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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Papua New Guinea begins removing refugees from Australia camp

Hundreds of men sent to the remote camp on Papua New Guinea's  Manus Island have refused to leave the site, which Australia closed on October 31.

Men occupy the closed Manus Island immigration detention centre in Papua New Guinea, November 23, 2017. Abdul Aziz via Reuters
Men occupy the closed Manus Island immigration detention centre in Papua New Guinea, November 23, 2017. Abdul Aziz via Reuters

The Papua New Guinea police raided a shut-down Australian detention camp on Thursday, removing dozens of refugees in an effort to end a stand-off that has drawn global attention to Canberra's tough asylum-seeker policies.

Hundreds of men sent to the remote camp on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island have refused to leave the site, which Australia closed on October 31.

Over the past three weeks only about 200 out of approximately 600 men held in Manus have agreed to leave voluntarily for three nearby transition centres run by Papua New Guinea (PNG) with the others insisting they should be resettled in third countries. On Thursday, police moved in and took 50 men to alternative camps.

"We are doing the best we can and the refugees cannot continue to be stubborn and defiant," said PNG police commissioner Gari Baki. "The fact is that we are not moving them into the jungle. They are being relocated to two centres where there is water, electricity, food and medical services."

Australia's immigration minister Peter Dutton indicated the police operation would continue, saying, "There is a lot of work that is ongoing. A number of people... have been moved and we would expect the number, which up until this morning had been about 370 people within that centre, would drop obviously well below that now. "

He added that a "small number" of men were arrested during Thursday's action, including Iranian refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been acting as a spokesman for the detainees. Boochani was later released. Police commissioner Baki said he was neither arrested nor charged but moved to one of the transition centres.

Detainees had earlier tweeted and posted photos and videos on social media of PNG authorities sweeping through the camp, saying police had pulled belongings from rooms and shouted at them to get into buses.

Boochani tweeted that police had destroyed their shelters and water tanks, and said the refugees were on "high alert" and "under attack" but there were no reports of injuries.

- 'Barred from Australia' -

Australia's prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday reaffirmed his government's stance on not letting in any refugees who were detained and sent to the camp because they tried to reach Australia by boat.

The men are barred from resettling in Australia, and Mr Turnbull said their actions were meant to push Canberra into changing its mind.

"They think this is some way they can pressure the Australian government to let them come to Australia. Well, we will not be pressured," the prime minister said. in Canberra. "The people on Manus should go to the alternative places of safety with all of the facilities they need."

Global rights group Amnesty International said there were "risks of serious injury if the authorities use force", and called for the refugees to be brought to Australia.

The government has tried to resettle the refugees in third countries, including the United States, with little success. Only 54 refugees have been accepted by Washington, with 24 flown to America in September.

Despite widespread criticism, Canberra has defended its offshore processing policy as stopping deaths at sea after a spate of drownings. But the United Nations and human rights groups have slammed conditions the camps amid reports of widespread abuse, self-harm and mental health problems.

Amnesty said the refugees' safety fears were also "well-founded", adding that some had previously been attacked and seriously injured by locals "who have made clear they do not want the men on Manus".

The Australian Medical Association has called on Canberra to allow doctors to help the refugees, warning that the situation on Manus was getting worse and moe dangerous.