‘We will never settle for anything less than freedom’

Manus Island is at risk of becoming a frightening confrontation. At least 400 refugees bravely continue to resist attempts to evict them from the prison camp.

They have received several ultimatums to move to three alternative prisons on the island in East and West Lorengau or Hillside Haus in Lae. But the stand-off continues.

There are conflicting reports about whether Papua New Guinea police will use force, but refugees have relayed to supporters in Australia that force has been threatened.

These fears are echoed by Ben Wamoi, spokesperson for the Manus Alliance against Human Rights Abuse: “My fear is, if the 600 men refuse to relocate, my fear is our government may use force. I know our police force. I know our military”.

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This is, after all, the military that, on Good Friday, shot into the Manus camp 100 times.

If refugees are removed with force, we need to respond with outrage and emergency protests.

Since 31 October, the Australian government has cut off all essential services – food, water, electricity and medical services – to starve the refugees into submission. The sewage system has become blocked because there’s no longer any flushing mechanism. This is creating dangerously unsanitary conditions.

Attempts by refugee rights activists to supply the protest camp have been blocked by the PNG navy, and locals have been threatened with arrest if they provide help to the men, though some food is fortunately getting through.

At a Melbourne protest on 4 November, Greens federal MP Adam Bandt labelled immigration minister Peter Dutton a terrorist for using violence to achieve his racist political ends. He was right. And that terror has only increased.Metal fences surrounding the camp have been removed under the direction of Australian contractors, exposing the men to attack. It is psychological warfare.
The fear of attack is not unfounded. In February 2014, Reza Berati, an Iranian refugee, was bashed to death after disgruntled locals and security guards on the Australian payroll stormed the camp.

PNG police and immigration officers have dismantled shelters used by the men for protection from the harsh tropical sun. Rubbish bins containing rain water they had collected were also emptied.
Dutton has painted the resisting men as ungrateful hooligans who have “trashed the accommodation” and are irrationally refusing to move to superior lodgings.

Pictures obtained by the Daily Telegraph exposed this to be a lie. West Lorengau was little more than a muddy construction site. The “housing” is shipping containers, and security fencing is incomplete, allowing locals to traverse through the compound to get to their land.

In Lorengau, where the majority of refugees are to be detained, there will be only one doctor available in business hours – and miles from both camps – to service the hundreds of men who have suffered physical and mental degradation at the hands of their Australian jailers.

Six men have died on Manus, most from systematic medical negligence. More deaths can be the only outcome of dramatically worse medical support.

Even if conditions in the prisons were improved, refugees remain unsafe on Manus. They have been regularly robbed and attacked with machetes and bush knives when visiting Lorengau town.

Some attacks have hacked to the bone.

But above all else, the refugees are refusing to move because, after four and a half years of living hell, they have had enough. They can’t wait any longer for freedom in a safe country.

As Behrooz Boochani, a detained Kurdish Iranian journalist, said: “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”.

At times, the voices coming out of the protest camp are full of heartbreaking despair. A voice from Manus wrote: “Torture … stress … sadness … loneliness … powerless … starvation … humiliation … tears … thirst … careless … These are not just words … these are the part of life … and voice of heart …”

But, despite everything, they continue to stand their ground because this is a fight for their very lives and for any hopes they may still have for a better future.

Their courageous resistance is not new. For years, the Manus detainees have protested for freedom. And as the ​crisis loomed, for more than 100 days the refugees organised daily protests. These have been incredibly disciplined and always peaceful, a stark juxtaposition to the violence being meted out by the Australian and PNG governments.

The refugees have not fought alone. There has been a wave of protests across Australia in solidarity. Since the siege began, there have been weekly street mobilisations in major cities. Government buildings have been occupied or blockaded and public events such as the Melbourne Cup have been disrupted with daring creative protests.

One Friday night in Sydney, wealthy donors at a Liberal Party fundraiser had to run a gauntlet of hundreds of anti-racist protesters.

But while barbarism reigns on Manus, the media focused on what they considered was the real crime: among the pushing and shoving, Christine Forster, Tony Abbott’s sister and Liberal Party local councillor, had her “favourite” jacket torn. Oh, the horror!

Predictably, the ALP joined the chorus of condemnation, highlighting the bipartisan support for cruelty. The scale of the humanitarian crisis has not forced a rethink from the ALP. Labor leader Bill Shorten only days ago reiterated his commitment to cruelty: “Australia is not and must not be a resettlement option”.

Instead, he called on the government to accept New Zealand’s offer to take 150 people and prattled on about third country settlement. Under the Gillard Labor government, we got to see what third country settlement might look like – exiling refugees to Malaysia, where abuse of asylum seekers is rife.

Shamefully, no Labor member of parliament has broken ranks to call for the government to bring the refugees here. So it is right that deputy leader Tanya Plibersek was targeted at a recent public appearance by Mums for Refugees. We need to demand that Labor MPs break with their party’s disgraceful position.

Missing in action has been the trade union movement. It took 10 days of this brutal siege to push ACTU secretary Sally McManus into finally issuing a statement. “We have taken their dreams of a better life, and replaced them with an unrelenting nightmare”, she said.

The Victorian Trades Hall Council issued a similar statement. Both condemned the Liberal government and called for the refugees to be evacuated immediately.

This is a start. But their statement fudges the key question – evacuated to where? To New Zealand, which has offered to take only 150 people? To the US, which has taken a mere 54? The only place to which refugees can immediately be evacuated is Australia. The main reason not to spell this out is to limit the pressure on the ALP. This is not good enough. Now more than ever we need our unions to show ​courage.

We can’t let up on the demand that Australia bring them here now. The Australian government exiled these men by force to Manus Island when they were seeking asylum in Australia. The Australian government has spent billions detaining them in hellish conditions designed to break their spirits. And now the Australian government wants to abandon them. We can’t let it get away with it.

Importantly, a few individual unions have taken a stand. In Victoria, street protests have been addressed by National Union of Workers organisers who were also refugees. They were supported by a contingent from the NUW and Victorian Trades Hall. The Rail, Tram and Bus Union’s Rail Division Committee of Management has called on the government to “bring them here”. We must build on this. We need to pressure our unions to speak up now.

In the fight against the racist institutions that dominate Australian political life, our forces are painfully inadequate to the task at hand. But with the refugees on Manus refusing to give up, refusing to lose hope, we too must respond to the crisis with energy and urgency so that we can build a fighting movement capable of forcing both major parties to stop torturing refugees.