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No Escape From Manus Island

Mark Isaacs, author of The Undesirables: Inside Nauru and Nauru Burning, was commissioned to visit Manus Island last November by the Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin as part of an anthology for the ‘State of Refugees’ project. 

This article is adapted from an essay he wrote for Foreign Policy.

I entered the Manus Island Detention Centre and was confronted by an apocalyptic scene. Toilets overflowed with urine and faeces, campfires burned in litter-filled corridors, blood-red graffiti riddled the walls, and zombie-like figures lay slumped in odd angles on dirty mattresses and tables. I had arrived in the midst of a stand-off between the Australian Government and the refugees it had imprisoned there. 

In April 2016, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled the detention of refugees on Manus Island was unconstitutional. Because the asylum seekers held there did not arrive in Papua New Guinea of their own volition, the court ruled they had not broken immigration law, therefore keeping them in indefinite detention violated their constitutional rights.

Eighteen months later, the Australian Government was trying to circumvent Papua New Guinea’s domestic laws by transferring detainees to three new “open” centres on the island. By allowing refugees free movement outside the centres, the Australian Government could claim the people weren’t imprisoned.

After four years of incarceration, 600 refugees refused to leave the centre, claiming it was not safe for them to live outside its walls. Many of them had fled war and persecution and now Australia was placing them in danger once again. 

Every refugee I met already living in the Manus community had a story of violence at the hands of locals. Joinul Islam, a frail Bangladeshi man, had been hit with a machete, fracturing his arm and slicing his skin. The refugees claimed they were the targets of robberies from local people who demanded money, cigarettes and mobile phones. A Rohingya man I met had his right wrist in a brace. It was the fourth time he had been attacked since leaving the detention centre.

In response to the refugees’ refusal to leave the centre, the Australian Government cut off the centre’s water, electricity, and food supplies, evacuated staff and terminated medical services in an attempt to starve the men into submission. Having been brought to Manus Island by the Australian Government, and without viable third country resettlement options, the refugees were completely dependent on the authorities for their survival. 

This is what we have come to expect from Australia, a country that has been persecuting refugees for decades. Since 1992, Labor and Liberal governments have implemented increasingly strict border control policies to deter people seeking asylum by boat from reaching our shores and engaging our protection responsibilities according to the 1951 UN refugee convention and its protocol. Nowadays people who arrive by boat without a visa are either transferred to offshore detention centres or returned to their point of departure before they can lodge an asylum claim. 

Australia’s recent appearance at the ASEAN summit highlighted the issues the region faces in relation to refugees. Currently in the South East Asia region, there are 2.7 million people of concern including 1.4 million stateless people. Most of that number either reside within Myanmar (close to 1.3 million people), or have fled the country and are now dispersed throughout the region seeking protection and resettlement. There are close to 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR in Malaysia, and almost 600,000 people of concern in Thailand. The UNHCR Budget for the South East Asia region in 2018 is over US $300 million but typically they will only receive a quarter of that money. Meanwhile, Australia spends over $1 billion per year detaining just over 2,000 asylum seekers in offshore detention centres.

While ASEAN struggles with this crisis on our doorstep, the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, is publicly considering a special refugee intake for persecuted white South African farmers. We can only imagine what our asylum seeker policy would look like if the people arriving by boat were white.

It has become clear that Australia’s deterrence system does little to alleviate the refugee burden in our region and instead shifts Australia’s responsibility for protecting these people to other, less wealthy countries. Deterrence does not “save lives”, it merely stops people from drowning in waters near Australia. 

However politicians justify deterrence, the effect is still the same. Australia’s offshore detention system has become synonymous with abuse and is a humanitarian disaster. Children have been abused; women raped; the most desperate have set themselves on fire; and there have been numerous deaths including the murdered Reza Berati. 

Two weeks after my visit to the centre, Papua New Guinea police and immigration staff forcibly removed the remaining men from the centre and relocated them to the transit centres. They used metal poles to beat resisters and arrested over 30 men including Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian journalist and refugee who had been reporting to the Australian press from within the centre. Their resistance was suppressed, the media attention dissipated, the world stopped watching. The men were returned to the inertia of detention centre life.

