Manus Island asylum seekers not approved to resettle in the USA could be declared illegal aliens by Papua New Guinea and deported -- possibly back to Australia -- a local politician claimed.
Former MP for Manus Island, Ron Knight, told The Huffington Post Australia he was planning to lead a local movement against plans to resettle potentially hundreds of rejected asylum seekers in the wider Manus community.
"It's not PNG's problem, it's an Australian problem," said Knight, a member of the opposition in PNG's parliament.
Under an agreement struck last year, the U.S. government will take an as-yet-unknown number of asylum seekers and refugees who were sent to Australian-run regional processing centres on Manus Island and Nauru.
This is the agreement President Donald Trump called a "dumb deal" and "the worst deal ever", and the cause of a reported shouted phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in February. But just this weekend, U.S. vice president Mike Pence told reporters in Sydney that the deal was still on.
Priority for U.S. places is expected to go to women and children on Nauru, so hundreds of the nearly 900 men will likely remain on Manus after the U.S. agreement, and questions have been raised over what will happen to them.
Australia plans to close the current processing centre by October, and little is known about what support -- if any -- Australia will provide to those men left behind.
In announcing the U.S. deal in November, immigration minister Peter Dutton detailed negotiations for a 20-year visa for asylum seekers left on Nauru and in recent interviews Dutton said "PNG has the responsibility to settle those people" found to be genuine refugees but not accepted by the U.S.
On Monday, Manus MP Knight said plans were underway to move the leftover asylum seekers from the centre near Lombrum to an overcrowded transit centre in Lorengau, a town around 10 kilometres west. He told HuffPost Australia that the plan was destined to fail -- Knight claimed the transit centre was already full and could not sustain another few hundred people -- and that locals would not support it.
"The plan to dump the asylum seekers from Lombrum into the Manus transit centre is ridiculous and we won't stand for it. Those that go to America are the lucky ones, the rest they're going to dump at the centre at Lorengau and forget about them," Knight said.
"They'll hope they integrate with the community. That won't happen. It's a 230-bed capacity transit centre, it's already at full capacity. You're trying to bring in 300, 400 or 500 people? You'd have to be an idiot."
"If that happens, I'll lead my people and we'll come to Lorengau transit centre and close it down, and ask them nicely to transport [the asylum seekers] back to Lombrum. And if we have to put a boom gate on the entrance into Lorengau, to stop all ex-patriates and asylum seekers from coming into Lorengau town, we will do that."
Knight said he doesn't oppose the plan because he dislikes the asylum seekers -- he has previously said the men at Manus are among "some of the most intelligent beautiful people I have met" -- but because the town and facility could not support a sudden influx of several hundred people, and that the asylum seekers would not be able to integrate into the wider community.
The information that I have now is after camp closed and staff repatriated asylum seeks will be concentrated lorengau east for resettlement— Ron Knight (@pontuna2run) April 16, 2017
Over 500 people crammed into 230 man facility with NO guards or staff. This will mean disgruntled locals will be able to retaliate.— Ron Knight (@pontuna2run) April 16, 2017
Knight said PNG would be within its rights to declare the asylum seekers to be illegal aliens, and to deport them back to "the last port of embarkation" -- which he said would be either Australia or Christmas Island.
"It's not PNG's problem, it's Australia's problem. You look at these people as asylum seekers and refugees, but Papua New Guineans view them as illegal immigrants," he said.
"We have a migration act. If we use it, we can have all of them declared illegal aliens and deported the next day. They will go back to the last port of embarkation which is Australia and Christmas Island."
I am apologizing to UNHCR on my countries behalf and humbly ask them to step on and take control of their mandated charges. The need help— Ron Knight (@pontuna2run) April 16, 2017
Knight, however, has come under fire himself in recent days after a PNG court upheld a ruling dismissing him from parliament over a disputed purchase of a boat. The case has been ongoing for several years, with reviews and appeals initiated by Knight, but a court recently dismissed his latest appeal. However, Knight has maintained he will continue to fight the ruling, and his details and position remain on the PNG parliament's website. Knight maintains he is still the legitimate MP for Manus, despite the ruling.
Knight called for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to intervene and help settle the dispute.
"The only answer is with UNHCR. They have to step in," he said.
"Australia and PNG didn't have UNHCR in the deal in the first place because they knew it was unconstitutional and unlawful. They didn't want UNHCR in there... The process was too long. Instead of having six months to process an asylum seeker, it's taken four years for them to do anything."
We contacted the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for comment about Knight's claims that the remaining asylum seekers could be deported. In a statement, a spokeswoman said "as the Minister [Dutton] has made clear on numerous occasions; no one from Manus Island Regional Processing Centre will ever be settled in Australia".
The spokeswoman also pointed to an interview on Sky News last month, where Dutton addressed questions about the future of the men left after the U.S. agreement.
In the interview, Dutton claimed "under the agreement struck by [former PM Kevin] Rudd, if people are found to be refugees, given that PNG is itself is a signatory to the convention and to the protocols, PNG has the responsibility to settle those people."
"If people have been found not to be refugees, then the expectation is that they will be returned home."
Dutton said people found to be genuine refugees, but not accepted by the U.S., would be "staying in PNG, that's the arrangement as it currently stands".
"There is a facility at East Lorengau close by where some people are currently residing, those people that have been found to be refugees who are transitioning into PNG society. So there are facilities available and there'll be resources available to provide people with settlement options."
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