For the last few weeks, hundreds of refugees have been occupying an abandoned detention centre on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
The Australian government is insisting the refugees relocate. But the men are refusing to move, becoming increasingly unwell and desperate. As they broadcast their fate on twitter, the stand-off is injecting new venom into Australia’s bitter debate over refugees.
Jessica Minshall has been watching from Sydney and has this story.
The men on Manus are calling it a blockade. They are refusing to leave the now defunct Australian immigration detention centre that has been their prison for four years.
With no water, electricity, food or medical supplies — and with no safe place to go — the refugees have been broadcasting their plight to the world as the centre is dismantled around them.
“It is a clear message to Australian government that these people, we refugees in Manus Island, we are still refusing to leave this detention and we won't leave this detention centre,” stated Iranian Kurdish journalist and refugee, Behrouz Boochani. “We won't accept to live in PNG.”
The six-hundred men on Manus Island are calling on the international community to intervene in Australia’s hardline refugee policy, long criticised by the United Nations and human rights groups.
Defended as a way to stop refugees from drowning at sea, and with the backing of both major political parties, Australia’s policy has become increasingly punitive.
In 2013, Australia reembraced offshore processing, sending hundreds of men to Manus Island, and hundreds more men, women and children to the pacific island nation of Nauru — saying they would never be allowed to live in Australia.
But last year, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court found the agreement with Australia to be unconstitutional, and the detention centre was ordered to close.
The centre officially shut on October 31, but when the Australian contractors left, hundreds of the men stayed — ignoring repeated deadlines to move.
They dug wells, collected rainwater, and lodged a legal challenge to have the services recon-nected.
“We have been in this place for four and a half years and we have not committed any crime,” pleaded Sudanese refugee Adbul Aziz Adam.
The refugees were told to relocate to so-called ‘transit’ centres in the nearby town of Lorengau where they would remain in limbo and at greater risk of attack.
“How many of refugees have been attacked outside the detention centre? And they want to send us to another detention centre and it's unsafe and we can't be there,” demanded Sudanese refugee Omar Jack Giram.
Refugees face open hostility from locals on Manus Island. They have been attacked by machetes and robbed. On Good Friday this year, intoxicated PNG naval officers opened fire on the camp.
And in 2014, Iranian Reza Barati was killed in a riot involving guards and PNG police.
He’s one of six refugees from Manus Island to die.
"We are just a human being who are running from the war zone and we are asking for protection. We are not asking for a prison,” said Adam.
Australia had been counting on a refugee deal with the United States to take the men, but that stalled after Donald Trump was elected.
The first intake, of just 54 people, was only finalised in September.
“And we pray and we wish, that if New Zealand will do something, in this moment right now.” Adam continued, “We don't want to go to Australia. We wish if could go to some other country.”
Australia has ignored a longstanding offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 men each year, with new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also pledging $3 million to help provide for the men on Manus Island in the coming months.
“I can tell you that New Zealand’s offer remains on the table. It remains on the table because the need remains,” Ardern stated.
In the lead up to the centre’s closure, as Australia backed further away from its responsibility for the men, the refugees staged daily protests — their arms often raised and crossed above their heads.
The regular updates from the men have continued, enabling unprecedented media coverage on an issue normally hindered by restricted access.
From Sydney, I can watch the clips of water tanks and wells being destroyed by PNG officials, and see images of the material webbing fences the refugees have built to replace the old ones.
As conditions in the camp become increasingly dire, some men have moved to the new centres, but hundreds more remain.
With opinion in Australia divided, refugee supporters are mounting regular demonstrations.
Campaigners, such as the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizen Alliance’s Lara Paijmans are staging protest stunts calling for the refugees and asylum seekers to be brought to Australia.
Paijmans last week scaled the Sydney Harbour Opera House with a banner that read, “Evacuate Manus.”
After being released from police custody she said, “I hope that they feel some small sense of solidarity from people in Australia.”