There is little difference between the new transit centres and the closed detention centre. The transit centres are still closed to the public, guarded by security, and refugees are not allowed visitors. If anything the men have become more susceptible to attacks. Where before, imposing detention centre fences protected the men from outside attacks, the new transit centres are bordered by an easily scalable fence. 

“We feel that we are living in a political game,” Behrouz Bouchani said to me. “Many refugees have been separated from their families for five years and it’s very hard for the refugees who have wives and children to endure this situation.” 

Just two weeks after the forced relocation, it was reported that drunk local men tried to enter the transit centres and threatened refugees with weapons and violence. In January 2018, I read that Joinul Islam (the Bangladeshi victim of a machete attack) was hit in the face and robbed. And then neighbouring residents to the transit centres barricaded the road four times in protest about the centre’s sewage overflowing onto their land. 

Behrouz Boochani believed these incidents were representative of the local Manusians’ growing anger regarding the forced relocation of refugees into their communities. 

“The problem is that these two places are located in a place exactly beside some of the locals’ village and it’s really high risk,” Behrouz said. 

> Read Behrouz's Article: Silenced in ways that no-one hears your shouts and screams

While refugees struggle to live in the island communities, the impoverished local people are also forced to accommodate them. 

Manus Island’s population is 50,000. It has high unemployment, limited resources and health facilities, and is dependent on Australian aid. There is one small hospital on the island. A person with a serious health issue will be sent to Port Moresby or overseas for treatment. There are no mental health facilities in Manus, a bitter irony considering for the last five years Australia has operated a factory for mental illness. The best medical facilities on the island were inside the detention centre, but those facilities were closed (including the island’s dental clinic) and the resources taken with them. 

There are currently over 100 sick refugees and asylum seekers housed in the Granville Motel in Port Moresby awaiting medical treatment. 

“It’s like a jail,” Ben, one of the sick refugees in Port Moresby, tells me. “There are only refugees in the entire motel. There are security guards in front of our rooms and they open and close the door for us. We are not allowed to keep our room keys. The motel is located in a dangerous area of Port Moresby, so we are afraid to leave.” 

Australia is spending a further A$20 million on building a new detention facility in the outskirts of Port Moresby. Until that new facility is built, asylum seekers who were given negative refugee assessments are being detained in squalid and putrid conditions in Bomana jail in Port Moresby or Lorengau prison in Manus Island. They then face deportation back to their home countries. 

It is clear that long-term settlement of refugees on Manus Island is unlikely and unsustainable, and yet, there are currently hundreds of refugees who have been offered temporary protection visas living in the island community fearing violence at the hands of locals. 

The Australian Government’s stance on resettlement remains consistent: anyone attempting to enter Australia by boat without a visa will never be settled in the country. The only other realistic solution is third-country resettlement of the refugees. But Australia has achieved little in this regard since the centres were opened in 2012. 

In 2014, Australia and Cambodia reached a A$55million deal to transfer refugees from Nauru and Manus. Only seven refugees have taken up the offer. Four of them left Cambodia within a year. 

New Zealand offered to resettle 150 refugees, but the Australian Government rejected the offer, with Prime Minister Turnbull saying, “settlement in a country like New Zealand [situated well over 6,000 kilometres from Indonesia] would be used by people smugglers as a marketing opportunity”. 

Yet in November 2016, Canberra negotiated a deal in which the United States agreed to resettle up to 1,250 refugees from Manus and Nauru. In return, Canberra agreed to resettle an unspecified number of Central American refugees. 

Thus far, the US Government has resettled 139 refugees from Nauru and Manus. But the future of the arrangement remains uncertain with Trump famously panning it as a “dumb deal”. 

And as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull advised Trump in a leaked phone transcript: the US is ultimately not obliged to resettle ‘any’ of the refugees. 

It is clear the Australian Government needs a safe resolution to the offshore legacy of cruelty, a resolution that ensures third-country resettlement and permanent protection for refugees. The Australian Government has proven its inability to provide adequate care for people seeking protection. The relationship between the refugee communities and the local communities of Manus Island and Nauru is not salvageable. Failure to remove the refugees from these dire circumstances will result in more harm and more deaths. However, it appears that the Australian Government is willing to sacrifice as many refugee lives as they need in order to maintain the illusion of safe borders. 

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