Next Tuesday, 31 October 2017, will see the closure of Manus Island’s heavily criticised detention centre and the relocation of the 800+ men held there. This moment could have been a chance for the Australian government to show that they recognised the humanity of these men, deserving of all the rights bestowed on human beings; to show that they had alternatives to indefinite detention on tiny, impoverished islands.
Offshore detention centres have been Australia’s dumping grounds for asylum seekers since 2001. First used by a Howard Liberal government, the flawed experiment was forced to close in 2007, before being reinstated by Labor in 2012. Over the last four years, the government has made every effort to keep what goes on in the centres from the media, going so far as to pass the Australian Border Force Act – legislation sentencing any staff member working in offshore detention to two years prison if caught speaking publicly about camp conditions.
And yet, headlines still managed to trickle through: man sets himself on fire; child washes up on shore; girl poisons herself to get off island; a woman undergoes an abortion because she can’t see a future; another woman can’t get an abortion following a rape. Traumatic and alarming as these stories were, the events were too far-removed from the daily life of Australia to result in government accountability.
It wasn’t until last year that momentum for the centres’ closure started to build (overlooking the continuous pleas for closure from Human Rights organisations, which governments are wont to do).
In April 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the Manus Island detention centre was illegal and unconstitutional, and demanded its closure. But this didn’t receive the level of media attention it deserved. Fortunately, in August, the Guardian released 2000 incident reports from Nauru’s detention centre, exposing alarming cases of sexual and physical abuse, many of which involved children as victims, and guards or locals as perpetrators. In other words, paid government workers were involved in abusing people who couldn’t speak up or escape. And this all took place at the centre the Australian government is now choosing to keep open indefinitely.
Of course, politicians tried to discredit the validity of the Nauru reports, but it wasn’t as easy to discredit a court ruling. Thus ended Manus Island’s $2-billion detention centre and, with it, Australia’s concern.
Over the past 18 months, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton have worked hard to keep their country as intolerant and afraid of refugees as possible.
On the cusp of Trump’s inauguration, Turnbull struck a last-minute trade deal with Obama – America taking our refugees while we take theirs. Naturally, when Trump entered office he criticised the ‘dumb deal’ and has since halved America’s required refugee intake, to 50,000. He’s also implemented a ‘strict vetting process’ – this means it can take up to two years for just one person to pass every requirement.
The Manus applicants who have applied for US resettlement have been offered the chance to stay at Nauru detention centre while they await their outcome. If they are unsuccessful, they’ll find themselves trapped in another camp with no end in sight.
Meanwhile, the remaining men at Manus Island have been given a letter outlining their future living options:
- Stay in a transit centre at Manus Island
- Find accommodation in a Papua New Guinean community
- Return to a country where they have right of residence
The letter also proclaims that no-one will be allowed to resettle in Australia, just in case that point hadn’t been driven home yet.
In a welcome twist of events, Victoria’s Supreme Court recently settled a $70 million compensation deal for the 1300 refugees held at Manus Island between November 2012 and December 2014, on the grounds of illegal detention and negligent treatment. This win, though arriving at a crucial point for the soon to be stranded men, is still only one win in a string of losses.
The demolition of the Manus Island centre is set to begin in one week, which means the water supplies are steadily decreasing, resources are diminishing, and power is being progressively shut off. The men are being smoked out, but they don’t plan on leaving. As Aziz (Abdul Aziz Muhamat) said in a recent mini-episode of The Messenger, ‘we are determined to go ahead with our resistance and we are not going to give up’.
Even the prospect of a barren campsite is more desirable than venturing out further into PNG society; incidents of violence and aggression have escalated considerably over the past few weeks. Refugees inside the centre have also been sharing their accounts from the past few years – experiences of rioting, assault, murder, theft, and torture carried out by PNG security forces and locals, often in the presence of Australian security guards.
Earlier this week, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Michael Pezzullo, was making jokes about torture at the Senate Estimates, while Peter Dutton has the gall to say that once people leave Manus and Nauru ‘they’ll start to tell a very different story about how it wasn’t that bad’. Pezzullo has also suggested that ordinary laws of trespass could apply to refugees refusing to leave: ‘They don’t have a human right to trespass.’ What an incredible time to cite human rights.
In regards to back-up options for these 800+ men, Australia has offered either a $20,000 payout if they return to their home country – unsurprisingly, few have been tempted – or a one-way ticket to Cambodia, a country that often offers to take refugees off the hands of more powerful, more affluent nations.
For me, the biggest disgrace in this situation isn’t that Australia refuses to accept refugees – though that is a festering disappointment – but rather that they refuse to accept responsibility for these people. These are people our government has locked-up for years in an island prison. People they have deprived of medical treatment (some for over three years; some others, such as Reza Barati, didn’t make it to the three-year mark). People they have separated from their families. People they have abused. People they have forgotten to treat like people.
Now, after years of neglect, abuse and torture, these men are being forced out to insecure futures and non-refuge – and the government calls this freedom!
It has become normal for Australians concerned with refugee rights to feel powerless and defeated, to be consumed by frustrations we can’t seem to voice anywhere, and to feel like our government has stopped working for the interests of human beings. But there have never been more eyes on these detention centres, and Australia’s detention practices, than in this last year. So we must use that as a catalyst.
We must pressure local representatives with questions, phone calls, emails. We must search for groups and movements already working to stop this abuse – such as Divest from Detention, or the Artist Committee’s #ArtistsAgainstAbuse protests, or RISE Refugees, or the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre or the Refugee Action Coalition – and join them in the struggle. We must create public awareness by any means possible to fight against this tide, because all human beings have the right to be free.
If the men on Manus Island aren’t giving up, then what right have we?
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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