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Why Australia is closing its refugee detention center on Manus Island

Papua New Guinea's prime minister announced Wednesday that the offshore refugee detention center will close, following mounting evidence of abuse and human rights violations there. 

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    Asylum seekers look at the media from behind a fence at the Manus Island detention centre, Papua New Guinea in this picture taken March 21, 2014.
    Eoin Blackwell/AAP/Reuters
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After years of controversy and claims of human rights violations, Australia is closing its refugee detention center on Manus Island. 

In an announcement made Wednesday, Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said that Australia and PNG were in agreement that the offshore Australian detention center, located on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, must close. He did not say what would become of the 854 men currently housed there but said options were being discussed. 

The decision comes after talks between PNG officials and Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton, according to The Guardian. The offshore detention centers, meant to deter refugees from seeking asylum in Australia, have been criticized by the United Nations and various human rights groups for poor conditions and alleged human rights violations. 

The Christian Science Monitor's Bamzi Banchiri reported in April: 

Under the controversial program that has drawn widespread international criticism, asylum seekers heading for Australian shores by boat are intercepted by military vessels patrolling the waters and sent to its northern neighbor. The agreement was set up between the two nations in 2013, in which Australia agreed to give Papua New Guinea $309 million in exchange for establishing the refugee camp.

Australian policymakers supporting the program have long argued that the program is intended to protect the lives of the asylum seekers traveling by boat, alluding to the recent high number of asylum seekers who die at sea, while attempting to reach Europe.

In March of 2015, Human Rights Watch reported that since 2013, when Australia began sending all refugees to Nauru and Manus, none had been resettled in Papua New Guinea. 

"Asylum claims are not processed in a fair, transparent or expedient manner, at a significant cost to detainees’ physical and mental health," Human Rights Watch wrote. "There are reports of physical and sexual abuse of detainees. Recent hunger strikes on Manus Island point to the poor conditions endured by asylum seekers and the uncertainty they face because of prolonged refugee status determination procedures."

In April, a Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court ordered the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments to "take all steps necessary" to stop the "unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees." The system violated the human rights of asylum seekers by detaining them since they never willingly entered Papua New Guinea, the court said. 

However, the order did not appear to have an immediate impact on Australia's policy.

"It does not alter Australia's border protection policies – they remain unchanged," Mr. Dutton, the immigration minister, said at the time. "No one who attempts to travel to Australia illegally by boat will settle in Australia." 

The announcement on Wednesday follows a leak last week of 2,000 incident reports documenting the abuse of refugees on the island nation of Nauru, which houses a similar Australian detention center.

The reports included "multiple cases of detainees cutting themselves, security officers propositioning and harassing female detainees, and dozens of abuses against children," the Monitor's Ben Rosen reported. "There are 159 reports of threatened self-harm involving children alone."

The leaked reports drew criticism from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Australian Department of Immigration and Border said in a statement that it had forwarded the cases to the Nauru police for investigation. 

Though the mounting evidence of abuse and human rights violations on Manus and Nauru have prompted outrage among many Australians, polls suggest that a majority of Australians are in favor of deterring refugees from settling there. In a 2015 poll by Essential Report, 58 percent of Australians said they "totally agree" and 30 percent said they "strongly agree" with the government's policy to turn back asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat.

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