PAPUA NEW GUINEA – On Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, the Australian government is creating a humanitarian catastrophe.
More than 600 men, mostly from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, have been imprisoned there for over four years. This Australian government has shut off their food, electricity, medication and drinking water. Over 20 percent of them are clinically depressed or suffer from post-traumatic disorders and have had their access to crucial psychotropic medication cut off. It’s over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) every day, choking with humidity and swarming with mosquitoes. The men have resorted to digging holes for water and adding hoarded salt and sugar to the water they do get.
The deprivations they have suffered have taken a massive toll on their physical and mental health. They have witnessed murder, riots, beatings and suicides. They have been attacked by locals and have come under machine-gun attack from Papua New Guinea navy personnel. These men have fled war and persecution — some are Rohingya Muslims, fleeing violence in Burma. Australia is just compounding their trauma.
The Papua New Guinea Supreme Court declared the Manus Island prison illegal last year. Rather than accept its ruling and bring the men to safety and freedom in Australia, the Australian government set an arbitrary date for closure. There is not enough safe or suitable accommodation elsewhere on the island. The men have resisted being relocated to the nearby town of Lorengau because it is simply not safe for them there. Multiple knife and machete attacks by locals, some so serious that the victims have required medical evacuation to Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, for treatment, have made them too scared to come out.
So they are determined to resist, because despite the obvious threats to their life and health, they genuinely believe their Manus Island prison is the least unsafe place for them to be.
How on earth did this humanitarian emergency happen? The past 16 years of Australia’s treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum have been a foul stain on our national conscience. It began in 2001, when a group of 433 asylum seekers were rescued from drowning at sea by the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa. A terrible standoff followed when the Tampa was banned from entering Australian waters for many weeks. The Liberal government, fearing the electoral threat posed by the white-nationalist One Nation party, created the “Pacific Solution.”
It involved sending people who arrived by boat seeking asylum to offshore detention centers — Australia’s Southern Hemisphere version of rendition. These detention centers, on Manus Island and the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, were designed to be as harsh and inhospitable as possible. They were deliberately meant to inflict serious harm to persuade other desperate people to seek safety elsewhere. In other words, they were designed to torture.
Years of international condemnation of Australia followed, and the policy of offshore detention was abandoned in 2008, when the Labor Party came back into power. But with the flow of boats increasing and under sustained attack from Rupert Murdoch’s media and right-wing extremists, Labor caved and reopened Manus Island in 2012.
Offshore detention and boat turn-backs are, and always have been, driven by racism and xenophobia. In 2011, then-immigration spokesman Scott Morrison urged his colleagues in government to capitalize on concerns about “Muslim immigration,” “Muslims in Australia” and the “inability” of Muslim migrants to integrate. It’s no mere coincidence that neo-Nazis and far-right extremists across Europe have become cheerleaders for the Australian government’s slogans and imagery.
In 2013, facing electoral oblivion, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised that no asylum seeker who arrived by boat would ever settle in Australia. It failed in saving his political career but succeeded in delivering years of mass human suffering and misery. We simply do not know how many people have drowned, or were returned to suffer or die at their persecutors’ hands, because of Australia’s actions. The detention centers are remote and inaccessible by design, so the disgraceful treatment of men, women and children can be hidden from the world. The government claims that the policy is designed to prevent drowning at sea, but the grim reality is that all it has achieved is to get the deaths off our television screens.
Beyond the inhumane relocation policy now, my country is in the process of militarizing its borders. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship was renamed the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Customs and immigration services were merged to create the Australian Border Force, complete with all-black uniforms, new weapons and draconian powers. The immigration department spends more on medals each year than the Australian military, rewarding the Border Force with bling for the delivery of torture and human misery.
Some of the refugees may be relocated to the United States. New Zealand has offered to accept 150 of them, but to date the Australian government has refused its generosity. But after 1,700 days of hell, the lives of 600 people now hang in the balance as their situation becomes direr by the hour.
President Trump recently told our prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, “You are worse than I am” over our treatment of migrants and refugees. By his abandonment of the men on Manus Island, Turnbull has proved Trump right.