#ManusSOS: The Challenge Of Learning To Live With Ourselves
Like many people, I have not been quiet about my feelings regarding the disgraceful situation underway on Manus Island over the past 48 hours. The past 24 days. The past five years.
I know, honestly I do know that this is a tough situation for some of us to find our way into; it’s convoluted, it’s unpleasant, and it’s relentless — without, for many, any obvious solutions. And it’s worth pointing out that this is exactly the point of offshore processing centres; they’re not happening in our towns or cities, over our back fences. They’re out of sight and very often blissfully out of mind.
But it’s very, very difficult for me, and I imagine many of you, to ignore what has been happening on Manus for the month of November. In case you’re not aware, let me break it down for you.
Currently Australia’s asylum seeker policy involves holding refugees who come to our country by boat “offshore”, in “refugee processing centres” (or, if you prefer, detention centres, or, if you’re a bit spicier, internment or concentration camps) in countries that are not Australia. These processing centres are sponsored and paid for by Australia, and are generally operated using a mixture of Australian and local contractors.
These RPCs house thousands of vulnerable men, women and children who have sought asylum in Australia, but in a way that many people view as “jumping the queue”. What queue, no one truly knows; I doubt anyone will ever know. Nevertheless, these refugees have already lost the lottery — hailing from regions where they are at significant risk of harm due to the political, religious, social or economic realities of their homeland — and they need to find a new place to live.
Now, do not be in any doubt about this: Australia has the capacity and resources to check, process and resettle every one of the refugees who arrive on our shore — by whatever means. There is no queue jumping; there is no danger. Australians can, in their capacity as a wealthy and connected country, check the status of all refugees, and we have in fact done so for the majority of refugees who are interned offshore in our RPCs (a process that tends to take up to around 18 months, or up to 3 years at an absolute maximum, according to stats from the UNHRC). We know who is a “genuine” refugee, and we are in fact able to accept a majority of the “genuine” refugees we intern offshore in Manus Island and Nauru.
However, in its infinite wisdom, the Australian government has decided that, rather than processing these refugees onshore and then settling them in communities around Australia — where they can work, live, shop, build communities and generally contribute to Australian economy, industry and general life — they would prefer to “process” them offshore (though the number of refugees who have actually been “processed” and resettled through this system is negligible). The offshore processing policy operates at considerable expense to the Australian taxpayer — quite literally billions of dollars more than it would cost to process people onshore, in our communities , where they are also boosting our economic and our social lives.
And make no mistake: the Australian government operates an expensive, convoluted and historically illegal offshore policy not because it is better or easier for the Australian public, but because it is cruel and punitive. This is a selfish, xenophobic, vote-grabbing government’s easy solution to the global refugee crisis: to hold thousands of already persecuted and vulnerable people offshore, in countries with their own social and economic hardships, in facilities that operate like prison camps and instil internees with lifelong psychological, physical and social injuries — that quite literally kill people — to say to other vulnerable people considering enacting their basic human right to seek asylum: “you are not welcome here”.
There is not, nor has there ever been, anything safe, just or rational about Australia’s “Border Protection” policy. Aside from being unjust, cruel and just plainly unpleasant, it’s also directly inconvenient to the Australian public. It costs us an extraordinary amount, and it contributes absolutely nothing to us. Processing refugees onshore is not only ethically responsible and just a more compassionate thing to do; it also simply makes better economic, industrial, social, everything sense. It is better for us to process refugees onshore, in our communities, where they can live productively and contribute to/build their own Australian lives.
But here we are: the Manus Island shutdown crisis of 2017. Last year, the PNG Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for Australians to imprison refugees on PNG soil in our offshore processing camps; and so the PNG government ordered for the Manus RPC (housed at the Lombrum Naval Base) to be closed down within a year. No plans were made; no thought was given to where the men still interned on Manus would go, or how Australia would continue to “support” them.
It’s worth remembering at this stage that many of these men have been found to be “genuine” refugees, meaning they could be safely resettled in Australia if not for our draconian refugee policy. And yet we keep them offshore with no promise of resettlement, with no end in sight, unlawfully imprisoned from now until… who knows.
