BY ALEC SMART
The plight of refugees in Manus Island Detention Centre has created headlines in the past week, provoking public demonstrations, whilst human rights organisations condemned Australia’s national refugee policy.
Over the past fortnight, up to 600 refugees detained in the Manus Island detention centre on Papua New Guinea (PNG) refused to accept relocation to another centre under construction, expressing concerns for their safety. They barricaded themselves in and resolved to stay, despite dwindling food supplies and the authorities turning off the electricity and water.
On Monday this week, PNG police officers entered the camp and sabotaged the water tanks so the months’ supply of water within leaked out.
Demonstrations in Australia in support of the Manus refugees included disruption to the Melbourne Cup horse race last Tuesday and closure of the Melbourne CBD on Friday.
In Sydney last Thursday, a banner saying ‘Evacuate Manus, Bring Them Here’ was unfurled on the rooftop of the Sydney Opera House by five climbers from the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance, who were subsequently arrested.
The following day, a rowdy crowd heckled attendees arriving at a Liberal Party fundraiser in Eveleigh, near Redfern.
At the latter, former Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s sister, Councillor Christine Forster, was jostled by protestors from the Refugee Action Coalition, causing her jacket to rip open as police ushered her through.
A spokesperson from Refugee Action, Ian Rintoul, denied an accusation that any of them grabbed Cr Forster’s jacket, saying, “I didn’t see any mistreatment of Christine Forster.”
The City of Sydney Councillor’s same-sex partner, Virginia Edwards, later posted a picture of the torn jacket on Facebook, proclaiming, “Physically shredding the jacket off of someone’s back is NOT how you express your political in viewpoint in Australia.”
Edwards labelled the unfortunate wardrobe malfunction as ‘un-Australian’.
However, when it comes to describing what is acceptably ‘Australian’ behaviour, one might question the Australian Government’s policy of detaining asylum-seekers, including children, for months, often years, in offshore prisons such as Manus Island, deceptively labeled ‘processing centres’.
Last Friday, 10 November, The United Nations Human Rights Committee (OHCHR) released a report critical of Australia’s poor record in upholding basic human rights, citing multiple issues, including the exclusion of same-sex couples from the Marriage Act and our treatment of refugees.
The report expressed concerns with, “The detention and processing of those seeking asylum in Australia, including offshore processing and use of mandatory detention. This includes the closure of the Manus Island Detention Centre without adequate arrangements for long-term viable relocation solutions.”
The expert committee expressed concerns about the conditions in the offshore immigration processing facilities on Manus and Nauru Islands, “including inadequate mental health services, serious safety concerns and instances of assault, sexual abuse, self-harm and suspicious deaths; and about reports that harsh conditions compelled some asylum seekers to return to their country of origin despite the risks that they face there.”
Law Council of Australia President, Fiona McLeod SC, said “The Committee’s report is a clear and definitive statement about steps the Government needs to take to address the human rights concerns identified. The Government must show leadership in human rights through the development of policies that reflects a commitment to fairness, equality and the rule of law.”
Responding to the Human Rights Committee Report, Oxfam Australia Chief Executive Dr. Helen Szoke said, “The Australian Government has sent these people to Manus Island, and many of them have now been there for years and have suffered severe psychological damage. They are extremely vulnerable, and the Australian Government is responsible – not only under international law but as a basic moral obligation – for their safety and wellbeing.”
Manus Island is the largest of the Admiralty Islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean, a 2,100 km2 group of 18 islands in the Bismarck Archipelago north-west of New Guinea.
The controversial Manus Island regional processing centre is not actually on Manus Island but neighbouring Los Negros Island, accessed by a bridge fording a narrow sea channel.
It sits within another compound, the Lombrum Naval Base, which was an Australian base – HMAS Tarangau – until PNG independence in 1975.
Ironically the name in local language (Manus province has 29 languages) refers to the bottom of a canoe where captives are kept.
Following a ruling by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court in April 2016, which declared the detention centre ‘illegal and unconstitutional’ and in breach of fundamental human rights, three new premises were constructed in the nearby town of Lorengau.
The Manus camp closed at the end of October when its all-male population of 800 was to be relocated to the new facilities.
Yet over 600 detainees refused to move for fear of the consequences. Citing threats by Lorengau residents to kill them, and recalling multiple incidents where they have been mugged and, in at least nine cases, attacked by machetes, the 600 remained in the dismantled camp.
In April 2017, allegedly drunken PNG soldiers shot at refugees in the centre, wounding nine.
Dr. Peter Young, formerly the chief psychiatrist responsible for the care of asylum seekers in Manus and Nauru, described the camps as ‘inherently toxic’ and accused the Immigration Department of deliberately harming vulnerable detainees.
Since October 31, the detainees have huddled behind barricades without food, running water, electricity or medicine. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees described the situation as a ‘humanitarian emergency’.
East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre, their destination, is still under construction, but will only house 300 inmates. Independent observers say the proposed new housing, run by contractor Paladin Solutions, is inadequate.
A percentage of the remaining 500 will be granted asylum and expected to settle and find work in Lorengau, an area of high unemployment, whose residents are hostile to their presence. They will be accommodated in a new $137m demountable acropolis, built by the Australian government to house freed refugees, whilst unsuccessful applicants will be deported back to their country of origin.
New Zealand’s recently elected Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, whose offer to take 150 of the camp detainees was rejected by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, was critical of Australia’s handling of the refugee crisis on Manus Island.
