We must close our Pacific gulag on Manus Island.

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manus island

hunger strikers on Manus Islandhunger striker on manus in wheel chair

Hunger strike continues and expands on Manus: the Minister’s intemperate statements that asylum seekers are making “exaggerated and unfounded claims” are driving more people to join the protest. Ninety-five percent of Mike Compound – over 300 people – is now on hunger strike.

‘Manus Island is an experiment in the ultimate logic of deterrence, designed to frustrate the hell out of people and terrify them so that they go home. Your two options are indefinite detention or to return to the country where you fear persecution.’ Liz Thompson, refugee advocate on SBS Dateline.

No words could ever describe life in Manus Island Detention Centre, but imagine a makeshift, overcrowded, run-down camp of peeling weatherboard cabins, tents and shipping containers sweltering and festering in the jungle on a hot, humid, far-flung island amidst some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the world.

Your only company is that of other wretched unfortunates like yourself. Should you be ‘processed’ and found to be a genuine refugee, you may be freed but only to be settled locally. The local people, however, resent your presence. Your sense of entrapment is suffocating. Blend in the isolation, disease, and heat and you have Manus Island’s mission to deter.

The only hope of getting out of Manus is to return home to certain persecution or, if ‘processing’ establishes your bona fide refugee status, you will be set down amongst hostile locals to wait for re-settlement in another part of PNG that a reluctant, corrupt and inefficient government has not yet set up.  You could be there for years, if you survive. You fear for your life. Not that you are safe inside Manus, especially should you protest (and almost everyone must).

Four days ago, asylum seekers reported that guards threatened to rape and beat those of them who did not stop their protest. Fatal force was used a year ago when a mob of guards, staff, police and residents stormed the detention centre. They beat Iranian Reza Barati to death. Dozens of other asylum seekers were injured. The trauma of that beating and the violence of the mob are nightmares which still haunt the asylum seekers, many of whom are also suffering the trauma of war.

Fifty men have been told that on 22 January they will be forcibly resettled, a prospect which has precipitated the asylum seekers’ latest desperate bid to be listened to, a protest in which 700 people are still on hunger strike. Men have stitched together their lips in hunger strikes whilst one has attempted to commit suicide by swallowing razor blades and two have been stopped from hanging themselves.

Force is integral to Manus’ brutal regime. Whilst Immigration Minister Peter Dutton may deplore the demonstrations, he appears as wilfully oblivious as his predecessor, Morrison, to the institutionalised violence of the prison camp itself, to say nothing of the coercion involved in the parent policy of offshore detention itself.  When pressed on the issue, Dutton also follows Morrison’s lead in taking refuge in denial and hair-splitting semantics.

A “degree of force” Dutton concedes, was used on protestors but claims that the situation hasn’t turned violent. Asylum seekers beg to differ. They claim that detainees were “beaten like dogs” by guards. Dutton will, no doubt, claim they are making this up, just as he dismissed the claims that protestors had been refused drinking water, despite video evidence to the contrary. Sadly, such discrepancies have become a major theme in the reporting of Immigration and Border protection matters and make a mockery of promises of ‘transparency,’ a buzz-word on every government minister’s lips. The denial of reality is another powerful tool, moreover, in Manus’ campaign of psychological warfare against refugees and is helped by a context of privation.

Cruel privations include a lack of drinking water, low personal safety, poor hygiene and no first aid or adequate emergency medication. Reza Barati was beaten to death. Hamid Khazaei died of an infected cut caused by chromobacterium violaceum, a bacteria which can aggressively attack internal organs after entering the bloodstream.  In both cases, the authorities’ slow responses may well have contributed to their tragic deaths.

The worst cruelty, however, is the attack on the human spirit. Beyond words is the unrelenting, daily dashing of hope, the relentless, inexorable sense of abandonment, loss, failure, worthlessness and being forever cut off from family and friends and hope.

‘Life’ on Manus is not life as anyone of us outside would know it but more a type of death-in-life, a living nightmare. Only those who are locked up in here can truly know what it is to set out on a desperate quest for safety; a dangerous all or nothing bid for freedom only to end up in a stifling over-crowded badly-run prison that should never have been a prison in the first place.

Manus is not a place you would wish on your worst enemy. Yet for the thousand and thirty men who must suffer incarceration in its badly equipped, overcrowded and poorly designed facilities it is hell on earth. And that is its purpose: Manus is a prison designed to cripple the human spirit. Forget the euphemisms, ‘detention centre’ and ‘processing centre’ for these are part of the nightmare; part of the equivocating language of state cruelty in which terms are formulated to hide unpleasant truths; part of an impossible burden of uncertainty, a web of unknowing, a prison which crushes a man’s spirit or sends him mad with despair. ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here for we have abandoned you, is Manus real motto.’ That abandonment is evident at every waking moment to all prisoners. It is reinforced by the facilities themselves.

