The Australian immigration minister has accused detainees – “aided and abetted” by advocates and the Greens – of attempting to force the government to change its policy through subterfuge.
Peter Dutton released his statement on Tuesday as more than 600 men, a mix of refugees and asylum seekers, refuse to leave the Manus Island detention centre, citing fears for their safety in the community.
Advocates, detainees and human rights organisations, as well as Greens, Labor, and independent politicians, have called for the closure not to proceed in the current manner.
Dutton said the coalition government had a “clear and consistent policy” of refusing to allow people who sought asylum by boat to ever settle in Australia.
“Six hundred men at the Manus Regional Processing Centre (RPC) in Papua New Guinea who attempted to enter Australia illegally via people smuggler’s boats – now aided and abetted by so called ‘advocates’ and the Greens – are trying to force a change to that policy,” he said. “They will not.”
Dutton echoed his department in disputing human rights group accounts that the alternative accommodation was not ready. He said it was safe and secure, and health and other services “will be maintained”.
He dismissed complaints by detainees and advocates about the current situation as “nothing more than subterfuge” and said there were “reasonable alternative pathways” for all detainees.
Those whose claims for asylum were rejected were in PNG illegally and should return home, he said. Refugees could settle in PNG under the 2013 agreement, apply for US resettlement, or move to Nauru.
Dutton also accused the Greens Senator, Nick McKim, who was at the centre on Tuesday and expressed “grave fears” for the men, of giving detainees false information and using them “for cheap political stunts to build his public profile”.
Speaking in Perth, the acting prime minister Julie Bishop said the government was in “constant communication” with PNG authorities, and refugees and asylum seekers would be “guaranteed all appropriate services” at the new accommodation units.
“Today the regional processing centre on Manus Island will be closed and the PNG government has made alternative accommodation arrangements,” she said.
“I understand the PNG government has made arrangements for all essential services to be available at the alternative accommodation – food, water, electricity and medical services.”
Dutton’s lengthy statement did not answer questions about Australia’s financial and practical involvement on Manus beyond Tuesday. It made no reference to the PNG immigration minister, Petrus Thomas, and his declaration on Sunday that unsuccessful asylum claimants and refugees who refused to settle in PNG were the responsibility of Australia.
Thomas said PNG had “no obligation” to deal with them and Australia had to pursue third country options. On Tuesday he reportedly said the Australian government was yet to provide any clarity.
“It is PNG’s position that as long as there is one individual from this arrangement that remains in PNG, Australia will continue to provide financial and other support to PNG to manage the persons transferred,” he said.
The Labor immigration spokesman, Shayne Neumann, said: “Peter Dutton’s failure to answer basic questions about arrangements in PNG after the closure of the regional processing centre has fuelled refugees’ uncertainty. Transferring refugees from one centre to another is not a long term solution. These people urgently need viable third-country resettlement options.”
Labor senator Lisa Singh said the situation was a “humanitarian crisis the government has created on its own” and they should have accepted an offer from New Zealand to resettle some refugees from Australia’s offshore processing centres.
“Australia has a duty of care to protect these vulnerable men. There may be more deaths if the Australian government does not resolve the dangerous situation it is creating today by closing its detention centre unilaterally.
“I cannot understand how New Zealand does not fit with a regional resettlement framework. They are our neighbours and are willing to help settle these refugees,” she told the Guardian. “Now that Australia has been elected to the UN Human Rights Council, we need to start practicing what we preach.”
Detainees on Manus Island have been told they face “removal from an active PNG military base” if they refuse to leave the detention centre after 5pm, and locals told Amnesty International that police squads have armed themselves “like they are going to war”.
Multiple accounts from detainees, locals, and observers say the situation on the ground has been exacerbated by a lack of consultation and communication.
Manus residents have protested against the construction of accommodation units for refugees on private land in communities, without consultation. They have also expressed fear at large numbers of refugees joining the small community, and questioned what support will be given.