What to say about the unthinkable crisis on Manus Island, a situation inextricable and dire? How do we offer solidarity and break the overwhelming sense of hopelessness, for those in detention and for activists?
We must start by acknowledging that yes, the situation is incredibly grim. There’s no point pretending our forces are stronger than they are, or that the occasional slightly-less-shocking opinion poll actually reflects significant changes in the general contours of public opinion. In other words, it is still the case, all things considered, that only about a third of the Australian population genuinely supports refugee rights. In fact, most polls continue to suggest a disturbing proportion of the population believe the government’s migration and refugee policies are too soft! So of course people who do support refugee rights often feel hopeless.
For several decades now, the behaviour of Labor and Liberal governments on the issue of refugees has been a shameful descent to the bottom. Occasionally, we glimpsed what kind of horror ‘the bottom’ might truly entail. We saw it when SAS troops stormed the MV Tampa, and when Australian authorities stood by and let 353 people drown as the SIEV-X sank. We recognised it again in the gruelling stand-offs at Merak, and on the Oceanic Viking, both involving Sri Lankan asylum seekers stuck at sea as they bargained for their lives.
Last year it was visible again, in the leaked ‘Nauru files’, detailing over two thousand cases of abuse, sexual assault and self-harm, more than half of which involved children, between 2013 and 2015.
Then there are the names of the dozens who’ve died in the camps, and outside the camps too – the names of those who self-immolated in the streets of famous Australian towns like Geelong, or those lost at sea, all those uncounted thousands of people whose vessels foundered on the walls of Fortress Australia. And we can all recall the night in February 2014 when staff on the Australian public payroll beat Reza Berati to death inside the Manus Island camp. Perhaps some of us thought to ourselves then, ‘Well at least we’re not shooting refugees yet’. Then Good Friday 2017 happened.
And still, this was not the lowest we could sink.
On 31 October, Dutton and Turnbull showed us what the bottom might actually be: six hundred refugees abandoned on Manus Island, as Australian authorities cut-off food, water, and electricity, and removed all staff. And the now broken shell of the concentration camp, the site in which these men had been beaten, tormented, and tortured for four years, feels less dangerous than the risks of venturing out into the local area, where there are people armed with machetes and paramilitary police units. Now, the unarmed, starving men are under siege inside their former concentration camp. The sheer depravity of it would have been unimaginable even in the days of the Tampa.
Since the Gillard government re-opened the Manus Island camp in 2012, the men imprisoned there have been subject to violence and lies from both the Australian and Papua New Guinean governments. Even as Australian authorities left the camp last week, Dutton took a moment to smear the refugees as ‘illegals’ being ‘aided and abetted by so called ‘advocates’ and the Greens’. For their part, PNG politicians too have tried to whip up hostility and racism towards the refugees, accusing them of taking resources from poverty-stricken locals. This has clearly been instrumental in fomenting the deadly violence that regularly breaks out and that now stalks the six hundred men standing their ground.
The crisis on Manus Island is a challenge to all of us. What can we do? The ALP offers no alternative. Both major parties support boat turn-backs and offshore processing with no resettlement in Australia for people who come by boat. The only differences between the two parties relates to Temporary Protection Visas (the ALP will abolish them) and the size of the humanitarian intake (the ALP will increase it). But as long as they continue refusing any settlement in Australia for people who come by boat – some of the poorest and most vulnerable of refugees – neither party has anything to offer the men on Manus Island, or the refugees on Nauru. The reality is that the refugee solidarity campaign must be prepared to keep fighting for our central demands regardless of who is in power.
Of those demands, ‘Bring Them Here’ remains key, despite some having already given it up for moderated alternatives, like ‘evacuate now’. But even though that hypothetical evacuation doesn’t necessarily involve bringing the refugees to Australia, it in fact remains every bit as unlikely. As events this past week have painfully demonstrated, there is nowhere to evacuate to. New Zealand’s offer, flatly refused by Dutton, would only see 150 people resettled there. And after all the hype, only around 50 men were sent to the US as part of the so-called US deal. These figures are a tiny fraction of the numbers who need to get off Manus and Nauru immediately.
And, as is so often the case with schemes the Australian Immigration Department devises, the US deal also involves new forms of calculated cruelty. For example, it requires fathers to formally and permanently relinquish custody of children. This from those self-declared defenders of ‘family values’ in the Liberal Party. But the real problem with the US deal was that it represented a victory for the Australian government in their efforts to utterly wipe their hands of any responsibility towards people seeking asylum in Australia. It may have offered a slim chance of refuge to a handful of people, but this is hardly a victory for the left. Rather, it is an aspect of our drawn-out retreat.
