Papua New Guinea police enter abandoned Australian-run detention camp

By Tom Westbrook and Swati Pandey
Asylum seekers occupying the closed Australian-run immigration detention centre on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island climb on top of buildings at the centre to avoid police, November 23, 2017. Thanus/via REUTERS.

By Tom Westbrook and Swati Pandey

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Police entered an officially-shuttered Australian-run detention camp in Papua New Guinea on Thursday and ordered some 380 asylum seekers occupying it to leave as they carried away food and water the men had stockpiled, three of the men told Reuters.

Asylum seekers said they climbed onto rooftops and hid in toilets to avoid the police. The men have barricaded themselves in the Manus Island center for more than 22 days, defying attempts by Australia and PNG to close the facility

Australia's immigration minister, Peter Dutton, told Sydney radio that the aim of the police operation was to move the men to a transit center elsewhere on the island.

One asylum seeker told Reuters that the men felt threatened and scared and some climbed onto roofs for safety. A second asylum seeker, Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist who has been a Manus detainee for four years, told Reuters by text message that the refugees were refusing to move.

Boochani wrote on Twitter that police and immigration officials removed water and the men's belongings. Pictures sent via messaging service Whatsapp showed upturned boxes of food and torn parcels of rice and instant noodles.

The three men said they have been sharing a solar panel to charge their cell phones because the detention center has had no electricity for 23 days.

A video shot by Sudanese refugee Abdul Aziz and posted on Facebook showed local police using a megaphone to tell the asylum seekers to leave because their stay is illegal.

The men in the camp, most of whom are from Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Syria, are held under Australia's strict "sovereign borders" immigration policy, under which Australia refuses to allow asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores.

The asylum seekers say they fear for their safety if moved to the transit center, and risk being resettled in PNG or another developing nation permanently.

Calls to PNG immigration were not immediately returned. Australia's immigration office did not have an immediate comment when contacted by Reuters.

The stand-off has attracted the attention of the United Nations, which is a long-time critic of the conditions experienced by asylum seekers held in Australia's offshore camps.

The U.N. has warned of a "looming humanitarian crisis" and has urged Australia to accept an offer by New Zealand to take some of the men.

Australia has insisted the priority was to an existing refugee swap deal negotiated last year with former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Elaine Pearson, the Australian director of Human Rights Watch, said on Thursday the situation was at risk of turning violent.

"It's very volatile at the moment," Pearson told Reuters."These men are there for three weeks. They're sick, they are hungry, fatigued. It's just not a good situation."

(Reporting by Swati Pandey and Tom Westbrook in Sydney; Writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Leslie Adler)