The men held captive on Manus Island have been rendered refugees twice over. Firstly, confronted with war, persecution and violence in their homeland, and then once more after showing faith in Australia’s humanity.
What many supporters and detractors alike have failed to conceptualise until now are the horrors that have been inflicted on these innocent people in our name. Even advocates have failed to comprehend that what we are collectively witnessing is not a hyper reality; this has and always will be stoked and manifested by us and us alone. We are and have always been capable of enacting such violence no matter how many times we try and fashion ourselves as a moral beacon. If we are not vigilant, we will continue to perpetuate this cycle, causing indescribable pain and suffering, while refusing to truly look at ourselves.
For the past twenty years, Australia has consistently marched to a beat hammered into our collective political psyche, one which justifies putting innocent people in exile. By extension, we have accepted the machinations of their imprisonment that actively render them invisible.
There have been so many points when I naively thought that conditions in Australia’s detention centres couldn’t get any worse, but the circumstances we are witnessing on Manus Island have exceeded even the darkest possibilities.
Since July 2013, over 2000 people seeking safety have been sent to Manus Island and Nauru at the cost of over $5 billion. After years of peaceful protest, hunger strikes, calls for alternate options, self-emulation, pleading to human rights organisations, writing letters of demand, and even a successful class action—innocent people continue to have their humanity denied, tormented by the anguish of endless captivity.
As early as 2013, the then prime minister Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Tony Abbott were warned by one of the architects of PNG’s constitution, Sir Robert Woods, that its actions were unacceptable and potentially illegal. Despite this and further protest from the Governor of Manus, Charlie Benjamin, Australia has continued to act with impunity, failing to uphold transparency and to be held accountable for its actions. As Benjamin explained to Roger Cohen of the New York Times, our understanding was we’d help a process and genuine refugees would move on, but no process exists.’
Once the 2016 PNG Supreme Court decision found the Manus Island detention centre to be unlawful and unconstitutional, many detainees and advocates alike hoped it would be a watershed moment for Australia to finally confront its actions and take responsibility for the problem they had created.
And yet on October 31 2017, both Australian and local officers left their positions at the centre, leaving up a notice that all detainees were to be evacuated to other transit centres in Lorengau, Hillside Haus and West Lorengau. All food, water, power and medication were cut off from all the detainees as a sadistic attempt to pressure them to submit to final orders. The worst outcomes were the countless men who had become reliant on medication that alleviated symptoms caused by detention.
The choice facing the Manus Island detainees was to either submit themselves to the cruel system, one which had defied their human rights and provided no resolution, or to use the opportunity to peacefully protest the central tenant of the regime, and to demand a better solution than more indefinite detention.
Although the Department of Immigration and Border Control announced that the transit centres were habitable, images sent from Manus Island proved otherwise. Yet, the suitability or availability of the centres is beside the point, because their very existence is still a continuation of a violent offshore processing policy. The ultimate focus for many people in indefinite detention is to break the stalemate of destitution. The new transit centres are a symbol of continued limbo, formed by Australia’s refusal to resolve the mistakes it has made or to acknowledge the sovereignty of local Manusians.
These decisions are not without consequence, having been for the deaths of Omid Masoumali, Reza Barati, Faysal Ishak Ahmed, Hamid Kehazaei , Kamil Hussain and Hamed Shamshiripour. The loss of these men, as well as years of medical negligence, abuse, violence from staff and locals, could only drive those stranded on Manus to stand up for their self-determination one last time; an act of defiance against systematic erasure.
It’s important to understand that willful negligence has always been a central philosophy in Australia’s offshore detention regime. The nation has outsourced its responsibilities and pitted one marginalised group against another. It is a former coloniser of Papua New Guinea, has weaponised much needed aid, has pressured the PNG government with directions straight from Australian immigration and border force personnel, and failed to deliver many logistical upgrades that they promised Manusians. After over four years of indefinite detention, it’s obvious that the regime’s underlying ideology is an act of neocolonialism.
From the beginning, Australia has stoked the fires between both the local Manusian people and the men unlawfully detained on the island. The refugees have become a symbol of outside meddling, intrusion and danger. And while some locals have tried to assist the men, there have been numerous incidences of violence and tension between the two groups.
It’s evident that permanently relocating any of the men to PNG is unsustainable, with infrastructure and services barely sufficient for the locals, let alone for an additional 600 people. The prospect of any permanent resettlement on the island is even bleaker, considering the traditional land tenure system Wantok—which ensures the sovereign right for the local people, but leaves the relocated men no options for building new lives.
To understand how we got to this point, we need to scratch away at our collective psychology. Put a mirror up to the horrors we harbour and continue to perpetuate.
The establishment of the colonial state of Australia was predicated on an eerily similar offshore processing program. Great Britain sent out its perceived undesirables to foreign lands, justified it on the false principle terra nullius, and consequently these outcasts benefitted from the violent trauma inflicted upon the sovereign peoples of this land. This genocidal project caused mass fatalities within more than 600 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations. We cannot deny that our first acts of violence, displacement, and exile have always been enacted on First Nations people.
When I fast forward through ethnic cleansing, internal displacement, the White Australia Policy, and the continuous discomfort we have when someone dares articulate these tensions, I realise that we still harbour a darkness—one that without continued resistance, will always rear its ugly head.
