CANBERRA, Australia — The last asylum seekers abandoned a closed immigration camp on Papua New Guinea on Friday, ending a three-week standoff between police and hundreds of men who had been prepared to suffer squalid conditions without power or running water rather than move to other residences where they feared violence.
Police Chief Superintendent Dominic Kakas said police and immigration officials removed all 378 men from the male-only camp on Manus Island over two days and took them by bus to residences in the nearby town of Lorengau.
Refugee advocates say officials used force and destroyed asylum seekers’ belongings to make them leave Manus. Video was released of officials in the camp wielding batons.
Water, power and food supplies ended when the Manus camp ended officially closed on Oct. 31, based on the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court’s ruling last year that Australia’s policy of housing asylum seekers there was unconstitutional. But asylum seekers fear for their safety in Lorengau because of threats from local residents.
Australia pays Papua New Guinea, its nearest neighbor, and the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru to hold more than 2,000 asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and Asia who have attempted to reach Australian shores by boat since mid-2013.
Before confirmation that Manus Island had been emptied, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed news that asylum seekers were leaving.
“I’m please to say in terms of Manus, that the reports we have are that busloads of the people at Manus are leaving, they’re complying with the lawful directions of the PNG authorities and moving to the alternative facilities available to them and that’s as they should,” Turnbull told reporters.
“That is precisely what you should do, if you’re in a foreign country. You should comply with the laws of that other country,” he added.
Shen Narayanasamy, activist group GetUp’s rights campaigner said in a statement: “I awoke this morning to frantic phone calls from refugees on Manus screaming: ‘Help, help, they are killing us.’ It is astounding that refugees being beaten and dragged out to buses has the support of the Australian government.”
Police maintain no force was used.
Australian Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton accused refugee advocates of making “inaccurate and exaggerated claims of violence and injuries on Manus,” without providing evidence.
Dutton also accused asylum seekers of sabotaging backup generators and water infrastructure at the new accommodation provided by Australia in Lorengau.
“What is clear is that there has been an organized attempt to provoke trouble and disrupt the new facilities,” Dutton said in a statement.
UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, said in a statement its staff had heard troubling reports of forcible removal. UNHCR said it had been given assurances that excessive force had not been used, but could not independently confirm as staff had not been allowed full access to Manus.
Peter Costello, chief advocate of the Christian charity World Vision Australia who is on Manus, said a number of the men relocated were covered in bruises and scratchers and appeared to be malnourished.
He said at least one of the three alternative camps in Lorengau was still under construction.
“If you were an Australian builder, you wouldn’t let a civilian on to it, let alone move in,” Costello said.
Australia will not settle any refugees who try to arrive by boat — a policy that the government says dissuades them from attempting the dangerous ocean crossing from Indonesia. The navy has also been turning back boats to keep them from reaching Australia since July 2014.
The United States has agreed to resettle up to 1,250 of the refugees under a deal struck by former President Barack Obama’s administration that President Donald Trump has reluctantly decided to honor. So far, only 54 have been accepted by the United States.