The Manus Island immigration detention center will shut down, and Australia will have to make alternative arrangements for a reported 900 refugees and asylum seekers held captive there, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced Wednesday.
The announcement comes in response to a ruling by the PNG Supreme Court on Tuesday that deemed the policy of detaining migrants on the island unconstitutional.
“Both the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments shall forthwith take all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees at the relocation center on Manus Island and the continued breach of the asylum seekers or transferees constitutional and human rights,” the judges’ decision reads.
“We did not anticipate the asylum seekers to be kept as long as they have at the Manus center,” O’Neill said.
The Manus Regional Processing Center is one of two offshore locations established by the Australian government to house undocumented migrants arriving by boat while their claims for asylum are processed. Nauru, a Pacific island, is home to the second facility.
Both centers have been largely criticized by humanitarian and civil rights groups for the prison-like conditions and slow processing times. Many of the refugees have been in limbo for more than a year. The latest data from the Australian government reports the average length of detention as 454 days, according to CNN. Sexual assaults, riots and self-mutilation are continued problems for the centers.
The Nauru center in particular made world headlines when a young Iranian detainee set himself on fire in front of UN representatives in protest of the conditions.
The groundbreaking decision also left questions concerning the fiscal impact. Australia pays both countries to keep the centers in operation.
Prime Minister O’Neill reassured businesses that he would partner with Australia to ease damage to the economy as a result of the closure.
“These are many small and medium enterprises and their employees who will now be out of work. Our government will work with Australia in order to transition these businesses and workers to new opportunities so that their communities do not suffer,” O’Neill said.
The future of the hundreds awaiting decision remains uncertain. O’Neill said his country would only welcome refugees who want to assimilate into society and make a “contribution to [the] community.”
“It is clear that several of these refugees do not want to settle in Papua New Guinea and that is their decision.”
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton rejected the idea of opening its borders to any unprocessed refugees.
“No one who attempts to travel to Australia illegally by boat will settle in Australia,” he said in a statement. “Those in the Manus Island Regional Processing Center found to be refugees are able to resettle in Papua New Guinea. Those found not to be refugees should return to their country of origin.
“People who have attempted to come illegally by boat and are now in the Manus facility will not be settled in Australia.”
The nation’s prime minister was less certain in his assessment of the issue.
“We were not a party to the litigation as you know, but this is something that’s under consideration. I can’t provide a definitive road map from here,” PM Malcolm Turnbull said in a press conference.