there.

Hundreds of demonstrators march through Pitt street during a rally in support of asylum seekers in central Sydney August 10, 2013. © 2013 Reuters

The April 27 announcement followed a ruling the previous day by the country’s highest court that the detention of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island is illegal under the country’s immigration law and violates basic constitutional rights.

More than 850 asylum seekers and refugees are currently held in the Australian-run detention center, located on a naval base on the island. About 60 other men already determined to be refugees live in a transit center outside the base.

They’re not in Papua New Guinea by choice. The Australian government forcibly transfers asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat to “processing centers” in the countries of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Since mid-2013, Australia won’t take in those who establish that they are refugees but instead resettles them in one of those countries or a third country.

I visited Manus Island for a week in 2013; many of the detained asylum seekers I met there were despondent, and some spoke openly of ending their lives.

Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Law Centre found in 2015 that center conditions were cramped and dirty, and several detainees had faced violence from guards or local residents. A significant number of individuals had mental health problems linked to prolonged, indefinite detention.  

Australian immigration staff told a Senate Committee that over a 14-month period, the Manus center recorded 14 sexual assaults, 213 physical assaults, and 798 cases of abusive or aggressive behavior.

Similarly, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, the high commissioner for refugees, the Human Rights Committee, and the special rapporteur on torture have all criticized Australia for its flouting of international law by processing asylum seekers off-shore and mistreating them in detention.

Human Rights Watch has long called for Australia and Papua New Guinea to end the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island.

Australia has rejected international calls and the findings of the Australian Human Rights Commission to end offshore detention. Despite the Papua New Guinea court ruling, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Australia’s policies would “remain unchanged.”

The ruling is one more indication of how unfounded, unjust, and inhumane Australia’s offshore detention system is.

Prime Minister O’Neill’s prompt decision to order the closure of Manus after the court ruling allows Papua New Guinea to break away from Australia’s notorious offshore detention regime. Now, the asylum seekers and refugees held there should be promptly transferred to other countries – including Australia – where they can rebuild their lives.

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