SYDNEY (AP) — Lawyers for the asylum seekers living at Australia's detention center on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island sought a court injunction to keep the facility open Tuesday, as fears mounted of violence amid reports of looting and rock-throwing by local residents.
Papua New Guinea authorities plan to cut off water, electricity and food supplies to the center inside the Lombrun Navy Base at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The closing date was set after Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court ruled last year that Australia's detention of asylum seekers there was illegal and unconstitutional.
The 606 men — diverted by Australian authorities to Manus after attempting to reach Australia by boat — refuse to comply with an order to relocate to three nearby facilities because they say the alternatives are less secure and they fear for their safety amid threats of violence from locals.
With the center left unguarded as of Tuesday morning, reports emerged of locals, some armed with machetes, looting the facility.
Sudanese refugee Abdul Mohammad said asylum seekers and refugees feared for their lives. "Some of the locals have come inside and are stealing boxes, fire alarms, the fans, some of them are taking the air-conditioners," he said by phone from Manus Island.
Bangladeshi refugee Mohammad Ohidul Islam said some locals have been throwing rocks at refugees. "We are really scared," he said from inside the center.
Rohingya Muslim refugee Imran Mohammed told the Sydney Morning Herald that local police were occasionally patrolling the site but were "not doing anything."
Media reports said some 100 locals rallied in Lorengau on Tuesday morning, calling for the refugees to be sent to Australia and not brought into their community.
Trying to prevent the closure, lawyers acting for the Sydney-based Refugee Action Coalition applied to the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court for an injunction to prevent the facility's closure and restore the supply of food, water and electricity, warning of a "catastrophic outcome" if the detainees were evicted.
"We were in a Supreme Court hearing this morning where we're hopeful of being able to raise the immediate issues of the abuse of human rights on Manus Island," coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul told The Associated Press from Sydney.
"I'm pretty sure we'll get the urgent hearing, but am waiting to hear whether well get the urgent injunctions to stop the closure and the forced relocations."
Papua New Guinea officials have said the facility will be returned to defense forces on Wednesday and anyone remaining would be considered to be trespassing on a military base.
"Move to alternative accommodation now," read notices that were posted by immigration officials Monday night. "Anyone choosing to remain here will be liable for removal from an active PNG military base."
Locals have threatened to blockade the three intended relocation centers in the nearby town of Lorengau — two of which are not surrounded by fencing. As Papua New Guinea authorities deployed extra police to the town, Rintoul said the situation on Manus was tense.
"There's a lot of things in play," Rintoul said. "There's the court, and there's how willing the PNG police and Border Force Australia are to use force against those in the detention center.
"But we know that the Australian government is very willing to use very brutal methods. They have the capacity to continue the siege of the detention center and try to starve people out even if they balk at the use of explicit force."
The detainees have reportedly secured fencing around the Lombrun compound as a possible barricade and have cleaned trash bins to collect rainwater and reconnected cut water tanks. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation said some asylum seekers had also been seen in shops buying food and solar-powered phone chargers, in order to use their phones for lighting.
Papua New Guinea has warned Australia that after the closure it will take no responsibility for "non-refugees" and people who refused to resettle. It says Australia is responsible for finding third-country options for refugees and for returning non-refugees to their home countries.
However, the Australian immigration department insisted the closure of the center and management of refugees and non-refugees was a "matter for PNG.
"Alternative accommodation options for refugees and failed asylum seekers are ready," a statement said, adding that some people had already moved there and were comfortably accessing services and support.
For four years, Australia has paid Papua New Guinea, its nearest neighbor, and the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru to house asylum seekers who attempt to reach the Australian coast by boat. The United States has resettled 54 of them in recent weeks and is considering taking almost 1,200 more.
The first intake of refugees settled in the United States under a President Barack Obama-era deal included 25 from Papua New Guinea and 29 from Nauru. President Donald Trump described the deal as "dumb" but agreed to honor it.
Australia will not settle any refugees who try to arrive by boat — a policy that the government says dissuades asylum seekers from attempting the dangerous ocean crossing from Indonesia. Australia has also prevented boats from reaching Australia since July 2014 by using the Australian navy to turn boats back.
Six detainees have died on Manus Island, including one who was murdered, since the offshore detention center was opened in 2012.
World Vision chief advocate Tim Costello urged the federal government to evacuate detainees to Australia.
"The Turnbull government must now act quickly to avoid any further bloodshed," Costello said. "We must not abandon those we have placed in this highly volatile and dangerous situation."