The Australian government needs to be held to account for its shameful treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. The government's policies fly in the face of the core values that underpin Australian society and history.
Australia is known around the world as a free and welcoming nation with a high standard of living, booming economy, and a vibrant multicultural society.
With almost 1 in 4 Australians born overseas, the country is often seen as a ‘melting pot’ of languages, foods, cultures and customs - and in some respects these perceptions hold true.
Australia has offered a generous welcome to hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from all backgrounds over the course of many years.
The vast majority of these individuals have integrated smoothly into Australian society and have subsequently made Australia their home.
In contrast to the positive experiences of most ‘regular’ arrivals to Australia, refugees and asylum seekers who have travelled to Australia by boat without visas since 2013 have endured a very different reality from the one described above.
Instead of the chance to call the suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne home, they have spent years of their lives incarcerated on the remote Manus Island.
In the eyes of the Australian Government, ‘irregular’ boat arrivals are deemed to be criminals, lawbreakers and ‘queue jumpers,’ and not deserving enough to enter Australia.
The simple fact remains that these people are asylum seekers and refugees, irrespective of their mode of travel. They have fled persecution in their home countries and have travelled to Australia in search of safety and protection.
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, seeking refuge from persecution in another country is not a crime, regardless of the mode of arrival.
Out of sight, out of mind?
Situated 300 kilometers north of Papua New Guinea’s capital city Port Moresby, Manus Island may evoke idyllic images of palm trees and white sandy beaches. However, for the 600 or so men languishing there who attempted to travel to Australia by boat and claim asylum, palm trees have only been a landscape for them to admire through razor-wire.
Detained indefinitely, many of the men have spent years in detention on the island. In the words of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian refugee and journalist detained on Manus since 2013, the centre is not so much an immigration detention facility but rather a “prison camp, where systematic torture” forms part of everyday life.
As part of Australia’s long-term and uncompromisingly rigid policy towards people seeking asylum, all unauthorised boat arrivals to Australia have been, and continue to be, subject to mandatory and indefinite detention in "offshore processing centres".
Regardless of whether individuals are subsequently found to be in need of international protection (i.e. a refugee), they are not able to ever enter Australia.
Such punitive policies not only defy logic, but also fly in the face of the suite of core values that underpin Australian society, including compassion, fairness, equality and egalitarianism.
In April 2016, the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Supreme Court provided refugees on Manus Island with a glimmer of hope as they declared existing detention practices to be illegal and in breach of refugees’ fundamental human rights.
Such a decision by the Supreme Court provided an opportune moment for the PNG and Australian governments to come together and swiftly resolve the situation for all detainees on Manus Island.
Sadly, policymakers on both sides decided to ignore this opportunity and instead maintain the status quo, leaving the refugees in a continued state of limbo.
A little more than a year and a half after the Supreme Court decision, the Regional Processing Centre closed its doors, only to be followed by the opening of the new East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre less than 20 kilometers away.
As refugees were free to come and go from this facility — but not the island — the government said the men were no longer in detention, thus claiming compliance with the Court’s decision.
Upon arrival at the new centre, refugees were confronted with sense of deja vu. The surroundings were eerily similar to those they had endured for more than four years.
Again, they were forced to live in conditions with sub-par infrastructure, woefully inadequate access to healthcare and support services, nothing to do, and no long-term solutions to their situation.
They faced intimidation and fears of attacks by locals upset with the presence of the refugees and the government’s use of their land for the facilities. More than four years after arriving on Manus Island, refugees were still living in fear and unable to move on with their lives.
For many of these refugees, the stress of confinement has resulted in numerous mental and physical medical conditions, most of which cannot be adequately treated in Papua New Guinea.
Ranked 154 on the Human Development Index, Papua New Guinea simply does not have the capacity nor the capability to treat many of the medical conditions faced by refugees. Despite this being raised time and again by local and international health professionals, neither the Australian nor the Papua New Guinean authorities have taken such issues seriously.
According to one asylum seeker, "Only when you’re almost dying will they take you somewhere else."
Ostensibly, refugees on Manus Island are entitled to the same liberties and rights as citizens, and are theoretically able to freely integrate into PNG society. In practice however, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Refugees to this day have difficulties in legally accessing the job market and claim that they lack personal safety and that they are constantly fearful of violence from local communities. Even as recently as mid-February 2018, refugees have reported acts of violence.
In one instance, nine intoxicated local naval personnel are alleged to have physically assaulted three refugees in an unprovoked attack. Despite their safety concerns, Australia maintains that refugees on Manus Island are no longer their responsibility and that PNG now assumes full accountability for their safety and wellbeing.
For the 100 or so failed asylum seekers stranded on Manus, life in Papua New Guinea is even more complicated. Despite many asylum seekers being denied refugee status and ordered to leave the country, some have simultaneously received what is known as a positive Deportation Risk Assessment. This notice states that whilst they are unable to stay, they will also not be sent home because the government has determined that they face a real risk of torture or death if they are returned to their country of origin. These individuals remain in long-term limbo with no solution in sight.
Since 2013 alone, Australia’s offshore detention program has cost its government more than $7 billion. This figure excludes the human cost of detention, something that can only be measured in terms of wasted lives and lost potential.
Put crudely, the Australian detention regime is a disaster.
For the 600 innocent men detained on Manus Island, they have been robbed of their freedom and the ability to move on with their lives.
All that remains are their voices and their effort to highlight the injustices they currently face in the hope for a better future – one day – for themselves and for other refugees and asylum seekers around the world.
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