A police operation is under way on Manus Island, with Papua New Guinean police and immigration officers entering the former detention centre in an effort to move detainees out, more than three weeks into a deteriorating humanitarian crisis.
Refugees inside the centre have reported large numbers of officers, including the paramilitary police mobile squad, have entered and given them an hour to leave. The officers shouted at detainees and demanded they hand over their phones.
Refugees described police as intimidating and aggressive as they dismantled structures and threw away refugees’ belongings. One officer was seen carrying a large bush knife, which are common on Manus.
A video livestreamed from inside the facility showed men chanting “human rights help us, they want to kill us”, and two men apparently unconscious. Walid Zazai, filming the scene, said it was a medical emergency but they had no assistance. “We don’t know if he had a heart attack because he had previously problems,” Zazai said of one.
The second unconscious man had epilepsy, he said.
On Thursday morning Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, confirmed a “police operation” and accused the detainees of trashing it.
“I think it’s outrageous that people are still there,” he told 2GB radio. “They’ve trashed the facility, they’re living in squalor.”
“The Australian taxpayers have paid about $10m for a new facility and we want people to move.”
He likened the situation to building a new house for tenants who refuse to move in.
Dutton’s repeated claims that the alternative accommodation units are ready and suitable for detainees have been consistently debunked by observers and published videos and photos of blocked toilets, bathrooms without water, and buildings still under construction. Detainees have repeatedly claimed they are not safe in the new housing in Lorengau, citing frequent violent attacks and a lack of security.
Some refugees have taken shelter on roofs inside the decommissioned detention centre. Some had been sleeping on top of shipping containers, in expectation the police would move in.
Behrouz Boochani, a journalist and refugee inside the centre, said immigration and police had started searching rooms and telling people: “Move, move,” and, “You only have an hour to move.”
Boochani said some refugees were building barriers to halt police progress, others were hiding.
He added: “They are destroying everything. Shelters, tanks, beds and all of our belongings. They are very aggressive and put our belongings in the rubbish bins. The refugees still are silent are watching them so scared.
“The refugees are sitting peacefully and immigration and police are asking them to leave the prison camp. The refugees are only listening and completely silent. They are talking on the microphone and shouting ‘move, move’.”
Video from the Sudanese refugee Abdul Aziz Adam showed immigration officials in yellow shirts surrounded by uniformed police. It showed one PNG police officer issuing instructions over a megaphone to the 380 men barricaded inside. “This place where you are living right now is no longer legal centre for the refugees and non-refugees reside,” the officer says. “This place will be handed back to the PNG defence force.
“It is their military base, and your staying here … would be seen as illegal and unlawful.
PNG police had originally planned to launch its “Operation Helpim Friends” on Wednesday, but it was cancelled pending a court appeal, now adjourned to 15 December. The police commissioner, Gari Baki, described the operation as “politely” asking the detainees to leave, and said no force would be used.
An Australian federal police spokesman denied earlier reports its officers were involved. He said their one liaison officer there was not linked to Thursday’s action.
Amnesty International said serious injuries were entirely foreseeable, and the PNG government was “knowingly placing the refugees at risk”. Amnesty’s Pacific researcher, Kate Schuetze said: “There is no justification for this action.
“International law and standards demand that refugees enjoy international protection. The country where they sought refuge – Australia – has violated their rights at every turn. PNG has aided and enabled Australia’s policy of cruelty and degradation of the refugees.”
The Australian director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said Australia’s reputation was on the line. “Australia is standing idly by as PNG security forces are trashing the compound, confiscating phones, and aggressively telling refugees and asylum seekers they must leave,” she said.
On Thursday morning a letter, signed by Australians of the Year between 1983 and 2015, pleaded with the Australian government to restore essential services and allow doctors inside the centre.
The situation was deteriorating, and the letter warned it was “inevitable” people would become sick and even die because of the lack of food and water, medical care and sanitation.
Last week members of the Australian Medical Association voted unanimously to call on the government to allow doctors access to the centre.
On Wednesday the UNHCR said the humanitarian crisis was human-made and entirely preventable. It was a “damning indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations”, said Nai Jit Lam, the UNHCR’s deputy regional representative in Canberra.