Manus is a crowded, hot and dirty existential hell where men are consigned indefinitely for the crime of being forced to flee from persecution. It is hidden away, off the map, because it is a shameful abuse of our human obligations to others in need; an unconscionable abuse of their human rights. And it is blanketed in secrecy by a government which has no other solution than to resort to coercion, secrecy and lies.

In one darkened sleeping centre in Foxtrot compound, 122 men must share a room. It has no air-conditioning. In Delta compound, AAP media, visiting in March saw filthy toilets with no running water. There were broken showers in another compound. In the largest compound, Oscar, Amnesty reports, 500 men receive only a dozen bottles of water per day to share between themselves, a ration of less than 500ml of water per person per day which is extremely insufficient, especially given the heat and humidity.

Tightly packed shipping containers arrayed in rows, in another compound, each sleep four or five men. Deprivation and hardship are found at every turn, although the supervision is not without foresight. The guards in Manus Island’s prison are instructed to carry hooked knives to cut the ropes asylum seekers use to try to hang themselves.

Manus is meant as a deterrent, a place, to use former Immigration Minister Morrison’s phrase where the sugar is off the table.’ But as the latest protests attest, deterrence is not working, nor is the system that bequeathed it working. Manus is set to implode in violence.

The prison at Manus Island, keystone of our deeply flawed immigration policy’s ironically entitled PNG solution, is no solution at all. It is a squalid, unworkable compromise between the politically confected ‘asylum seeker problem’ with its rhetoric of stop the boats and the bare necessities of custodial care.

While our government pats itself on the back for a job well done, the evidence attests otherwise. Their asylum-seeker problem is far from solved. Nothing has been well done.  Costing $632 million or half a million dollars per detainee last year alone to administer, Manus attests to our failure to develop any other policy beyond containment, an expensive holding pen where asylum seekers are at risk of death or injury and serious psychological damage.

Manus is less an answer than a series of serious questions about how we see ourselves and how we treat others in need, questions that go to the heart of what it is to be human; questions which puncture the machismo of our national identity; questions which prompt a growing source of acute national shame and self-reproach to all decent Australian citizens in whose name endless, incalculable cruelties are inflicted daily. Why and how can we allow it to go on? It is time we stepped up to the plate and owned our own part in what is done on our behalf; done in our name; time we stood up and were counted.

For it is in the name of the Australian people that 1030 men have been locked up against their will; consigned to oblivion in an existential hell for daring to seek our help; locked down in a gulag in the midst of one of the most disadvantaged communities in the world. We have put them in a gulag.

Powes Parkop, a human rights lawyer and governor of Port Moresby and the National Capital District, who grew up on Manus Island, coins the term Pacific gulag to describe the hell into which we have confined asylum seekers. ‘The Manus detention centre offends both PNG law and local culture,’ he says. The PNG mobile squad police do not help the situation.

Squads of PNG’s notorious mobile squad police have been brought in as hired muscle. Ostensibly there to guard the ‘detention centre’ enterprise, the mobile squad has made a violent impact on the local community causing the deaths to date of two locals, one beaten to death in full view for a critical remark, another a promising schoolboy knocked down by a drunk driver, a mobile squad policeman who veered on to the wrong side of the road. The policeman had been observed drinking heavily during that day.

The mobile squad enforces compliance with the enterprise, menacing villagers who may object to any detention centre activities. It was supporting the prison staff when Reza Berati was beaten to death.

Australians are not by nature cruel, vindictive or lacking in compassion. How can we live with ourselves while Manus continues to exist? How can we remain unmoved when those we have locked up protest or are forced to resort to self-harm because it is their only remaining avenue of redress? It is a dangerous place. One person per day is put in isolation for their own safety. According to leaked medical records there have been at least forty-eight medical evacuations to date.

Manus exists to inflict barbaric treatment and utterly undeserved punishment on the dispossessed; to maltreat those vulnerable, innocent, long suffering peoples whose only mistake has been to seek our help, our compassion and our understanding in their desperate need to take refuge from persecution at home, a refuge which they have every right to seek.

It is not illegal to seek refuge. The 1951 United Nations convention offers protection to those fleeing their country as a result of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. What is illegal and immoral is our denial of our obligations and responsibilities to our fellow human beings who through no fault of their own, people who have done no wrong except to be in the wrong place at the wrong time just happen to be refugees. Manus is our disgrace, our national shame: its existence does not reflect creditably on any of us.

Along with the other hell-holes such as Nauru, Christmas Island, and the yet to be commissioned Cambodian detention centre, our political newspeak blunts the truth of, preferring terms such as detention centres or processing centres, the legal framework under which asylum seekers are transferred to and held at Manus Island has been heavily criticised by leading international human rights organisations such as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and Amnesty International and by the Australian Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and the Australian Human Rights Commission. The UN speaks out against the flagrant violations of human rights such as indefinite detention and the incarceration of children. Surely Manus is an abomination. How did it come about?

