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Manus humanitarian crisis a 'damning indictment' of Australia's refugee policy: UNHCR

The humanitarian crisis on Manus Island is manmade and entirely preventable, the UNHCR has said, labelling it a “damning indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations”.

The UNHCR also revealed accommodation for the refugees and asylum seekers is still not fully constructed, more than three weeks after the detention centre was officially closed and Australia’s immigration minister Peter Dutton said community housing was ready for detainees.

Nai Jit Lam, UNHCR’s deputy regional representative in Canberra, made the comments from Manus Island in a briefing to the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Lam told the international community the situation on Manus was “very serious and deteriorating by the day”.

About 300 men are inside the former detention facility without food, running water or medical care, saying they fear for their safety in the Lorengau community. There have been frequent attacks on detainees and well-documented tensions with locals.

Inside the centre the situation was “desperate”, and outside, where authorities claim the men have accommodation and services waiting for them, it is “profoundly inadequate”, Lam said.

Australia remained responsible for the refugees and asylum seekers, Lam said, accusing the country’s government of in effect creating and then abandoning “a humanitarian crisis at the doorstep of the international community”.

“It is vital that Australia take responsibility and play an active role in achieving solutions for all the people Australia forcibly transferred to Papua New Guinea,” he said.

“This is a manmade and entirely preventable humanitarian crisis. It is a damning indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations.”

The United Nations has been on the ground since the end of last month, and Lam detailed the current situation, which Lam described as the consequences of a problem created four years ago, “when Australia forcibly transferred people, refugees and asylum seekers to PNG and Nauru under their offshore policy”.

Rubbish and waste was accumulating inside the centre, where services and water have been shut down, and health and sanitation was becoming a significant issue, as was the risk of disease, Lam said.

Four members of staff assigned to look after the cases of the 700 men are not working due to local contractual disputes, the UN observed. Local tensions remain high with at least two further incidents at alternative accommodation units in the past week, including a break-in and switching off of a generator in the middle of the night, and a road blockade by locals.

“Beyond the physical accommodation that we have been talking about, the most basic services needed for asylum seekers and refugees are still not adequately provided for outside the centre,” Lam said.

His observations concluded that accommodation was still under major construction and possibly weeks away from completion.

“After three weeks and constant announcements that alternative accommodation outside the centre and together with the services are ready, what we have observed so far actually represents a very different picture,” Lam said.

Refugees and Manusian staff on the island have told the Guardian that the centres are not yet habitable. Pictures show heavy earth-moving equipment still on the sites, and work continuing to build fences and install services.

At the West Lorengau centre running water is available only intermittently, sometimes only for an hour a day, and the supply of electricity is similarly intermittent.

The Australian government has turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the refugees and asylum seekers, international human rights organisations, the Australian Medical Association, and the government of New Zealand, among others.

The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has called the situation unacceptable and has sought to offer her country’s assistance.

Last week, having had its offer to resettle 150 refugees rejected, the New Zealand government offered $2.7m (US$1.8 million) to PNG to provide essential services on Manus.

Dutton dismissed the offer, saying it would be better spent on “another environment somewhere, to Indonesia for example”, and suggested Australia’s border protection policies had benefited New Zealand because boats were not getting to Auckland.

He also warned against PNG and New Zealand making any kind of deal without Australia’s involvement, saying the two countries would have to think about their relationships with Australia and what kind of impact a deal would have.

The Australian government was prioritising a deal made with the US’s Obama administration to take up to 1,200 refugees, but only 54 have so far been resettled.


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