SYDNEY — Australia welcomed on Friday a pledge by Papua New Guinea to begin resettling refugees from an Australian immigration detention center, despite questions about how their safety would be guaranteed in one of the region’s most dangerous countries.
Asylum seekers are a hot political issue in Australia and successive governments have vowed to stop them reaching the mainland, sending those intercepted on unsafe boats to camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru in the South Pacific.
However, Australia has struggled to find a permanent solution to settling those seeking refuge. A deal struck with Cambodia last year to relocate them there has struggled to get off the ground and many settled in Nauru have reported assaults.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton praised Papua New Guinea for the decision to begin moving those found to be genuine refugees into the community. PNG has not resettled anyone in the three years it has hosted the center.
“The PNG Government has shown with this announcement its commitment to permit those found to be refugees to get on with their lives and have a fresh start in this dynamic nation with a growing economy,” Dutton said in a statement.
Papua New Guinea struggles with endemic violence and poverty. On its travel advice website, the Australian government urges citizens to “exercise a high degree of caution” there because of “high levels of serious crime”.
Car-jacking, gang rape and a “general atmosphere of lawlessness” should all be taken into consideration before choosing to travel to the South Pacific island nation, the website says.
“Ethnic disputes continue to flare up around the country. Disputes can quickly escalate into violent clashes,” it says.
It is unclear where in PNG the refugees would be resettled and what support they would receive after they were moved into the community. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the first group to be resettled were all single men.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is under growing pressure to address Australia’s hardline policies after reports of systemic child abuse and sexual assault on Nauru and criticism by the United Nations and human rights groups.
The issue also overshadowed the launch of Canberra’s bid to join the UN Human Rights Council on Monday.
On Thursday, police in Nauru raided the offices of aid group Save the Children for a second time, the latest in a series of embarrassing incidents involving the detention center there.
Australia’s highest court is considering whether the policy of sending asylum seekers there is in breach of the constitution.