Funeral of Reza Barati.
On 17 February 2014, men armed with guns, machetes, knives, pipes, sticks and rocks, systematically and brutally attacked asylum seekers detained on Manus Island. Reinforced by PNG Police and the PNG ‘mobile squad’, who pushed down a fence to join the fray, the assailants carried out acts of violent retribution to asylum seekers who had been protesting for three months, demanding that their claims be processed.
Reza Barati, a 23-year-old Faili Kurd from Iran was murdered in the attack. At least 62 other asylum seekers were injured. One man lost his right eye, another was shot in the buttocks and another was slashed across the throat.
The attack needs to be kept in sharp focus as the Abbott government, despite many protests and appeals from the local and international community, seeks to consolidate its high handed arbitrary approach while priding itself on the efficacy of its practices.
Changes to the Migration Act currently before the house, extend Maritime Law, redefine Australia’s responsibility to refugees and effectively give unprecedented powers to Minister of Immigration, Scott Morrison. Also slated is a plan to create a new super Ministry of Homeland Security with Scott Morrison at its head.
The legal changes proposed by the Immigration Minister would re-introduce temporary protection visas to be applied to about 30,000 asylum seekers still living in Australia. Asylum seekers found to be refugees would get a three-year visa allowing them to work, but they would ultimately have to return to their country of origin. Maritime powers would be expanded, covering people detained at sea, and allow Australian law to significantly limit the country’s responsibilities under international human rights laws.
Especially draconian is the intent to raise the risk threshold for sending arrivals in Australia back to another country. Currently, people will not be returned to the country they came from if there’s a 10 per cent chance they will suffer significant harm there. The Government will now raise that risk threshold to greater than 50 per cent. Mr Morrison says the higher threshold is the Government’s interpretation of its international obligations. Greens Senator Hanson-Young says the bill will result in more asylum seekers lives being put at risk. “This is a mean, dangerous law from the Government,” she said. “If this was not so serious, if it was not about life or death, it would actually be a joke.”
Whilst Morrison’s colleagues hold him to be one of his government’s ‘top performers’ for stopping the boats, this is no commendation. Indeed, their high regard is an indictment on the rest of the cabinet. It also reflects poorly on both sides of Australian government and, indirectly, on the Australian public who have allowed themselves to accept their country’s hard-line approach.
Morrison is not the man to promote. Not remotely. Outside of the government’s joy in turning back the boats, few Australians would approve of his self-abrogating approach or his performance in his portfolio. Most of us feel a deep sense of anger and shame. Many eminent Australians in many walks of life have called for the Minister to resign.
Julian Burnside added to the calls with his public claim this week that the Minister of Immigration bribed witnesses to Reza Barati’s death to retract their testimony in return for transfer to Australia.
Burnside’s claim is, sadly no bolt out of the blue. It comes at the end of a long series of sordid reports of cover up and whitewash by the Abbott Government.
It is, nevertheless, a typically courageous challenge by a highly regarded champion of human rights and deserves to be heeded as a timely reminder of the alarming track record of this government’s cruelly punitive approach to asylum seekers. Sadly it was rejected with typical hostility by Morrison who launched a libellous attack on Burnside for his opposition, malice and lack of evidence.
“This is a false and offensive suggestion made without any basis or substantiation by advocates with proven form of political malice and opposition to the Government’s successful border protection policies. The government once again rejects these claims,” Mr Morrison said. Yet there is independent evidence that Burnside’s account is correct.
An asylum seeker at the Manus Island detention centre has alleged 3 November that he and another detainee were tortured, physically assaulted, threatened with rape and forced to sign papers withdrawing their witness accounts about the night Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati died.
The man, aged in his 20s, has spoken publicly for the first time about what he said Wilson Security guards and Transfield staff did to him in a secret compound called Chauka. The asylum seeker making the claims said he was too scared to be named.
Ben Pynt, director of Human Rights Advocacy at Humanitarian Research Partners, a non-profit human rights and humanitarian research organization is clear that the witnesses are speaking the truth.
“The specificity of their claims is such that you couldn’t make it up. Dates, times, places, people and then the documents corroborate all of those things,” he said.
“It really makes me think there’s no doubt.
“Quite frankly, I don’t believe the Minister and neither should the Australian public. The Minister’s denial has no factual basis.
“He hasn’t responded to any of the individual claims and he hasn’t asked an independent person to find out what happened.
He has been in regular contact with the two asylum seekers and raised their allegations of mistreatment with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR).
What caused the violence in February on Manus Island? It was not the suppression of a riot. The savage attack was the authorities’ response to a protest. More an armed attack than a ‘response’, the action was utterly unjustified, totally inappropriate and, in Reza Barati’s case, ultimately fatal. Detention Centre personnel were not attempting to quell any riotous assembly at the detention centre despite Immigration Minister’s version of events. Indeed, it seems, at the time of the incident, things had settled.
The previous day, 35 protestors had escaped. Yet by the day of the attack, only one individual remained protesting. The brutal, violent assault has been widely misreported as a riot in a whirlwind of spin generated by Morrison and his department in order to shift the blame from those running the camp and by extension himself.
How did Reza Bararati die? Julian Burnside QC gave this account last Wednesday. One G4S worker bashed the Iranian asylum seeker with a piece of wood which had two nails driven through it. His scalp torn open, Barati fell to the ground and was then kicked repeatedly by a dozen employees from within the detention centre including two Australians.
