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Australian Refugee Detention Center Is Declared Illegal By Papua New Guinea Court

Thousands of people in Melbourne, Australia, took to the streets on March 20 during a protest demanding that refugees not be sent to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or to the republic of Nauru.

It's illegal for Australia to hold asylum seekers on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court says, in a decision that clashes with a recent ruling by Australia's high court. The justices said Tuesday that the detention center runs afoul of Papua New Guinea's constitution and should be closed.

Australian officials have been adamant in saying that refugees who reach Australia outside of official means will not be allowed to settle there, citing immigration policies that were tightened in recent years.

Faced with the pending arrival of thousands of refugees and migrants, Australia reached an agreement with Papua New Guinea in 2013 that called for its northern neighbor to hold these people in detention centers hundreds of miles from Australia's shores. The deal is often called the PNG Solution — but today, Papua New Guinea's high court said the deal should never have been made.

In their order, the judges said Australia and Papua New Guinea must "take all steps necessary" to stop the "unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees" on Manus Island, according to a report by Australia's ABC network.

The network quotes one judge saying, "Treating those required to remain in the relocation centre as prisoners irrespective of their circumstances or status ... is to offend against their rights and freedoms."

Australia's highest court upheld the country's policy of sending asylum-seekers to remote offshore detention centers in early February, dealing a blow to critics who say people are being held in deplorable circumstances for indefinite terms on Manus and other islands. As NPR reported in February, "Medical staff that have visited the facilities have said conditions are appalling. Human rights groups report rampant violence and sexual abuse, including of children."

Responding to the court's ruling Tuesday, Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said it doesn't change his country's policy.

Saying that the regional processing centers had been started "to deal with the overwhelming illegal arrivals of more than 50,000 people," Dutton said that people being held on Manus Island face two possible outcomes. Those who are found to be refugees can settle in Papua New Guinea, he said, and those who are not "should return to their country of origin."

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