By Charlotte Greenfield and Tom Westbrook
WELLINGTON/SYDNEY (Reuters) – New Zealand will not resettle refugees occupying a shuttered Australian-run detention in Papua New Guinea without Australia’s agreement, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday, rejecting a suggestion to deal with PNG directly.
More than 400 asylum seekers have shut themselves inside the Australian-run Manus Island Centre for the past 17 days, defying attempts by Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) to close the camp in a standoff the United Nations describes as a “looming humanitarian crisis”.
Australia has rejected New Zealand’s offer to take in some of the men, but on Thursday New Zealand Immigration Minister Peter Dutton suggested it could approach PNG directly to arrange it.
But Ardern ruled that option out.
“It’s clearly up to Australia to take up that offer,” she said in a statement.
“Australia holds all the critical information on the refugees in Manus Island so any take-up of refugees has to be organized with Australia’s assistance,” she said.
The U.N. refugee agency this week urged Australia to accept New Zealand’s offer.
But Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Friday the priority was an existing refugee swap deal he negotiated with former U.S. President Barack Obama last year and that an agreement with New Zealand was “no near-term prospect at all”.
Australia’s “sovereign borders” immigration policy, under which it refuses to allow asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores, has been heavily criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups but has bipartisan political support in Australia.
The asylum seekers on Manus island have been holed up inside the camp without power or running water since it closed on Oct. 31, saying they fear violent reprisals from the community if they move to transit centers, pending possible resettlement to the United States.
Food and medical supplies for the 421 men were running low and they were reliant on three small wells and rain water for drinking, according to people inside the camp.
“Today the refugees are watching clouds to collect some rain,” Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist from Iran who has been detained on Manus island for more than four years told Reuters via text.
Papua New Guinea has threatened to forcibly move the men though three deadlines have passed largely without incident.
The Papua New Guinea government could not immediately be reached for comment.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook and Charlotte Greenfield)