Manus has been an ‘out of sight out of mind’ instrument of Australian immigration policy since 2001 when John Howard conceived his Pacific Solution in response to what it called the ‘Tampa crisis,’ a manufactured crisis with lies about babies overboard and other forms of deceit all cynically calculated to win political advantage and obscure the reality of the cruel and violent interception of an asylum seeker boat. Howard’s Pacific Solution set in train the process of offshore detention, a type of forcible deportation which has cost all of us dearly both in our international reputation and in our sense of ourselves, to say nothing of the utter ruination of the lives of the asylum-seekers. The damage is incalculable. The Pacific Solution, a phrase uncomfortably close to the NAZI Final Solution, was neither ‘pacific’ nor was it any ‘solution.’

Off shore detention has stripped all decent Australians of their natural capacity, their instinct to practice tolerance, compassion and humanity. It has violated that sense of ourselves we call mateship, our spontaneous instinct to support, help and deal fairly with others and it has vitiated our natural impulse towards acceptance, understanding and compassion. It is time we called a stop to the practice. It is time we tended the needs of the all those who desperately turn to us for help. Far more than a blot on the body politic, Manus is an atrocity in the name of us all, an inhumanity which diminishes us all.

Far from the public eye, its isolation originally commended Manus Island, which lies about 800km north of Port Moresby, to Howard’s government because it provided an extra dimension of deprivation and suffering to asylum seekers, whom it was resolved to deal with as harshly as possible to ‘send a message to people smugglers.’ Yet what is that message?

No better, surely, than terrorists who attack a few targets to send a message to a whole society, argues Nick Reimer, of the Refugee Action Collective, Sydney.

How best to deal with the monster of Manus? We should begin by rejecting the cloak of secrecy that was invoked by Morrison with his quasi-military regime and his refusal to speak of ‘on-water’ matters. It is inappropriate and it is undemocratic. We are not at war. Elected governments have a clear and abiding responsibility to inform all citizens of their operations. We need to demand up to date, objective information as our right. The right to visit Manus which was denied our Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs and denied to our media should be re-instated immediately.

We must reject entirely the language of manipulation. Manus is a prison; its prisoners are being dealt with in a way calculated to cause hardship and suffering beyond the privations of incarceration. Let us use plain words to tell plain truths. We are punishing the innocent because it suits us to blame others rather than confront ourselves and our own failings at the heart of the problem. We have allowed ourselves to believe absurd lies and myths about asylum seekers when we should be listening to each asylum seeker and opening our hearts.

Above all we must call a stop to blaming the victim. Riots occur when people have no other means of being noticed, being heard. End the foolish nonsense of pretending that the demonstrations at Manus are somehow not genuine. Challenge official explanations.

Rookie Immigration Minister Dutton, whose first act in his new job was to arm customs officers, has so far has shown all the feelings of a crash test dummy and something of the same demeanour. He should not be allowed to get away with allegations which he refuses to substantiate.

On ABC recently Dutton refused to give detail to support his allegation that prisoners were armed. He did, however, tender the ludicrously implausible explanation that Manus Island asylum seekers had been coached in self-harm by refugee advocates for political motives.

Imagine this bizarre claim in reality. The ‘advocate’ sews up his or her own lips or swallows razor blades outside the wire and the asylum seeker copies his or her coach.

Even more ludicrous is Dutton’s implication that everyone is happy but a few trouble-makers have stirred the others up. Only a few? Informal reports suggest we are talking about 700 out of 1030 men who are demonstrating. Dutton’s paranoid logic, moreover, boggles the imagination.  Who would travel to Manus just to foment a demonstration for political purposes? He needs to be required to supply evidence.

The only suspect political motives to be deplored in Manus Island are entirely this government’s own. Instead of blaming advocates who seek to ease suffering, the government should admit it has failed, close the prison, close down the offshore detention system and relocate the asylum seekers to the mainland where they can be released into the community until such time as their claims are proved.

We need to press all our politicians to act responsibly in Immigration especially, sharing all information essential to accountability. Reject their spin and their jargon and ask clear questions which probe the heart of the matter. Assert our right to see for ourselves. The offshore detention centre system is a prison set up to punish those hapless souls we have caught fleeing from persecution. They have thrown themselves on our mercy. Let us not throw them in prison on Manus Island or any other island but rather take them in and minister to them for in this we affirm our humanity. There is no other possible course of action.

One thought on “We must close our Pacific gulag on Manus Island.

  1. Alas, whereas “Australians are not by nature cruel, vindictive or lacking in compassion.” was so admirably true for generations, it is no longer so.

    Proof of the opposite is now so abundantly clear that Australians stand condemned before any fair tribunal.

    They have allowed an evil government to continue its natural barbarity whereas they should have had the sense to prohibit that possibility from the very beginning,


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