Campaigners are accusing Australia of “disgracefully deserting refugees” after Canberra said it would end the offshore processing of migrants in neighboring Papua New Guinea.
More than 3,000 asylum-seekers have been held in Papua New Guinea under Canberra’s 2013 offshore policy that barred any migrant trying to reach Australia by sea from resettlement.
About 1,200 have been transferred temporarily to Australia, often for medical treatment. The rest have either been sent back home or granted visas to other countries, including the United States.
Rights groups have repeatedly called the offshore processing of migrants a violation of international law. Australian authorities have said the policy has stopped many asylum-seekers risking their lives trying to reach its territorial waters on unseaworthy boats.
Papua New Guinea is one of two Pacific countries paid by Canberra to detain asylum-seekers and refugees. The two governments said Wednesday the agreement would conclude at the end of the year.
The decision leaves 124 migrants in Papua New Guinea. Officials said they could either stay or move to the tiny Pacific republic of Nauru, which is Australia’s last remaining offshore detention center.
Ian Rintoul, a spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, a community activist organization, said Nauru is poorly placed to care for migrants.
“There is also a big question over Nauru,” he said. “I mean, the fact is the vast majority [of] people who were on Nauru are now in Australia. The circumstances in Nauru simply do not provide, you know, security and certainty for anyone who is sent there. The government in Nauru still struggles to be able to provide the kind of medical services that are increasingly becoming necessary for the people who have been the victims of long-term detention.”
Papua New Guinea has been trying to end its involvement in Australia’s offshore processing system for years. An Australian-run detention facility on Papua New Guinea’s Manus island was found to be illegal by the country's Supreme Court in 2016.
Australia has reaffirmed its commitment to its offshore processing policy. In a joint statement with Papua New Guinea, it said that “anyone who attempts to enter Australia illegally by boat will be returned or sent to Nauru.”
The tiny Pacific republic of Nauru has a coastline of just 30 kilometers and is home to about 10,000 people.
Asylum-seekers who arrive in Australia by plane -- a much larger number than those who come by boat -- are not subject to offshore processing.
Immigration minister Alex Hawke said last month Canberra has one of the world's "most generous humanitarian" resettlement schemes, allocating visas to about 13,700 refugees each year.