They kicked him in the head and stomach as he tried to protect himself with his arms, Mr Burnside recounted for the audience at his Sydney peace prize award last Wednesday. He said another employee took a rock and smashed it on Mr Barati’s head with “such ferocity, it killed him”. Other reports had stated that Mr Barati died of a head injury on the way to Lorengau hospital in PNG.
The morning after Reza Barati’s death, the story had been given a different spin. Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison laid the blame squarely at the feet of the asylum seekers.
On 26 May, retired senior Australian Public Servant Robert Cornall’s report found Barati’s death occurred after guards entered the centre to suppress the protest. His ‘administrative review’ for the Federal Government revealed that contractors working for the Australian government were responsible for the death of one asylum seeker, the serious injury of others, and the mass trauma of dozens.
Yet Scott Morrison took the review as an exoneration. The evidence? Morrison instances the fact that Cornall found it was not possible to isolate one factor that could have mitigated injuries or damage.
Cornall’s 107-page ‘administrative review’ concluded that the ‘incidents were initiated by transferee protests’.
Its recommendations included increased security and reducing the processing time for refugee claims. It reaffirmed that no one could be resettled in Australia. By and large it said what the government wanted it to say. It sent the ‘right message’. Yet it must not remain unchallenged.
Long before Barati was killed, whistle-blowers provided sufficient information to prevent his tragic death. He did not have to die. But Morrison does have to come forward, accept the truth and his responsibility.
Former G4S former safety and security officer Martin Appleby quit because he found management ignored his concerns about the violent and volatile conditions.
“I couldn’t handle what was going on; no one wanted to listen,” he told Crikey. “I wrote many reports, and nothing was ever taken up. The lead-up started a long time ago.”
Manus Island is a hell. The single men there face indefinite detention, without timeline, without information, without hope. Supplies are meagre. Facilities are few. It is hot and crowded.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald:
Asylum seekers have been denied adequate water and soap supplies or even urgent medical attention. They suffer “snakes inside their accommodation, malaria, lack of malaria tablets, no mosquito nets, [and] inedible food that often has cockroaches in it.
Manus Island offshore detention centre represents a flagrant disregard for human rights, justice or compassion. It is, moreover, an expensive and indefinite detention. One billion dollars has been spent to detain 2000 asylum seekers offshore on Manus and Nauru but, since 2012, only one has been processed. All up the Coalition has budgeted $2.87 billion over the next year to run Manus and Nauru. Transfield Services’ contract alone is worth $1.22 billion to run both camps for the next 14 months. The cost of holding one asylum seeker in offshore detention was found to be more than $400,000 per year by the Commission of Audit. The Refugee Council calculates this cost to be five times that of ‘processing’ in Australia.
Yet for all the money spent, the quality of care provided to detainees is substandard. The death of 24-year-old Hamid Khazaei, an Iranian on September 5 was entirely preventable. A cut on his foot led to septicemia. The tragedy resulted from a simple lack of basic first aid. Not only was it totally unnecessary, it has come to represent the ugly side of a deliberate policy of deterrence. In most civilized societies, it would be regarded as an act of criminal neglect.
Political commentator, former diplomat, Bruce Haigh believes Morrison should step down, ‘The Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, should resign. He is not a fit and proper person to be responsible for vulnerable lives.’
Haigh instanced the Manus Island assault and problems with our neighbor, Indonesia. ‘Without any help, Mr Morrison has taken the relationship with Indonesia to its lowest point since the mid-1980s. He appears to understand nothing and listens to no one…’
Christine Milne has similarly called for Morrison to resign. Tasmanian Independent Andrew Wilkie has formally asked the International Criminal Court prosecuting authority to investigate whether the treatment of asylum seekers contravenes international conventions.
In the meantime, immune to all criticism, the government presses on with its plans to settle 1000 asylum seekers in Cambodia. Scott Morrison is seeking to change the law to give the Abbott government even greater authority. To this end, he introduced the “Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment” in September. Morrison argued:
“The new statutory framework will enable parliament to legislate… without referring directly to the Refugee Convention and therefore not being subject to the interpretations of foreign courts or judicial bodies which seek to expand the scope of the Refugee Convention well beyond what was ever intended by this country or this parliament.”
The controversial bill is now in its third reading. It is a bizarre attempt to twist a treaty to suit the Abbott government’s own agenda. “It’s a sudden and unilateral reinterpretation of a treaty which has been signed by 145 countries around the world and has been the cornerstone of international refugee protection for over 60 years,” according to Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) in Melbourne. Meanwhile, Cambodian officials are travelling to Nauru, for what Webb calls “an active selling of the refugee transfer arrangement by members of the regime that stands to profit from it”. 1,000 detainees from Nauru are slated to be transferred to Cambodia in exchange for US$35 million in aid. Cambodia has treated past asylum seekers poorly; it lacks the capacity to care for 1,000 newcomers. Above all, details of the proposed plan have not been made sufficiently clear. The Australia-Cambodia Memorandum of Understanding does not specify how much money will be allocated for temporary accommodation and basic needs – or who will decide how the money is budgeted. It is simply one more damning move in Australia’s practice of deterrence which masks a callous indifference at best and at worst an unrepentant and calculated cruelty to innocent victims.
Under the Abbott government and its gung-ho Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, the treatment of asylum seekers is a travesty of our international obligations and an affront to our humanity.
Moreover, as Julian Burnside reminds us this week, we have a minister whose department has not only shown gross negligence leading to accidental death, it has also been complicit in the brutal suppression of a protest on its Manus Island detention centre in February which resulted in the murder of an innocent victim. All the evasions and forced retractions in the world cannot wash away the blood on the Minister’s hands.