An actual crisis
The situation on Manus has gone too far. It is time to bring these people here.
In 2012, the Australian anthropologist Professor Andrew Lattas spoke of a specialist police unit locking villagers in shipping containers and whipping them with sticks and fan belts. In 2013, the squad beat a man to death. Journalist Rory Callinan – from whom all of this comes – described the unit as a “byword for brutality”.
That unit is Papua New Guinea’s paramilitary mobile squad, and in Guardian reports any reference to it is typically preceded by the word “notorious”. It was this squad that was reportedly on hand today as police tried to move detainees on Manus Island from the centre in which they have been squatting for weeks.
We know this partly because refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani was tweeting from inside the centre this morning: “So many police mobile squad and immigration officers came inside the prison camp. They are shouting at us to leave the prison camp …”. Also: “The police, special forces, police squad are now in their hundreds, spreading through the prison camp and around the prison. Navy soldiers are outside the prison camp. We are on high alert right now. We are under attack.” And: “They are destroying everything. Shelters, tanks, beds and all of our belongings.”
At the time of writing, Boochani’s last tweet was several hours ago. That is because Boochani – a journalist, remember – was arrested and taken away by police. You can see a photo here, or video here.
Remember too that, while the Australian government often denies responsibility for events on Manus Island, Malcolm Turnbull told Donald Trump in January this year, of the refugees: “They have been under our supervision for over three years now and we know exactly everything about them.”
So in an island detention centre that Australia effectively controls, in response to a situation created by the Australian government, it appears that a journalist has been arrested for factually reporting on what the UN has described as “a man-made and entirely preventable humanitarian crisis”. All of those people complaining about dictatorships and abuses of power earlier this week, in response to what was a misguided but ultimately trivial parliamentary decision, might have done well to hold their fire until it was really needed.
There is more, of course. The Guardian reports that one officer “was seen carrying a large bush knife, which are common on Manus”. Mental health expert Patrick McGorry has said, “It’s really likely that deaths will occur in the coming days and weeks.” McGorry was one of 12 former Australians of the Year who sent an open letter to the prime minister calling for the asylum seekers to have access to medical professionals. The Australian Medical Association has demanded the same thing. Serious people are gravely concerned about the welfare of the men inside the centre.
The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, in his usual demonisation mode, is presenting all of this as the fault of ungrateful refugees. “I think it’s outrageous that people are still there and they have trashed the facility, they’re living in squalor and the Australian taxpayers have paid about $10 million for a new facility and we want people to move.”
Dutton and Turnbull insist new accommodation has been prepared and is ready. You can choose to believe them, if you like. But then you would have to ask why Nai Jit Lam, the deputy regional representative of the United Nations refugee agency, said this:
“After three weeks and constant announcements that alternative accommodation outside the centre and together with the services are ready, what we have observed so far actually represents a very different picture. The accommodation outside of the former centre is still under construction … Beyond the physical accommodation that we have been talking about, the most basic services needed for asylum seekers and refugees are still not adequately provided for outside the centre … We observed that initially four caseworkers were planned to look after over 700 individuals’ wellbeing. From what we have observed firsthand, none are operating as of today …. The other concerning issues that we have observed are regarding security and the lack of interpreters on the Island, that brings about the issue of how they would communicate with local people or even the police as well. That remains a concern.”
Is the stand-off entirely about the inadequacy of the new centres or safety concerns? Probably not. As Nai Jit Lam put it: “The people that we have spoken to are extremely angry and they see this as an opportunity to tell the world and to show the world years of anger about how they have been treated over the four years after being forcibly transferred to Papua New Guinea.”
But so what? You stick people on an island they never wanted to go to, treat them appallingly for almost half a decade, subject them to violence, fear, conflict and sustained uncertainty, and then expect them not to use what tiny opportunity they have to grab the attention of a country that has grown far too good at forgetting they even exist?
The situation is awful, with no clear end. Who knows what is happening with the American deal. New Zealand’s offer to take 150 refugees is a start, and should be accepted immediately, but obviously will not help everyone. If the government cannot find nations willing to take these men within days, then it is out of time. Australia must admit out loud what the prime minister admitted in secret all those months ago to Donald Trump: these people are our responsibility. It is time they came to Australia.
Postscript: This afternoon Behrouz Boochani tweeted an update.
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