Australia's foreign minister said on Wednesday that asylum seekers occupying an abandoned Australian-run detention camp in Papua New Guinea (PNG) can relocate to alternative accommodation, challenging United Nations claims that the substitute site is unfinished and inadequate.
Some 380 men have barricaded themselves into Manus Island center for more than 20 days without regular food or water supplies, defying attempts by Australia and PNG to close the facility. 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.
"There is accommodation that is perfectly acceptable," Australia's Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said in an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corp radio on Wednesday.
"The stand-off on Manus Island can be ended if the men ... move from the regional processing center to the alternative accommodation that is being offered." Mostly from Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Syria, the men are held under Australia's strict "sovereign borders" immigration policy, under which it refuses to allow asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores.
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.
Nai Jit Lam, a regional representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told a U.N. briefing in Geneva on Tuesday that asylum seekers "are still not adequately provided for outside the center." "It's still under construction ... we saw for ourselves that they are trying to complete the site as quickly as possible but the fact remains that major work is still in progress," Lam said in a satellite phone call from Manus Island.
Australia says allowing asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores would only encourage people smugglers in Asia and see more people risk their lives trying to make the perilous sea voyage. It rejected an offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 of the men to focus on sending up to 1,250 asylum seekers to the United States.
Conditions at the abandoned facility are getting worse each day, according to Lam, with rubbish and human waste building up and medical supplies already exhausted.
Papua New Guinea's Post-Courier newspaper reported on Tuesday that immigration officials would begin evicting the men on Wednesday, the fourth such deadline imposed on the refugees to leave since the camp's closure on Oct. 31.
Papua New Guinea's Immigration department did not respond to a request for comment.