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Australian elections drive Manus Island refugees to despair and suicide

  • Ann Deslandes
  • 31 May 2019

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's re-election is likely to translate into tougher immigration laws and the repealing of 'Medevac' bill that would ensure seriously ill refugees are flown to mainland Australia for treatment.

The image shows asylum seekers look at the media from behind a fence at the Manus Island detention centre, Papua New Guinea, March 21, 2014. ( Reuters )

“The refugees started their day with a suicide attempt,” tweeted Abdul Aziz Adam, a refugee from Sudan who has been imprisoned by Australia on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, for five years under the latter nation’s notorious policy of detaining people who arrive by boat to Australia to seek asylum.

It was the morning of May 20. Less than 24 hours before, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Liberal-National coalition had romped to victory in a federal election result that few had predicted. Morrison was an avid participant in the asylum policy that has placed thousands in indefinite offshore detention, a tortuous situation in which 12 people have died in the past five years. A former minister for immigration, Morrison promised to continue the policy, and to implement other measures aimed at border protection, if re-elected.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten and his Labor Party are also proponents of the harsh immigration policy, but they had promised to enforce the ‘medevac’ bill that would ensure seriously ill refugees currently held in offshore detention would be flown to mainland Australia for treatment. Upon being returned as prime minister, Morrison declared that repealing the bill, which had passed both houses of parliament before the election, is a priority.

So when the men on Manus Island - 547 refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan - heard the news of the Australian election result, their response was stone cold despair.

Papua New Guinea officials, wearing army fatigues, walk inside the closed detention centre on Manus Island, as asylum-seekers board buses November 24, 2017.(Reuters)

Since May 21, detainees on Manus have used social media to report numerous instances of self-harm and attempted suicide among their number. Abdul Aziz Adam told TRT World that there have been 16 such incidents as of May 27. On the same evening, Behrouz Boochani tweeted that “four more people did self-harm. Since last night seven people attempted suicide... We are recording self harm each hour.”

On the international stage, Morrison’s re-election cements the Australian practice of mandatory, indefinite, offshore detention for those who arrive to the country to seek asylum. Admired by right-wing leaders from the USA to Hungary, the policy is condemned by human rights authorities. In September last year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in her maiden speech to the Human Rights Council that Australia’s offshore detention regime is an “affront to the protection of human rights”. RISE Refugee, a collective of refugees who have been detained under this policy, called on Australian voters to refuse “to vote for any political parties that support mandatory detention centres.

In a warning against ‘weakening’ Australia’s border protection measures by passing the Medevac bill, Morrison repeated a well-worn trope of anti-immigration discourse, saying that it could lead to more deserving Australian citizens missing out on resources. Once onshore, said the evangelical Christian politician from the country’s east coast, sick refugees will “get their fish hooks into the legal system, long after any medical treatment has been done, and they'll remain often in community detention which requires us to actually go and provide housing". The returning Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, had already claimed in the media that medical care for Manus refugees would “displace” Australians from health care services.

To be sure, the cruelty of Australian immigration detention is deliberate; intended to deter people from attempting to seek asylum by boat in the first place. Along with perpetrating and publicising the horror of indefinite detainment, Australia runs fear campaigns in countries from where people seek asylum by boat. It also undertakes turnbacks at sea, where Australian officials intercept boats carrying asylum seekers. In step with Morrison, Australians who support the policy seem to believe the cruelty is necessary to protect the nation’s borders and particularly its economy.

The doctrine of deterrence was particularly advanced by former prime minister John Howard, who was also re-elected by Australia in 2001 on a platform that included the rallying cry: “We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come.” 

Howard succeeded. Indeed: on the May 23 2019, 24 hours after the election - Behrouz Boochani, the award-winning chronicler of the horror of Manus who nonetheless remains imprisoned there - told media: “I don’t think people will survive the circumstances of this place.

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