SYDNEY - Thousands of people rallied in Melbourne Saturday in support of 600 men refusing to leave an Australian-run migrant camp in Papua New Guinea (PNG) that closed this week.
The center on Manus Island was ruled “unconstitutional” by a court in PNG last year. Australia is steadfastly refusing to accept the refugees, while New Zealand has offered to resettle some of them.
Campaigners say the government in Canberra is “treating the men like animals” and are demanding they be allowed to resettle in Australia.
Six hundred refugees and asylum-seekers remain inside the camp on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Australia wants them to move to new accommodation units, but the men fear more attacks by locals, who are opposed to their presence on the island.
The units have been built by Australia in the PNG community of Lorengau. But the United Nations says some of the new community housing is not ready, a claim denied by Australia.
Activists rallying in Melbourne accuse Australia of trying to “starve the refugees into submission.” Among them are about 90 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, about 200 men from Iran, and others from Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan.
Food, medicine, power and water have been cut from the former detention center.
Sudanese refugee Abdul Aziz Adam accuses Australia of abandoning them, and hopes New Zealand will offer them sanctuary.
“Australia deny to give our fundamental rights such as water and food," said Adam. "They force us to starve. They want us to be resettled in Papua new Guinea where even the people of Papua New Guinea they do not want us to resettle in their country. And we on Manus Island we have lost hope. And the only hope we now have is the New Zealand government. The honorable prime minister of New Zealand, we are begging you and pleading you to help us. We need your help.”
New Zealand's Labor Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to urge her center-right Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, to let her country accept some of the refugees held on Manus Island and another Australian-run migrant camp on Nauru. The leaders meet in Sydney on Sunday.
Since 2013, Canberra has locked up all asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat in camps in the South Pacific.
Australia says the policy stops migrants risking their lives at sea and protects its maritime borders. Critics argue the measures are punitive and extreme.
Australian actor Russell Crowe said Australia’s treatment of refugees held in Papua New Guinea is a "nation's shame."