After eight years the Australian government’s “offshore processing” deal with Papua New Guinea ended yesterday. Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers were sent by Australia to a prison centre on Manus Island over the course of the policy. It was glorified human trafficking.
The Australian government has now cut the remaining refugees adrift. “From 1 January 2022, the PNG government will assume full and independent management of individuals under regional processing arrangements in PNG,” a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told SBS News.
This is not the end of offshore processing, nor any kind of easing of Australia’s anti-refugee policies. It is just the federal government washing its hands of the refugees whose rights it has trampled and whose lives it has ruined. This is consistent with all the previous disregard of the lives of refugees in Papua New Guinea. As Madeline Gleeson from the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law told the Guardian in October:
“Australia has precedent withdrawing from PNG before ensuring appropriate arrangements are in place to support people still there. We saw this happen on Manus Island, when Australia set its deadline to withdraw and left before sufficient accommodation and other services were in place.”
Refugees who fled the misery of the world’s war zones and political persecution—from Sri Lanka to Syria—found themselves imprisoned, seemingly indefinitely, in Papua. One Middle Eastern man detained on Manus, Ahmed (not his real name), told the BBC’s Jon Donnison in 2015: “The Australian government broke the majority of our human rights. They don't have any plan for us”.
The refugees now have three impossible choices: to somehow find resettlement in a third country, to stay in Papua without adequate support or to go to Nauru and continue to be warehoused on a different remote and poverty-stricken island (an arrangement the Australian government extended indefinitely in September). Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Director of Advocacy and Campaigns Jana Favero’s description is apt:
“An ‘enduring regional processing capability’ in Nauru means: enduring suffering, enduring family separation, enduring uncertainty, enduring harm and Australia's enduring shame.”
More than 120 men who tried to reach Australia but were trafficked to a prison on Manus Island have been left in limbo. “We are hostages. Eight or nine years [in PNG] and nobody knows anything”, Sudanese asylum seeker Yasir Omar told SBS News. He said that the weekly allowance asylum seekers are given—about 300 Kina (A$118)— doesn’t cover basic living expenses and that the situation is about to get worse now that the deal between the two countries has formally ended.
Father Giorgio Licini from the PNG Catholic Bishops Conference says the number of those wanting to stay is small. A Catholic Bishops Conference press release just before Christmas pointed out that those left in the country “are generally the most vulnerable: elderly, sick, with poor professional skills, some unable to manage with English, and now too exhausted and unequipped to fend for themselves in our environment”.
And what is that environment?
“Certainly, the PNG government does not have the resources to resettle the refugees”, PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill admitted when addressing Australia’s National Press Club in March 2016. With COVID-19 rampant, the situation now is much worse.
Papua New Guinea is one of the poorest countries in the world, and unable to provide housing, healthcare or basic education for much of its population. It is ranked 168 in the world in terms of life expectancy. But Australia’s neo-colonial relationship with PNG is the reason why the government in Port Moresby has agreed to Australia walking away—just as it agreed to re-open the Manus Island prison camp when Canberra offered $400 million.
Successive Australian governments never wanted the world to see the refugee prison on the island. This Guantanamo of the Pacific was far from refugee supporters, from legal assistance and from the prying eyes of the media. From the government’s point of view, it needed to be. As Ben Doherty reported in the Guardian in September, Manus Island was an affront to humanity:
“[There were] the deaths of at least seven asylum seekers, including being murdered by guards, through medical neglect and by suicide. Psychiatrists sent to work in the camps have described the conditions as ‘inherently toxic’ and akin to ‘torture’. Iranian Reza Barati was murdered by guards, and more than 70 asylum seekers injured, including being shot and stabbed, during attacks on the centre in 2014. A Queensland coroner found ‘systemic failures’ within the Australian-run healthcare system inside the Manus detention led to the ‘preventable’ death of Hamid Kehazaei from an easily treatable infection.”
