SYDNEY (AP) — The fate of hundreds of asylum seekers being held in a detention center in Papua New Guinea was in limbo on Wednesday as the country's prime minister announced the facility would close in response to a court ruling that Australia's detention of the men on the island nation is illegal.
Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said he would immediately ask Australia to come up with alternative arrangements for the 900 asylum seekers and refugees currently held on the Pacific nation's Manus Island.
The decision prompted fresh questions about the future of Australia's divisive policy of refusing to accept asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat. Australia pays Papua New Guinea and Nauru to hold them in detention camps instead.
"We did not anticipate the asylum seekers to be kept as long as they have at the Manus Center," O'Neill said in a statement.
He said that those deemed to be legitimate refugees could resettle in Papua New Guinea "if they wish to be a part of our society and make a contribution to our community."
"It is clear that several of these refugees do not want to settle in Papua New Guinea and that is their decision," he said.
O'Neill's announcement, which gave no timeframe for the facility's closure, follows a ruling by the nation's Supreme Court on Tuesday that said the detention of the men at Manus was a violation of their constitutional right to personal liberty. Australian officials have been scrambling to respond to the decision, with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton saying none of the men will be resettled in Australia despite the pleas of human rights groups.
The chaos came as an Iranian refugee at Australia's detention center on Nauru set himself on fire in an apparent protest over Australia's strict asylum seeker policies. Dutton said the man would be airlifted off the island for medical treatment on Wednesday night.
"He is in a very, very serious condition and his outlook is not good at all," Dutton told reporters.
Dutton insisted the court ruling would not change Australia's policy. Australian officials were in talks with other countries that could potentially take detainees who had been declared genuine refugees, Dutton said. Australia already has a deal with Cambodia that allows refugees held on Nauru to settle there, though only five people have taken up that option.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the government had no immediate plan to contend with Tuesday's court ruling, which ordered both countries' governments to quickly end the detention of the men held at the facility.
"We were not a party to the litigation as you know, but this is something that's under consideration," Turnbull told reporters in Brisbane. "I can't provide a definitive road map from here."
The 23-year-old Iranian refugee on Nauru set himself on fire in a protest intended to coincide with a visit to the island by representatives of the U.N. refugee agency, Nauru's government said in a statement.
Self-harming incidents do happen on occasion at Australia's immigration detention camps, with asylum seekers cutting themselves, swallowing chemicals or sewing their mouths shut as a form of protest. But Wednesday's incident was particularly serious.
Asked if he felt any responsibility over the apparent desperation of asylum seekers left languishing in detention, Dutton replied: "I feel terribly for people that have been conned by people smugglers to pay thousands of dollars believing that they were coming to Australia."