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FILE PHOTO - Security fences surround buildings inside the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, February 11, 2017. Behrouz Boochani/Handout via REUTERS


By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia will spend up to A$250 million (£148 million) housing nearly 800 refugees and asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea for the next 12 months after its controversial detention centre closes this month.

But hundreds of detainees are refusing the leave the Australian-run and funded Manus Island detention centre, which will close on Oct. 31, fearing for their safety in the general community on Manus Island off Papua New Guinea's north coast.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist held on Manus Island for four years, said detainees fear being assaulted if they moved to the new, Australian-funded Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre.

"Refugees either move to Lorengau where they risk being attacked by angry local people, or be taken over by PNG defence forces who have already seriously threatened their safety," Boochani told Reuters.

Australia refuses to allow asylum seekers arriving by boat to reach its shores, instead detaining them in offshore centres on Manus and the South Pacific island nation of Nauru.

The United Nations and rights groups have for years cited human rights abuses among detainees in the centres.The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the Manus centre was illegal and the government in the capital Port Moresby ordered its closure.

Australia had hoped the detainees would be either resettled into Papua New Guinea society or the United States, under a controversial refugee swap, by the time the centre closed.

So far, only 54 refugees have moved to the United States.

Deputy commissioner of Australian Border Force Mandy Newton said on Monday that Australia would fund the operation of three new transit centres on Manus for detainees.

"Refugees will be provided funding to purchase their own food and other personal items, security will be provided at three facilities and health care will be provided at the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre," Newton told a Senate hearing in Canberra.

"I estimate it will cost between A$150-A$250 million."

The United Nations last week warned of a "humanitarian crisis" amid fears Australia would walk away completely from any involvement with refugees on the tiny Pacific Island.

Refugee advocates said the new funding will not end a stand-off between asylum seekers and Australia, which they fear threatens to escalate into violence.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry)

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