When Australia’s offshore immigration centre closes on Tuesday, 600 detainees there will be forced to move, but not to safety. Is Australia getting away with unchecked human rights abuses?
When the lights are permanently turned off at Australia’s offshore immigration detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea on Tuesday, the fate of nearly 600 men will depend on a government which has been slammed for its treatment of asylum seekers.
Under 200 men have been resettled; the remaining 600 or so refuse to leave the detention compound on the island, fearing for their security. There are transit camps and other options in store for them, so why are the detainees worried? The answer lies in how refugees and migrants have been treated under Australia’s existing policies.
The Manus Island centre was reopened as part of Australia’s commitment to ensure that no refugee who arrived by boat without pre-existing authorisation would be allowed to settle in the country and were detained indefinitely.
As such, there are around 929 people currently held in immigration detention centres on the mainland, and approximately 1,450 in offshore centres located on Christmas Island, Nauru, and Manus.
Under an Obama-era deal, the US agreed to accept the most vulnerable refugees held on Manus and Nauru islands and Australia to resettle people from Central America and Africa who need protection. The closure of Manus on October 31 is ostensibly part of a shift in focus from mandatory detention to “significant structural reform” of the nation’s immigration system, as announced by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in June.
The population of people held in the Manus detention centre is made up of refugees from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Myanmar.
Many report directly on their experience via social media using smartphones, including journalist and novelist Behrouz Boochani, who captured footage of the the centre on his phone and worked with a filmmaker which resulted in the feature film Chauka please tell us the time.
The film was Boochani’s way of ensuring no one, no leader, would be able to distort the refugees' version of events; their despair, their cramped, makeshift living conditions.
Those being held are able to leave the centre during the day – a 30-minute guarded bus ride into the town of Lorengau, which has exposed many of the men to violence from locals. Violence and neglect from security and health services contracted by Australia has pushed detainees to a point where many suffer from severe mental ill health, and have attempted suicide and self-harm.
“Australia wants to tell the world they closed the camps. But it has not solved the problem,” Boochani tells TRT World from the Manus Centre.
Boochani believes that Australia has been determined to shut down the Manus camp in October in order to bolster its claim to a seat on the UN Human Rights Council; “The reason is clear.” The country was elected to the council unopposed in a mid-October election.
“Australia does not deserve to get that seat,” Boochani says.
To be sure, in closing the camp Australia has not come any closer to realising the human rights of the refugees it has kept in detention. Only 25 from Manus have been resettled in the US.
The options available to the 600 detainees at the Manus centre are by no means a step up.
The Australian government has advised Manus detainees once the camp is shut down on Tuesday, they can either transfer to one of three transit facilities in Lorengau or to the Nauru detention centre.
A return to their country of origin is also on the table. Considering these men made the precarious journey by sea to reach Australia, escaping persecution or poverty, this gesture by the Australian government is not seen as a realistic or viable option.
But Australia is trying to push this as a solution to the desperate men, promising lucrative monetary incentives to Rohingya refugees to return to Myanmar, where ethnic cleansing forced over 400,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
As the remaining detainees struggle with where to go next, the authorities running the Manus centre posted a "final message" in the wee hours of October 31 (local time) telling inmates "all power and water will cease...There will be no food supplies," after 5pm.
Behind bars in paradise
With a population of less than 50,000 people, Manus Island is known for having a tight-knit community and great topographical beauty. But refugees see a different picture.
Re-opening the detention centre in 2012 brought new jobs to the weak developing economy but its presence put significant pressure on Manusians, some of whom saw refugees as a threat to safety.
Those who have been detained in the Manus centre have been regularly attacked by locals when entering Lorengau, a behaviour the asylum-seekers expect will worsen if they remain on the island after detention.
It is not difficult to speculate that the motivation for these attacks is resentment and fear.
“There have been no programmes to assist the Manus people in understanding the current situation. A lot of Manusians don’t really know what is happening on their own island,” Reverend Paul Sireh, a Manusian living in Australia, tells TRT World.
Many Manusians feel that Australia – a much wealthier country than PNG – has “dumped” the refugees on Manus .
“Australia is a prosperous First World nation that is economically capable of accepting a much larger number of refugees who reach her shores seeking asylum from war, violence and persecution,” says Sireh.
“The [detention] centre has given most contracts to outsiders, especially Australian-linked companies,” Sireh notes. “Manus islanders employed at the centre doing the same work as Australian employees are paid about 20 times less,” echoing the sentiments of the governor of Manus.
PNG has passed the buck back to Australia as the closure looms.
"It is PNG's position that as long as there is one individual from this arrangement that remains in PNG, Australia will continue to provide financial and other support to PNG to manage the persons transferred under the arrangement until the last person leaves or is independently resettled in PNG," PNG’s immigration minister said on October 29.
Rohingya refugee Imran Mohammad Fazal Hoque, who has been held on the island since 2013, tells TRT World the Australian government’s approach towards closing the centre lacks an understanding from the perspective of both the Manusians and the detainees.
“More than two thousand locals will lose their jobs overnight and hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers will be left without any medical treatment.”
Boochani and Hoque predict attacks on the refugees by PNG locals will escalate if the Australian government continues along its current plan.
Loghman Sawari, the first refugee to be resettled from Manus to PNG capital Port Moresby, was found “destitute, with no support services and suffering from mental and physical illness.” Sawari told SBS News, “I have to say that, it is not safe to bring all of these people here.”
So why doesn’t Australia just take them?
“Why haven’t you let them into your society?” was US President Donald Trump’s question to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a phone call in August when he slammed the Obama-era deal.
Turnbull’s argument of “depriving people smugglers of [their] product” is is a line that has been carefully honed by successive Australian governments as a way of putting the national sovereignty/border protection equation.
The argument been very successful with the Australian people, who have generally supported the policy of mandatory immigration detention. However, the cruelty meted out in offshore prisons has given Australians some pause for thought.
In early 2016, hundreds of protesters blocked the removal of Baby Asha, a one-year-old girl who was to be deported from Australia with her parents back to detention in Nauru.
Later that year, thousands rallied for refugees on Nauru and Manus Island to be allowed to settle in the Australian community. These rallies have continued.
Will Australia get away with it?
There is a petition currently before the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into possible crimes against humanity committed by individuals and corporate actors who have overseen the policy of offshore detention.
It seems Australia – like some of its peers on the UN Human Rights Council – will continue to enjoy impunity.
The men detained on Manus Island are witness to this.
Others have accepted deportation to danger, such as Rohingya refugee Yahya Tabani, who told The Guardian:
“I don’t want to die in PNG. I prefer to die in Myanmar. Probably Buddhist people are going to kill me as soon as I arrive in Myanmar … Australia doesn’t care if we live or we die.”
On Boochani’s Facebook page, a fellow detainee asks if Boochani might request from NASA that the refugees be included in the next mission to Mars, saying “We are ready to go over there, because we are not welcome any more in the Earth…. we will take all the risks of the mission.”
So, every day at 2pm, as the infrastructure the Australian government and its contractors built around them recedes, the men gather in the main compound on Manus in protest to demand that they be permitted to settle somewhere in safety – not necessarily in Australia.
Indeed, New Zealand has offered to take them.
Hoque tells TRT World:
“The hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island have been made to endure the indescribable and unspeakable hardships.
We have experienced riot and have been shot at, beaten, robbed and assaulted, treated sometimes worse than animals.
There is no need for this treatment.”