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Asylum seekers ordered to leave detention centre in Papua New Guinea as it's sealed off

The UN Refugee Agency calls for calm after receiving reports of force being used to remove refugees and asylum seekers from a centre officially closed three weeks ago on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

Food and water reportedly confiscated, UN warns of 'looming humanitarian crisis'

Refugee advocates hold placards as they participate in a protest in Sydney, Australia, against the treatment of asylum seekers at Australia-run detention centres in Papua New Guinea. (David Gray/Reuters)

The United Nations Refugee Agency called for calm on Thursday after receiving reports of force being used to remove refugees and asylum seekers from a centre officially closed three weeks ago on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

About 50 asylum seekers departed an Australian-run detention camp in Papua New Guinea after police moved into the complex, confiscating food, water and personal belongings from the roughly 310 who remained.

"We urge both governments to engage in constructive dialogue, to de-escalate the tensions and work on urgent lasting solutions to their plight," the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement.

Papua New Guinea police sealed off the detention camp and ordered asylum seekers occupying it to leave, asylum seekers told Reuters.

The asylum seekers have been shutting themselves inside the Manus Island Centre for more than three weeks, defying attempts by Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) to close it in a standoff the United Nations described as a "looming humanitarian crisis."

"Right now we have no water," one of the asylum seekers in the camp said in a mobile telephone message. "I came back to my room and they took my laptop and money and cigarettes."

A video shot by Sudanese refugee Abdul Aziz and posted on Facebook showed police using a megaphone to tell the asylum seekers to leave because their stay at the camp, located on land used by the PNG navy, was illegal.

Footage he later posted on Twitter showed men boarding mini-buses and buses.

Tim Costello, chief advocate at the World Vision Australia aid group, told Reuters by phone from outside the camp that he had seen buses leaving.

Calls to PNG immigration and police were not returned.

Amnesty International cited reports of immigration officials entering the camp armed with sticks and knives.

"The risks of serious injury if the authorities use force now is completely foreseeable," Kate Schuetze, a researcher for the London-based rights group said in a statement.

Asylum seekers sent to camps

The Manus island camp in PNG, and another on the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, have been the cornerstones of Australia's controversial immigration policy, which has been strongly criticized by the United Nations and rights groups.

Australia opened the camps in a bid to stem a flow of asylum seekers making dangerous voyages by boat to its shores.

Under its "sovereign borders" immigration policy, Australia refuses to land asylum seekers arriving by sea, instead sending them to the offshore camps.

Witnesses in the camp said officials in army fatigues led away Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been at the camp for four years and regularly posts social media messages on conditions.

Boochani later posted that he had been released after being handcuffed for several hours and had left the camp.

He had earlier told Reuters by text message that police and immigration officials removed water supplies and the men's belongings.

"My understanding is that a number of people, a small number of people, have been arrested, including the individual," 
Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton told SKY News, referring to Boochani.

Pictures sent via a messaging service showed upturned boxes of food and torn parcels of rice and instant noodles and smashed furniture including broken beds.

'We don't want another prison'

PNG's Supreme Court ruled last year that the centre, first opened in 2001, breached its laws and fundamental human rights, leading to the decision to close it.

But the asylum seekers say they fear for their safety if moved to a transit centre also on the island, and risk being resettled in PNG or another developing nation permanently.

"We don't want another prison. We want to leave this place, but they need to give a good solution for us," the first asylum seeker said.

"We don't want another prison. We want a third country."

In this Nov. 9 image supplied by Hass Hassaballa, asylum seekers sit on the ground as they refuse to leave the Manus Island detention centre. (Hass Hassaballa/Associated Press)

Most of those in the camp are from Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Syria.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters in Canberra on Thursday that the transit centre facilities had food, water, security and medical services.

"They think this is some way they can pressure the Australian government to let them come to Australia. Well, we will not be pressured," Turnbull said.

The United Nations has urged Australia to accept an offer by New Zealand to take some of the men.

With files from The Associated Press.

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