Reuters International

Asylum-seekers look through a fence at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea March 21, 2014. AAP/Eoin Blackwell/via REUTERS

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By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea has relaxed restrictions on nearly 900 asylum seekers held on behalf of Australia, allowing them to leave the detention centre during the day, a lawyer said on Thursday, but a rights group dismissed the move as "window-dressing".

Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court last month ruled detention of refugees on the country's Manus Island was illegal, forcing the government of the tiny Pacific Island nation to announce it would close the camp.

Papua New Guinea has since allowed the 898 men held on Manus to leave the camp during the day, Ben Lomai, a lawyer acting for many of the detainees, told Reuters. They sign up for one of three buses to a nearby town and return to the camp in the evening.

"Papua New Guinea has relaxed restrictions on the detainees a little bit. They can now go into town and move about the camp freely," said Lomai.

With the easing of restrictions, Papua New Guinea had ended detention of asylum seekers and refugees, Esther Gaegaming, deputy chief migration officer, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, complying with the Supreme Court order.

But refugee advocates dismissed the move as superficial.

"Papua New Guinea can open the gates to fulfil some technicality, but people are not free to move out of the detention centre wherever they like," said Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition.

The long-term fate of the detainees remains uncertain, with Papua New Guinea and Australia arguing that each other is responsible for resettling them.

A decision could take months, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said on Monday. That timetable could put the politically sensitive decision beyond a federal election on July 2, although Australia's tough immigration policy is expected to be a feature of one of the longest poll campaigns in the country's history.

Under Australian law, anyone intercepted trying to reach the country by boat is sent for processing to camps on Manus or on Nauru. They are never eligible to be resettled in Australia.

A Bangladeshi refugee died of heart failure on Nauru on Wednesday, the second death in as many weeks on the island where detainees have been hurting themselves in protest.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

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