Only a handful of people remained at a remote migrant detention center on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island this week, as authorities quietly empty a facility often dubbed “Australia’s Guantanamo.”
Refugees, police and government officials said a maximum of nine people remained at the facility, which has become emblematic of Australia’s controversial policy of turning away women, children and men fleeing war zones and detaining them in Pacific camps.
Successive Australian governments argued the policy was needed to deter migrants ready to make the dangerous sea voyage to Australia.
But it has been a political and legal headache for Canberra, prompting tens of millions of dollars of payments in damages and earning the opprobrium of the United Nations.
Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Petrus Thomas said on Tuesday that nine migrants – mostly refugees – remained on Manus, which was opened in 2001.
Five of those had built families there and one was involved in local legal proceedings, so is unlikely to leave. “The rest have been flown to Port Moresby,” he said, referring to the 60-plus asylum seekers that had been there until recently.
Manus provincial police commander David Yapu said that transfers had occurred on a daily basis since last week, with most asylum seekers headed for Port Moresby. One of those was detainee and award-winning author Behrouz Boochani, who said he was transferred there a “few days ago.”
Six months ago there were still more than 500 would-be migrants to Australia kept in Papua New Guinea, living in conditions that Amnesty International described as “tantamount to torture.”
Official figures are not frequently updated, but hundreds are believed to have been resettled in the United States under a deal between Australia and then US president Barack Obama.
Others were transferred to Australia for medical treatment or sent to Port Moresby, where they await resettlement.
The Refugee Action Coalition said the transfers off Manus did not spell an end to Australia’s policy of asylum “turnbacks” or resolve the fate of the refugees still stuck in Papua New Guinea.
The non-governmental group accused Canberra and the Papua New Guinea government of “shifting the detention deckchairs” in a rush to declare Manus closed.