SYDNEY — Lawyers for the asylum seekers living at Australia’s detention center on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island sought a court injunction Tuesday to keep the facility open, as fears mounted of violence amid reports of looting and rock-throwing by local residents.
Papua New Guinea authorities said they would cut off water, electricity and food supplies to the center inside the Lombrun Navy Base at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The closing date was set after Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled last year that Australia’s detention of asylum seekers there was illegal and unconstitutional.
The 606 men — diverted by Australian authorities to Manus after attempting to reach Australia by boat — have refused to comply with an order to relocate to three nearby facilities because they say the alternatives are less secure and they fear for their safety amid threats of violence from locals.
An hour after the deadline, however, the utilities had not been cut off, according to refugee advocates.
With the center left unguarded as of Tuesday morning, reports emerged of locals, some armed with machetes, looting the facility.
Sudanese refugee Abdul Mohammad said asylum seekers and refugees feared for their lives. “Some of the locals have come inside and are stealing boxes, fire alarms, the fans — some of them are taking the air conditioners,” he said by phone from Manus Island.
Bangladeshi refugee Mohammad Ohidul Islam said some locals were throwing rocks at refugees. “We are really scared,” he said from inside the center.
The Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition, or RAC, told The Associated Press that while police were not intervening, the looting was only minor, with electric fans, desks, folding tables and a refrigerator taken from the entrance areas of the center.
“They (looters) can’t get into the detention center proper,” said RAC spokesman Ian Rintoul in Sydney. “The detainees are still secure, and that’s what they’ve been concentrating on — that they are secure in case there’s an attack in the middle of the night.”
Rintoul said that he was unaware of any rock-throwing, but that it would “be a long night” for the detainees, who were “very worried they’ll be attacked during the night.”
He said that with detainees likely to run out of drinking water before long, authorities on Manus “could well be deciding they’ll starve the people out over a few days rather than using the police.”
Media reports said some 100 locals rallied in the nearby town of Lorengau on Tuesday morning, calling for the refugees to be sent to Australia and not brought into their community. By contrast, some locals had said they would support the detainees if power and water were cut off, Rintoul said.
Lawyers acting for the RAC applied to the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court on Tuesday for an injunction to prevent the facility’s closure and restore the supply of food, water and electricity, warning of a “catastrophic outcome” if the detainees were evicted.
“We were in a Supreme Court hearing this morning where we’re hopeful of being able to raise the immediate issues of the abuse of human rights on Manus Island,” said Rintoul, who understood the application had been referred to Papua New Guinea’s Chief Justice, Sir Salamo Injia, and that he was “hoping for an urgent hearing” on Wednesday morning.
Papua New Guinea officials have said the facility will be returned to defense forces on Wednesday and anyone remaining would be considered to be trespassing on a military base.
“Move to alternative accommodation now,” read notices posted by immigration officials Monday night. “Anyone choosing to remain here will be liable for removal from an active PNG military base.”
Locals have threatened to blockade the three intended relocation centers in Lorengau — two of which are not surrounded by fencing. Papua New Guinea authorities have deployed extra police to the town.
The detainees have secured fencing around the Lombrun compound as a possible barricade and have cleaned trash bins to collect rainwater and reconnected cut water tanks. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation said some asylum seekers had also been seen in shops buying food and solar-powered phone chargers, in order to use their phones for lighting.
Papua New Guinea has warned Australia that after the closure it will take no responsibility for “non-refugees” and people who refused to resettle. It says Australia is responsible for finding third-country options for refugees and for returning non-refugees to their home countries.
However, the Australian immigration department insisted the closure of the center and management of refugees and non-refugees was a “matter for PNG.”
“Alternative accommodation options for refugees and failed asylum seekers are ready,” a statement said, adding that some people had already moved there and were comfortably accessing services and support.
For four years, Australia has paid Papua New Guinea, its nearest neighbor, and the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru to house asylum seekers who attempt to reach the Australian coast by boat. The United States has resettled 54 of them in recent weeks and is considering taking almost 1,200 more.
Australia will not settle any refugees who try to arrive by boat — a policy that the government says dissuades asylum seekers from attempting the dangerous ocean crossing from Indonesia. Australia has also prevented boats from reaching Australia since July 2014 by using the Australian navy to turn boats back.
Six detainees have died on Manus Island, including one who was murdered, since the offshore detention center was opened in 2012.