We fundamentally have a predisposition for punishing people for not being white, and for daring to question the perpetual innocence afforded to whiteness. How else would the indefinite destitution of people seeking safety make sense to both leaders and the public alike? How can indifference then be the right response to state-sanctioned violence?
Despite countless efforts to uncover the horrors of our violence, we still cannot believe it when its victims articulate it. Brave detainees such as Abdul Aziz Muhamat and Behrouz Boochani have reported from within the compound for over four years, and despite this we are still sceptical of the circumstances that the men on Manus Island find themselves in.
Australia is one of a group of privileged countries that positions itself with a monopoly on morality. It espouses the virtues of democracy, human rights and liberty, only to turn around and claim that it is due to these characteristics that we need to bolster our border security through any means necessary. It’s ironic then, that we are the architects of the crisis on Manus Island, while simultaneously involved in regional conflicts perpetuating the highest rate of human displacement since World War Two.
From the moment SAS troops stormed MV Tampa in 2001, public sentiment has so easily succumbed to terms of engagement. Despite countless efforts to counteract them, droning falsehoods of line jumping, saving lives at sea, and disincentivising people smugglers have all become political orthodoxies that consistently go unchallenged. The focus of our collective discourse has been on deterrence rather than responsibility. This cycle has even influenced how effective refugee advocates have been in interrogating assumptions and swaying public opinion. Even by using terminology such as ‘refugees’ and ‘human rights’, or by referencing various propaganda lines to counteract them, advocates have inadvertently reinforced the frameworks at play.
Evidently, the primary political motivation has been enacting vengeance on those who dare request help. Australia has prolonged the agony by denying people legal support, or avenues to apply for asylum in other suitable countries. It’s harbouring the peculiar characteristic of the modern neoliberal project, where states strongly committed to the free movement of goods, services and capital are oftentimes promoting the violent protection of their own borders from formerly colonised peoples.
What should have always been a consistent, thorough, bureaucratic process has quickly morphed into a sadistic game of political football, one leaving people in a state of perpetual limbo by avoiding accountability and suspending compassion.
In the name of toughness and border security, consecutive Labor and Liberal governments have refused to disclose decisions, pushed through legislation to neutralise High Court judgements protecting human rights, and manufactured false narratives and character assassinations.
Yet it’s at the helm of Dutton’s leadership that we have seen an unprecedented cruelty. The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection has 47 discretionary powers that he wields for ‘public’ and ‘national’ interest purposes. This means that he alone has the power to overturn any procedural decisions without due process or thorough investigation. Despite having this unprecedented influence, Dutton has continued to avoid responsibility for fatal consequences, including refusing to provide medical treatment for victims of sexual abuse and rape.
He has time and time again stood resolute in the pathway towards justice. So convinced of his own volition and judgement, he continues to refuse any compromise. Instead, and perhaps due to the unparalleled powers afforded to him, he has stood silently unyielding while engaged in acts of corruption, including widespread negligence, abuse at sea and paying people smugglers to turn back boats. Dutton justifies these acts with a mixture of contradictory statements, and equates innocent people to hardened criminals to sanction a kind of treatment we wouldn’t even accept in our most high-security prisons.
This has clearly been an effective strategy to avoid accountability. In doing so, consecutive governments have fundamentally shifted the public discourse, which is now at the point where even some human rights and refugee advocates consider detention an inevitable part of a sustainable migration and border policy. These advocates are now often complicit in the management of Australia’s detention centres, pushing for slight cosmetic policy changes as a poor attempt to mitigate the consequences of the broader apparatus. The fact that compromise was seen an adequate response, a replacement for organised resistance and an absolute commitment to human rights, is one of the reasons we have arrived at this horrifying juncture.
A refugee is plagued with desperation, they do not have the privilege of negotiating the best outcomes. It’s not a choice economy that they face. It’s a life-and-death situation. To frame it as if people are constantly re-evaluating their options is a misconception that has plagued the political discourse.
Even the most benign bureaucracy quickly becomes violent when you are stateless. And those with the monopoly on violence are often the only ones that have the capacity to provide for displaced peoples. This creates a strange tension where the country that contributes to the war that displaces you, also has the power to deny you your safety if you survive the long walk to freedom.
When you leave your homeland you are running away from a tsunami of hurt and pain. Becoming a refugee is like tearing your soul into pieces. The torment of unstable land beneath your feet often haunts you even after you find safety. Australia has taken that very specific feeling of anguish and has made it a key characteristic of its border policy. And for decades it has rewarded itself for deliberate forms of corruption, secrecy and political strong-arming with our Pacific neighbours.
Currently the Australian government is circling the compound, choosing to use a torture technique of deprivation as a way to gain compliance. But it never had to be this way, and despite decade’s worth of repeated rhetoric, Australia can choose to rise above this tormented system. But it can only be achieved with a careful combination of regional partnerships, diplomacy, multilateral collaboration and accepting its responsibility in the international community. In short, political finesse that seems far beyond the capabilities of both the Liberal and Labor party.
Roj Amedi is a writer, editor, strategist and human rights advocate. She writes and speaks on a range of issues including politics, art and culture. Her perspective is cross-disciplinary in nature with works published by The Saturday Paper, SBS, Swampland, Vault Magazine, Right Now, Assemble Papers and Acclaim Magazine. @roj_ame