GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations human rights office called on Australia on Friday to restore food, water and health services to about 600 interned refugees and asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea, which Canberra cut off three days ago.
The detainees in the Manus Island Centre have defied attempts by the governments of both Australia and PNG to close the camp, saying they fear violent reprisals from the local community if they are moved to other “transit centers”.
“We call on the Australian government ... who interned the men in the first place to immediately provide protection, food, water and other basic services,” U.N. rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.
Australia has an obligation to do so under international human rights law and the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, he said.
There was no immediate comment from Australia or its representatives in Geneva. Its government has said the camp had been ruled illegal by PNG authorities and it had committed to supply other sites for 12 months.
Colville joined the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in warning of an “unfolding humanitarian emergency” in the center where asylum seekers began digging wells on Thursday to try to find water as their food supplies dwindled.
The remote Manus Island center has been a key part of Australia’s disputed immigration policy under which it refuses to allow asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores, detaining them instead in PNG and Naura in the South Pacific.
“We repeat our overall concerns about Australian offshore processing centers which are unsustainable, inhumane and contradictory to its human rights obligations,” Colville said.
Around 500 of the men have still not had their asylum claims processed, he said.
“And obviously the sooner the better, some of them have been there I think for four years,” Colville said. “So that’s a very long time to sit in effectively a detention center disguised as a regional processing center without your case being processed.”
The alternative accommodation being proposed is not finished or adequate to meet their needs, including security, he said.
“We have conveyed to the Australian government and to the local government of Papua New Guinea as well that until the time the accommodation is ready, refugees should not be moved there,” UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said.
“But also we have urged Australia and PNG to de-escalate the situation, resume basic services - water, electricity, medical services as well,” he said.
The last food distribution was on Sunday, he said.
“Australia’s policy of deterrence by rescuing people at sea, mistreating them and abandoning them has become a notion of cruelty,” Baloch said.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Larry King and Andrew Heavens