This is why our focus must remain tight, our vision sharp. We must demand the government bring all those people from the Manus and Nauru camps here to the Australian mainland immediately. We can add, because it’s too easy to ignore in the heat of the moment, that when we say ‘Bring Them Here’ we don’t mean bring them here and throw them into the onshore camps, those notorious ‘factories for mental illness’, where the government can continue torturing them until they forcefully deport them to some other place. We mean bring them here into our communities and our workplaces, give them safety, give them help, give them a decent life, and let them stay.
After all this time and all these relentless defeats, ‘Bring Them Here’ might seem impossible, but the hope it expresses is our vital ingredient, for both those inside and outside the camps. Behrouz Boochani reminds us that the whole point of Manus is to destroy hope.
The governing system of the prison on Manus and the companies working to implement this are focused on impacting the mind and spirit of refugees in a systematic manner to destroy our hopes for a future.
For the men held in Manus, Boochani explains, ‘hope is our secret weapon … hope is dangerous’. This applies equally to those of us on the outside trying to organise solidarity.
But where do we find hope now, the week after the Manus Island detention centre has closed?
We can find it most immediately in the resistance of the people in the camps themselves. For over 90 days, up until the formal closing of the camp, hundreds of men on Manus resisted this unfolding crisis, with daily protests despite all the hardships. Amid the tropical heat and repression from camp authorities, they marched every day, only pausing on 7 August to mark the death of their brother Hamed Shamshiripour. In the days since the closing, the men have organised amazing feats of collective resilience. As long as they resist, we have a duty to look for ways of helping. As long as they have hope, we have a duty to hold onto ours.
We should also note that on Manus Island, contrary to impressions conveyed by so many racist media reports, there are groups of locals organising and protesting in solidarity with the refugees. They fight alongside us this week as we occupy and sit-in at snap actions from Darwin to Hobart.
We can also draw hope from history. It’s true Dutton is so unflinching, so monstrous, that it sometimes seems he only grows stronger the more we challenge him – but it’s a charade. We must remember that our own history is threaded by attempts, often successful, to force governments to act in ways they did not want. The horrid camp on Manus Island itself figures in that history. In 2003, then Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, also monstrous and unflinching, made it clear the Kuwait-born Palestinian refugee Aladdin Sisalem would never set foot on Australian soil. So firm was her resolve, that Australia paid $23,000 per day to keep the Manus Island camp operating when for a period of ten months Aladdin was the only person held there. Vanstone called it ‘money well spent’. But the public protests and legal campaign that took up Aladdin’s case forced Vanstone to back down. Aladdin landed in Australia on the very day of the 2004 World Refugee Day rally in Melbourne. I was MC at that rally and was fortunate and honoured to meet Aladdin briefly as he took the stage to address a crowd of several thousand supporters – only hours after landing. It was electrifying. We had beaten Vanstone.
We should remember too that when Rudd signed his rotten PNG deal in 2013, and condemned thousands of people to rot in that Manus Island camp, central Melbourne erupted into a string of angry and large protests several Friday nights in a row. Thousands of Melburnians, including what seemed to be hundreds of angry school kids, refused to accept the return of the Pacific Solution.
We can also find hope in more recent history. While many of our trade unions have good paper-positions on refugees, we rarely see workers exercising industrial power to enforce such positions. Nonetheless, just last year we saw it displayed in breathtaking fashion by the staff at Brisbane’s Lady Cilento hospital – who refused to discharge baby Asha into the hands of Border Force for deportation to Nauru. The defiance of those workers sparked a mass community blockade, which in turn kicked off a wave of civil disobedience around the country. Trades Halls and a number of churches offered their premises as sanctuary for refugees, and the latter even began training their flock in civil disobedience tactics in preparation for the predicted showdown with Border Force officers.
None of this was a lifetime ago and the past is not, in fact, a foreign country. That spirit of anger and defiance, that determination to make business-as-usual impossible so long as this abomination continues, this is what we need to rekindle. We need large rallies that swamp the city, alongside smaller actions that disrupt Dutton’s systems and keep the flame of resistance alive. Blockades, occupations, whatever we can manage. There are still tens of thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands, who have marched in solidarity with refugees at some point in their lives. Our immediate task is to find ways to get them active again, and to bring new layers of people with us. The snap actions this week are a vital start. The challenge is finding ways to ensure they keep building.
We are trying not just to end the reprehensible inhuman horror now unfolding on Manus Island, but to start rebuilding something precious – to start rebuilding hope.
Because hope is something we have to fertilise and nurture through our own collective resistance. In 1921, long before he became a cult-hero to crazy Maoists, the Chinese radical writer Lu Xun penned a stirring passage that often comes to me when I consider the importance of activism in times like these when people say things are hopeless:
[H]ope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many people pass one way, a road is made.