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Manus Island refugee processing is coming to an end — but what happens now?

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By Papua New Guinea correspondent Natalie Whiting

After six years, Australia's asylum seeker processing on Manus Island is coming to an end.

About 1,300 men were originally sent to the Papua New Guinean province, but fewer than 350 remain in the country.

The vast majority of them are now in the capital Port Moresby.

In the past few weeks, chartered planes have been bringing the refugees and non-refugees to the capital, after the new PNG Government committed to ending operations on Manus.

The PNG Government said it was a "positive and significant step" in ending regional processing, but some people, including the Governor of Manus, have raised concerns.

"Shifting them from Manus to Port Moresby, to me is just like — you're just shifting the problem from one province to another," Manus Governor Charlie Benjamin said.

Why have the asylum seekers moved off Manus?

A plane with 35 men on board touched down in Port Moresby on Thursday from Manus Island.

Among the passengers was Shaminda Kanapathi, a Sri Lankan refugee. It was the first time he had set foot outside Manus Island for almost six years.

But he says his "life is still in limbo".

"I came to Manus not knowing my future and today I leave Manus, not knowing my future," he said.

The day after he arrived, another plane landed with a handful of men on board.

There are fewer than 20 men still on the island. The Manus Governor has been told they will all be gone by half way through this month, but it could be sooner.

There are some asylum seekers who have current court cases on Manus who police say are required to stay for them to proceed. The ABC has requested details about the cases.

For years asylum seekers have been coming to Port Moresby for things like specialised medical treatment or if they were going to be resettled in the United States. But things have stepped up in recent weeks.

Last month, those men who weren't required to be in Port Moresby for the traditional reasons were asked to move there.

In the months before there had been mounting pressure from some on Manus to end the processing, including from the Governor, Charlie Benjamin.

The new PNG Government then raised the issue with Australia during a high-profile visit.

In a statement, PNG Immigration Minister Petrus Thomas said going to Port Moresby would allow the men to move on with their lives.

"They will be supported to either await their resettlement to the United States or supported to make the personal decisions regarding their future," Mr Thomas said.

The refugees are currently being kept in hotels across the city, but they have been told accommodation facilities in the community are being prepared.

While some of the men deemed non-refugees are also in hotels, 53 have been put in an immigration detention centre in Port Moresby.

Where are the refugees going?

Mr Thomas said his department was "building increased momentum to end regional processing".

"Less than 200 refugees [are] not engaged in settlement," he said in a statement.

One of the hotels in Port Moresby is filled with refugees who have been accepted to live in the United States or who are going through the US interview process.

PNG's Immigration and Citizenship Authority said 280 refugees from Manus have so far resettled in the United States.

Kurdish refugee Diako Azizi has been in the hotel since March waiting to go to the United States. He has been accepted for resettlement, but he hasn't been given a departure date.

He said the US process has taken years.

"This system — you can't find out exactly when you will go," he said.

"The same pressure I felt [on Manus], I feel it now and my family too, they worry about me.

"Five weeks I haven't contacted them because I have nothing to say."

He said he would be "starting from zero" when he arrived in the US.

"So, I don't know if it's good or not, but I just want to go," he said.

"Maybe one year or two years, it might be tough."

Elsewhere in Port Moresby, some men are in the process of being transferred, or assessed for transfer, to Australia for medical treatment under the so-called medevac law.

Will all of the refugees resettle in the United States?

Australia's Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton previously said the US would not be taking as many people as originally expected.

Not everyone who applies to resettle in the United States is accepted and some of those who have been rejected say they're worried about their futures.

Shaminda Kanapathi is one of them. He said out of a group of 20 Sri Lankan refugees, 15 had been rejected.

He is now hoping to be resettled in Canada through that country's sponsorship-based refugee program.

Thiru Somasuntharam is also applying to go to Canada, where his brother is, but he said he didn't want to get his hopes up.

"I became very hopeless; the past six years I've been hoping every day and I've been disappointed," he said, adding that doing so many interviews was also difficult.

"Since 2009, I started telling my story and I have to keep telling it and I don't know when it will end.

"I would be bursting with happiness to get to Canada and be reunited with my brother."

The group of refugees said they were scared about going out in Port Moresby because of the high crime rates in the city.

Meethan Sellakkuddi said it was tough seeing other refugees start a new life in the US.

"Why are we not given that chance?"

He left a young daughter and son when he fled Sri Lanka.

"I haven't seen them, it's really hard," he said.

In a statement the UNHCR said "Australia remains responsible for those it has transferred to Papua New Guinea and Nauru".

"UNHCR remains deeply troubled that after more than six years, no concrete solutions are currently available aside from those accepted within the framework of the United States relocation."

The PNG Government said it was continuing to encourage refugees to settle in Papua New Guinea, if they would like to.

In a statement the Australian Department of Home Affairs said "Australia will continue to support PNG's efforts to resolve the regional processing caseload through resettlement, returns and removals".

It said those not accepted to the United States could settle in PNG or engage in private sponsorship pathways.

About 50 refugees have taken up the offer to settle in PNG since processing began.

What about those who were found not to be refugees?

In February, there were 128 non-refugees in PNG and seven of them had been found to be owed "complementary protection", which means they can't be returned to their home country, despite not being classified as a refugee.

An Australian-funded detention centre in Port Moresby opened last month near the Bomana prison and 53 of the non-refugees are now being kept there.

The head of PNG's immigration authority, Solomon Kantha, said they were being offered financial assistance to return to their home countries.

"Non-refugees are unlawful in the exact same way as someone who overstays their visa or an individual that crosses our borders illegally," he said in a statement.

"They have no visa, no right to remain in our country and must depart to their home country."

Concerns are being raised that the men in the centre haven't had communication with anyone outside — including their families and lawyers.

Father Giorgio Licini from the Catholic Bishops Conference of PNG and Solomon Islands said he would like to see the UN or another organisation given access to the centre.

"The main concern is the total isolation, as they have no contact with the outside world," he said.

An Australian Senate inquiry has heard doctors and lawyers have lost contact with medevac clients who have been detained at the Bomana facility.

The Australian Department of Home Affairs said the "management of unlawful non-citizens at the Bomana Immigration Centre is a matter for the PNG Government".

"The Papua New Guinea Government has advised it has engaged a medical service provider to ensure that those failed asylum seekers that are detained by the Papua New Guinea Government receive necessary medical services," it said in a statement.

In Papua New Guinea, there is no review or appeal system for people who aren't granted refugee status. Some of the non-refugees say they received the classification because they refused to take part in the initial processing out of fear.

What will now happen on Manus?

PNG's Immigration Authority said it plans to turn one of the old refugee accommodation centres on Manus into an educational facility.

Immigration Minister Petrus Thomas said the province needed to rebuild after the asylum seekers.

"In their attempt to criticise regional processing, the international media and advocacy groups have inaccurately and unfairly characterised the Province as unwelcoming," his statement said.

"With the end of regional processing the Manusian community will be able to rebuild their identity separate to this issue."

Governor Charlie Benjamin said there were differing views in the community.

Many people have called for the asylum seekers to leave, because of social issues, including the birth of several children, but it has also provided much-needed employment and an influx of money.

"It's mainly those ones who were being employed or are providing subcontracts and all of this who are the ones [disappointed about the end of regional processing]," the Governor said.

"But by keeping them longer, we more or less are using them to make money, and to me, that is not right. It is morally wrong."

Australian Broadcasting Corporation