The 24-day protest by refugees on Manus Island symbolises solidarity against oppression as they demand the freedom that Australia continues to deny.
Adelaide, SOUTH AUSTRALIA — In early November, about 400 refugee men gathered in the central compound of the detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The men, who have been imprisoned there by Australia since 2013, were protesting the government’s decision to decommission the detention centre and send them to alternative transit centres, denying them freedom. As food, water and hygiene services ceased, the men—hungry, thirsty and half-naked—refused to leave the centre, demanding instead the freedom that has been continually denied them under Australia’s globally condemned offshore immigration detention policy.
During the protest, two priests smuggled themselves onto the island. Jarrod McKenna, an Australian Christian pastor and leader of the Love Makes A Way non-violent movement, secretly entered by boat. He was accompanied by an Anglican priest, Father Dave Smith, and a video journalist, Olivia Rousset.
“For these men it has been 4.5 years of unending detention,” McKenna told TRT World.
“You wake up every day and you have no life, and this is nearly five years now. You have all agency taken away from you. In some ways, in that sense, it wouldn’t matter if it was Club Med (a paradise like resort).”
In trying to leave the island, having only intended to remain for several hours, McKenna and Rousset were intercepted by the PNG Navy. McKenna slashed his ankle on a piece of scrap metal, and was rescued by the refugee men.
“They had built these wells to collect rainwater, and with their limited water, they washed my feet”, McKenna said with emotion before recounting on a podcast how the men had cared for his wound with the meagre medical supplies that had also been smuggled in. McKenna and Rousset remained with the men for around 24 hours before they were able to leave again.
“All water, electricity, power and medical support was cut off as a way of driving them out of this processing centre,” McKenna said in the podcast. “There was no food other than what local churches are smuggling in. It was day 18 [of the protest] and in these 18 days, they had created what Martin Luther King would call ‘a beloved community’.”
The Australian government, through an agreement with the government of PNG, had been holding the men for attempting to enter Australia by boat to request asylum. PNG agreed to host the detention facility as part of a regional partnership to prevent people smuggling. It is Australian government policy to deter boat arrivals through the use of mandatory indefinite detention, ostensibly for the greater purpose of preventing deaths at sea in the often dangerous passage to Australia that is only possible through a people smuggler.
As the government shut down the detention centre on October 31, triggering protests from the refugee prisoners, the inmates were sent to new “transit facilities” on the island.
From one such facility on Manus Island, journalist and Kurdish-Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani penned down what he experienced during the 24 days of resistance.
“Sometimes, during this period, we smuggled into the prison a limited amount of food in the dead of night, and this food would be distributed equally among the prisoners,” Boochani wrote. “This principle also applied to the dogs that live among us: we factored them in. In our meetings we were adamant about the fact we had to show even more compassion to these dogs than before. Feeding them was imperative. These principles applied to the sick, too; we cared for them now more than ever before.”
As with all of Australia’s immigration detention centres, including its other offshore prison on the island nation of Nauru, the Manus Island facility had been a site of unmitigated human rights abuse. Human Rights Watch has observed that “long periods of detention, uncertainty and exposure to violence have had a devastating impact on [the] mental well-being” of those held on Manus, and described conditions as “cramped and dirty”. Six refugees have died.
The Australian government has repeatedly denied any accusations of wrongdoing, justifying the imprisonment of refugees as necessary to deter those who would use a people smuggler to seek asylum by boat and risk dying at sea, and for maintaining Australia’s sovereignty over who is permitted to cross the country’s borders. On the national broadcaster this month, under questioning from Iranian refugee Yaser Naseri about conditions in immigration detention, Prime Minister Turnbull said “I want to keep Australians safe. I want to keep Australia’s borders secure. ... I don’t want people to drown again at sea on people smugglers’ boats.”
The dismantling of the Manus Island centre might have been caused for sober celebration if it meant that the men held there, many of whom have proven claims to refugee status, were finally free to settle in a safe country. In the same month that the centre closed, 25 people were given clearance to be resettled in the United States under an Obama-era deal between Australia and the US, that was ambivalently re-sealed by President Trump in April of this year. Around 600 remained, and were advised that they would be transferred to other, newly constructed, Australian government-run transit facilities on the island. Their future from that point has remained uncertain.
As such, the men refused to leave the centre as it was closed on October 31, saying that they would not be re-located to yet another prison as the Australian government continued to deny them their freedom to live in a safe country. Whilst many Manusians are sympathetic of the refugees, there is also considerable anger and resentment against the Australian and PNG governments for establishing Manus as a site of refugee detention with little consultation of Manusians and with apparent disregard for Manusian land rights. There had been regular attacks on the men from people outside of the detention facility on the island when they left the centre.
Now confined to hastily-constructed transit centres on another part of Manus Island, the refugee men continue to face attacks, abuse and denial of basic services while they express their desire for freedom in a safe country—but not necessarily in Australia. Concerns for their welfare continue to be voiced by hundreds of people and organisations on mainland Australia.
Dr. Stewart Condon, President of Doctors Without Borders, travelled with a team of doctors to Manus to assess medical conditions, but they were not granted access to the medical centres. The Australian Medical Association was also prevented from conducting independent assessment of the men’s health. Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a refugee from the Darfur region of Sudan who regularly reports from Manus through social media and the podcast The Messenger, reported today that a number of men had left for Port Moresby for resettlement interviews with US officials. Some of these men—Boochani estimates around 60—may be permitted to settle in the US. But those who remain, say they will continue to fight for the freedom of all refugees stuck in the limbo as part of the Australian immigration detention process. As Muhamat put it on December 13:
“The second group for the USA just left the camp on their way to Port Moresby for the outcome of their processes. The US deal will take many months or years and will not provide places for everyone.”
He adds: “We will continue our protests on Manus until there is a safe country for everyone.”