The prison camp on Manus first opened in 2001 as part of Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s “Pacific solution” to punish refugees for trying to seek asylum in Australia. Like human cargo, they were exported to Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
As refugee arrivals by boat declined, the Manus prison was formally closed in 2008. The response of the Julia Gillard and second Kevin Rudd Labor governments when the number of refugees began to increase was the same as John Howard’s. In August 2012, Gillard announced that refugees attempting to reach Australia by boat would once again be imprisoned on Nauru and Manus Island. In July the following year, Rudd took the cruelty even further, announcing that asylum seekers who came by boat would never be settled in Australia.
When a legal challenge was brought, Australia's High Court ruled in February 2016, by a six to one majority, that the government's policy of detaining asylum seekers offshore was legal. However, a few months later, the five judges on Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled that the Manus Island prison camp was “illegal and unconstitutional”.
It was closed in 2017. But, once again, Canberra punished the refugees. Hundreds of men were forced to live in Port Moresby without adequate support or security, staying in cheap hotels paid for by the Australian government.
The Commonwealth and its private detention contractors did agree to pay $70 million in compensation to 1,905 refugees for illegally detaining them in dangerous and damaging conditions on Manus. But this did not reflect a change of heart. It was money spent to quash the possibility of a lengthy trial that would have involved evidence being brought before the courts detailing the murders, systemic abuse and inadequate medical treatment. It was hush money, and the abuses did not stop.
So bad did the spiralling offshore health crises become from 2017 that the government was forced to allow some cases to be medically evacuated to Australia. Despite this, the Morrison government has maintained Kevin Rudd’s refusal to allow settlement in Australia. Even when 60 medically-evacuated refugees held in hotel detention for years were released in January last year—because then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton decided the financial cost of their ongoing imprisonment was too high—they remained in visa limbo on insecure bridging visas.
There has been a huge cost in processing asylum seekers offshore—$8.3 billion between 2014 and 2020, according to the Refugee Council of Australia. But the real cost, in human lives and human misery, is incalculable.
The political power of the “border protection” narrative—demonising desperate people fleeing their home countries, a racist divide-and-rule to create enemies where there are none and divert us from the real enemies, our own ruling class—has been enough for governments to justify putting vulnerable people through massive trauma.
Of course, refugees have never just been the Australian government’s victims. They have also been its opponents. They have fought over decades to end the policy of mandatory detention, and their resistance has inspired solidarity. The torture, murders, rapes, and assaults at the hands of security guards have been exposed by determined protests and riots by the detainees and numerous leaks from detention centre staff.
Refugee resistance made possible the intense opposition to Kevin Rudd’s “PNG solution” announced in 2013. With less than a day’s notice, nearly 1,000 people turned out in Sydney, up to 800 in Melbourne and several hundred in Perth. The following day, more than 200 protested in Brisbane and 500 in Adelaide. Larger protests took place the following weekend as the anger grew.
The last word should go to one of those who suffered but also resisted, and who continues to call for the Morrison government to end its human trafficking and free the refugees. “Transferring refugees who have been tortured by the Australian government for nearly nine years to just another version of limbo is absolutely inhumane”, says Moz Azimitabar, a former Manus detainee who spent more years in detention when medically evacuated to Australia.
Whether suing the Australian government for unlawful imprisonment in one of its detention hotels in Melbourne, or making placards to protest from inside detention when the government tried to take detainees’ phones, or delivering a 2020 World Refugee Day message from inside a hotel room, under guard and unable to leave, like so many others, he has used every avenue to resist: “I am not a criminal. I am not a victim. Now I am a freedom fighter. My resistance is my strength. But behind this resistance, there are thousands of people.”
In 2022, we have to keep up the resistance until we secure the freedom of all refugees.
Correction: This article originally mentioned Loghman Sawari and claimed that he was still in detention. He is in fact no longer in Australia, having taken up a resettlement offer from the United States in August 2021.
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