For more than five years, refugees have been subjected to horror and abuse on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. With the government’s decision to permanently close the detention centre on 31 October, the horror has descended into absolute barbarity.
Water, food and power have been cut off. More than 600 refugees have been reduced to filling bins with rainwater and mixing it with sugar and salt to sustain themselves. Sympathetic members of the local PNG community have been blocked from providing them with food. A protest sign in the centre in early November read, “If the air was in Australia’s hands it would cut it on us”.
Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian refugee on Manus, talks of “a mood of death, climate of death” pervading the camp. Writing on 2 November, Behrouz described the horrendous conditions and the refugees’ incredible resilience:
“Starvation, thirst and terror slowly but surely dominate the prison. Gradually these factors impose their power over the incarcerated refugees. Bodies are weak, muscles are fatigued, spirits are weary. It has been nearly five years full of anguish – anguish that has ground everyone down. During this last week in particular, no one has slept properly.
“Everyone is weary out here, but the one mantra continues to reverberate: ‘We will never retreat and leave this hell of a prison. We will never move to another prison. We will never settle for anything less than freedom. Only freedom’.”
The next day, one refugee suffered from epileptic seizures, another from severe heart pain. Behrouz wrote:
Death is always ever so present.
The breath of death.
The scent of death.
The reign of death over Manus prison.
This is the reality of living out here.
This humanitarian catastrophe has not come from nowhere. The Manus Island detention centre has been a furnace of torment and abuse since it was reopened by the Gillard Labor government in 2012. Baptised under Tony Abbott’s mantra, “Stop the boats”, the centre is a symbol of the relentless war on refugees waged by both sides of parliament.
Initially, families were sent to Manus Island. Gillard’s immigration minister, Chris Bowen, touted the centre’s suitability for children. This continued until a 2013 Four Corners report revealed extremely under-resourced medical facilities, with no places for children. After this, the families were relocated to Nauru, and more than 900 men were transported to Manus.
Later in 2013, a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that every single person imprisoned on Manus was suffering from anxiety and depression. Further reports found that rates of mental illness among detainees were higher than among any other population ever recorded.
The Rudd Labor government dismissed these findings. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship responded: “All people transferred and accommodated in the Manus Island RPC are being treated with dignity and respect and in accordance with human rights standards”.
Simultaneously, Rudd announced that no man, woman or child who fled persecution by boat would ever be settled in Australia.
Within months, widespread sexual assault and torture were being reported. In February 2014, a riot broke out led by PNG locals and Australian security personnel. They broke into the detention centre, wounded more than 60 refugees and murdered 23-year-old Reza Berati. Another refugee survived after having his throat cut and being kicked repeatedly by Australian G4S security personnel.
This was just the beginning. In August 2014, Hamid Kehazaei sought treatment for an infected wound. Staff sought his immediate evacuation, but it was denied for two days. Within a week he was brain dead, and three days later his life support was turned off. He had contracted a bacterial infection that in normal conditions would have been easily treated. He was only 24 years old.
Behrouz, who has been speaking out for years against mistreatment on the island, wrote of their feelings in the wake of Hamid’s death:
“Hamid’s death was totally different from any other death. It was beyond human nature. It could have been easily prevented and resulted from incalculable cruelty, and so our emotions were beyond those a person usually experiences as the result of losing a friend.
“Great fear gripped each of us in Manus prison. Was our destiny the same as Hamid’s? Was it to be that sooner or later everything would be destroyed and finished by a simple infection? This fear was most notable in those who were sick.”
Since Hamid’s death, four other refugees have died on Manus Island, including two in the past three months. These deaths have punctuated continual reports of physical and sexual abuse. On Good Friday this year, the PNG navy fired live ammunition into the detention centre, wounding nine. This same navy is now being employed to remove the refugees forcibly.
Successive governments have responded to these atrocities with intensified cruelty and by demonising the refugees publicly. After the refugees were shot at, Peter Dutton defended the navy by insinuating that the refugees were paedophiles. This year, the Liberals moved to ban resettled asylum seekers from even being allowed to visit Australia.
Simultaneously, governments have attempted to spread a veil of silence over what is taking place. In 2015, the Border Force Act was passed, criminalising the reporting of abuse. An amendment from the Greens to create an exemption in the case of child sex abuse was voted down by the two major parties.
The opening of Manus and Nauru was purposefully undertaken to abuse and demonise refugees with impunity, keeping them out of the reach of activists, journalists and legal representatives. The government has spent upwards of $10 billion on maintaining the prisons over the past three years, an investment in racism and the creation of a scapegoat for popular discontent.
In enforcing this barbarism, the government has become an icon for fascist and Nazi movements across Europe and North America. Policies that were once the sadistic thought bubbles of Pauline Hanson are now the formal positions of both major parties.
The Greens have spoken out strongly against these atrocities. Immigration spokesperson Nick McKim called Peter Dutton “a racist, a proven liar, a fascist and a serial human rights abuser”. At a protest to support the refugees in Melbourne, Adam Bandt labelled Dutton a terrorist. He later reiterated the charge, tweeting on 3 November: “If terrorism is using violence to threaten lives for political purposes, then yes, Peter Dutton is a terrorist”.
These denunciations are welcome and should set the tone for resistance to the government’s policies. Supporters of refugee rights can also take inspiration from the refugees themselves, who have protested daily since late July and have an incredible history of defiance.
In 2015, more than 500 men undertook a two-week hunger strike against their prolonged detention and the conditions on the island. Protests, marches and calls for solidarity have continually flowed out of the detention centre. At times, desperation has made self-harm, including the sewing together of body parts, a form of resistance.
Substantial protests to support the refugees have taken place around the country. Now, more than ever, we need mass resistance to free the refugees.