“We made the offer because we saw a great need. No matter what label you put on it there is absolute need and there is harm being done,” she said on Sunday. She has requested another meeting with Malcolm Turnbull in the Philippines this week during the East Asia Summit to reprise New Zealand’s offer.
Last Friday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton attempted to dismiss the protesting Manus Island refugees by claiming they were drug dealers and child molestors. In an interview with Melbourne’s 3AW radio and repeated in The Australian and Daily Telegraph newspapers, he said about 190 refugees from the centre would travel to the nearby village of Lorengau by bus each day, some of whom were ‘involved’ in drugs and had threatened to rape local wives and children.
“They’ll go down, purchase goods from the markets, they stay at the beach, go to the beach, they sell things down there,” Mr. Dutton said. “Obviously, if they’re minded to buy drugs or sell drugs, then that’s an activity that some are involved in as well.’’
The Australian reported that refugees used items such as chocolate and cigarettes to entice young girls into sexual acts.
Since the Viet Nam War in the mid 1970s, ‘boat people’ have tried to reach Australia for a safer life. Most of them paid people-smugglers to transport them in converted fishing boats across treacherous, shark-infested waters, many drowning along the way, and it is because of this illegality that Australian authorities adopted a zero tolerance policy.
While the Nauru processing centre houses single women and families, including fathers, Manus Island holds only single men.
Manus Island Detention Centre, off the north-west coast of Papua New Guinea, was established in 2001, along with Nauru Island Regional Processing Centre, in the wake of the notorious MV Tampa affair.
At dawn on 24 August 2001, a 20 metre wooden fishing boat, the Palapa 1, became stranded in international waters about 140 km north of Christmas Island, with 438 refugees aboard (369 men, 26 women and 43 children).
The stricken vessel was occupied by fleeing Hazaras of the central highland region of Hazarajat in Afghanistan. Hazaras, a long-persecuted people, have been subjected to ethnic cleansing, enslavement and genocide from as far back as the 16th century. In 2001 they were escaping massacres perpetrated by Sunni Islamists ruling Afghanistan – the Taliban and Al Qaeda – for being Shia Moslems.
On 26 August, Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) Australia, which had been monitoring the vessel’s distress, requested all ships in the area to respond to the unfolding emergency, and the closest, a Norwegian cargo ship named the MV Tampa, arrived to help.
Thereafter the unfolding drama led to high-stakes political maneuvering and international censure, with the then-ruling John Howard’s Liberal Government refusing permission for the Tampa to head to the closest port – Christmas Island, six hours away – and insisting they continue to Merak, Indonesia, some 12 hours away.
The captain of the Tampa, Arne Rinnan, later revealed in an interview with the UK Observer newspaper, “A delegation of five men came up to the bridge. They behaved aggressively and told us to go to Australia. They said they had nothing to lose.”
Many of the refugees were very ill. “They sent a plane to direct us to the sinking boat,” Captain Rinnan recounted in an interview with Norway Today. “When we arrived it was obvious to us that it was coming apart. Several of the refugees were obviously in a bad state and collapsed when they came on deck to us. 10 to 12 of them were unconscious, several had dysentery and a pregnant woman suffered abdominal pains.”
The Australian Special Air Services Regiment (SASR) doctor later confirmed that the refugees were in a poor condition, many suffering from dehydration and exhaustion, with 24 afflicted with gastroenteritis as well as minor ailments including multiple cases of scabies and head lice. They also attended to four pregnant women.
The Australian government refused permission for the ship to enter Australia’s territorial waters, and threatened to prosecute Captain Arne Rinnan as a people-smuggler if it did so.
On 29 August, Captain Rinnan, lost patience with Australian authorities and declared a state of emergency before charting the MV Tampa into Australian territorial waters. This provoked the Howard Government to order the ship bordered by Australian Special Forces, the SASR and triggered a diplomatic dispute between Australia and Norway.
Late that night, the Australian Government introduced an emergency bill into the House of Representatives, entitled Border Protection Bill 2001, granting the government the right to forcibly remove any ship in the territorial waters of Australia, with the specific provision “that no asylum applications may be made by people on board the ship.”
The refugees from the Tampa were loaded onto a Royal Australian Navy vessel, HMAS Manoora, which transported them to the small Micronesian nation of Nauru, a phosphate rock island of 21 km2, where most were held in two detention camps.
A month later, on 6 October 2001, the ‘Children Overboard’ affair caused national headlines during the lead-up to the Federal Election. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock announced that 223 refugees on a wooden-hulled boat, designated SIEV4 (Suspect Illegal Entry Vessel) had thrown their children into the sea when their craft was intercepted by HMAS Adelaide 190km north of Christmas Island. Government ministers claimed the refugees did this callous act to force the Australian authorities to grant them asylum.
Defence Minister Peter Reith and Prime Minister Howard later repeated the claim, although it has since been debunked and photos of the scene confirm refugees in the sea were there because their boat sunk.
However, the combination of the Tampa and Children Overboard affairs led to John Howard getting reelected and launched the ‘Pacific Solution’, with the Australia Government declaring all asylum seekers who arrived by sea thereafter were to be taken to offshore processing facilities in Nauru and Manus Island.
Detractors have long dismissed them as ‘economic refugees’.
However, 77% of those whose asylum claims have been processed were assessed as genuine refugees with a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’, and granted legal protection.
Although Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suspended Manus and Nauru in 2007, in 2012, during his second term – after his party jettisoned, then reinstated him – he reopened and redeveloped them at a cost of billions of dollars.
His successor, Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbot, continued the policy.