SYDNEY - Dozens of asylum seekers held in a detention centre in Papua New Guinea have elected to accept cash from Australia to return to their home countries, officials and refugees said, the largest exodus from the South Pacific camp in four years.
Australia has ratcheted up efforts to clear the Manus Island detention centre of people who have twice had their refugee claims rejected, amid fears a deal for the US to take refugees has fallen through.
Reuters reported late last month that asylum seekers were being repeatedly called to meet with Australian officials and pressured to take amounts of up to $25,000 to return to their home countries or face deportation.
As legal attempts to halt the threat of deportation stall, as many 29 men, all of whom have spent four years in detention, have elected to leave in the last few weeks, sources familiar with the situation told Reuters.
A group of nine Nepalese men will depart PNG on Friday, one source said.
One source told Reuters approximately 14 detainees have asked the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to facilitate their transfer home. Refugees on Manus Island said a further 15 have not used the IOM to return home.
"There is a growing thought that it is better to move on and get on with our lives rather than hang onto some false hope," an official Australian source told Reuters, who declined to be named
"We haven't seen as many people leave since the first year of the camp being reopened in late 2012."
Offering money to failed asylum seekers to return home is not illegal, however, the sums being offered have more than doubled since a year ago and are far above the funds being offered elsewhere. Germany has announced plans to offer up to 1200 euros ($F3073) to asylum seekers to return home.
After four years in detention in conditions widely criticised by organisations such as the UN many of the detainees are suffering mental health issues.
The PNG Supreme Court last year ruled the Manus Island centre breached human rights, was illegal and must close.
Voluntary returns of failed refugees will ease criticism of Australia and its policy of indefinite detention for anyone who attempts to make it to Australia by boat. But finding a solution for the refugees on Manus Island, the bulk of the more than 800 men held in PNG, will prove more difficult.
The US has agreed to resettle up 1250 men, woman and children on Manus Island and Nauru, though security interviews have stalled, hinting Washington may leaning towards revoking on the deal.