Regardless, in October, the men in Manus RPC were issued a months’ worth of medications for their various ailments (everything from psychiatric conditions — many of which we Australians have caused by cruelly interning them for an open-ended period in an unsuitable setting--to fatal heart conditions, infections, epilepsy and diabetes) — English medicine that many refugees cannot interpret or understand, and do not know how to use without assistance. They were told the centre would close at the end of the month and they would be moved to smaller processing centres in-community, from where they would be sent… it’s unclear.
Then, on 31 October, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the federal Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, the vile and cartoonishly evil Peter Dutton, ordered that all food, water, electricity, security and medical services be blocked to the Manus RPC, hoping to shepherd the men still there (around 606 on 31 October) to the three similar, smaller camps around Manus — two of which it was rumoured had not been built yet. The Australian sponsored and run Manus detention centre was shut down with 600+ vulnerable men inside, and those men were abandoned.
24 days later, crisis has turned to chaos. The men who still remained in the Manus RPC (reports vary as to how many, but it looks like anywhere between 100 and 300) have been starving and dehydrated for 24 days, in fierce tropical conditions. They have been without protection, without basic amenities, and without medical attention for 24 days. They have been harassed and intimidated by PNG’s infamous “mobile unit” — a paramilitary-style force of PNG police, navy and army personnel with orders to undertake and an axe to grind — and at risk from local looters and (rightfully) disgruntled PNG locals, who are already feeling the strain of housing these men they have no responsibility or capacity to care for. And they have been used as a political football for Australian and PNG MPs, policy makers and media personnel, who wish to use these men as plastic play dolls or bargaining chips in whatever sick game they are evidently enjoying. Men who are sick, starving, terrified, and who are (and this is important) unequivocally Australia’s responsibility.
This is all while the monstrous Peter Dutton drags his pudgy potato body onto every news and radio station that will take him, telling us “the new camps are ready” (which SBS craftily proved was false by driving drone-operated cameras over Longerau to reveal that two of the three new prison camps were still under construction, without running water, and basically uninhabitable) and “these refugees have been sunning themselves on the beach with in-house maids… blah blah blah”. And while our esteemed leader, the spineless Malcolm Turnbull, sits in his Rose Bay property fiddling while Rome burns.
And now the PNG mobile unit have moved in on the Manus men, under direct orders from the Australian Border Force and the AFP — smashing water and food stores, destroying mobile phones and personal belongings, beating and screaming at fragile men who are sick and starving. These men who have remained in squalid conditions in the closed Manus RPC because they have nowhere else safe and known to go, because they cannot bear to be marched down the road to another prison, because they demand their basic human rights: to be seen, noticed, supported and offered freedom from prisons in which we have interned them for up to 5 or 6 years.
Today I sat at a beautiful lunch in a fancy restaurant on Sydney Harbour, after attending a family wedding at an international icon — the Sydney Opera House. I sat in a dress I had made from a Vogue pattern on the internet, in party shoes I bought from ASOS, drinking rose and eating an expensive steak. And I felt sick, and guilty, and disgusted with myself and my country.
And I spoke to my father about Manus, which he said he was not up-to-date on because it hadn’t really been covered in the media he read, watched and listened to. My father is an intelligent, principled and compassionate man, but he and I fundamentally disagree on many political points. We have had respectful discussions about where we differ when it comes to Australia’s refugee policy before, but my father was unequivocal when he spoke about the closed camp on Manus. “It’s disgusting,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
On this point, he and I agree — and I think it’s an important breakthrough point for both of us. On the nitty-gritty of Australia’s overcomplicated and dodgy refugee policy, he and I may differ, but on this we are absolutely in agreement: what we are doing, right now, on Manus Island is cruel, unusual and absolutely disgraceful. It is a specially designed evil. We are a developed, democratic and supposedly fair country, and elsewhere (off our shores) we are torturing men and women to misery and death, imprisoning them without right or reason, without a plan or an endpoint. Just because we can.
You can argue what you like about why Australia does what we do to refugees who come here (in spite of our infamous draconian refugee process), because they have literally nowhere to go. And I guess the most common argument is that we’re protecting our “way of life”. And as much as it pains me to consider the Australian public’s personal comfort, instead of just saying, “These are human lives, fucking get your act together and do something!” — I understand how difficult it is to care about people we maybe don’t understand, in a predicament we could never imagine, in a town in PNG we’ve never visited and couldn’t point to on a map.
But consider this: German children, young men and women who live generations after the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust, are still so affected by the evil that was done on their soil, in their name, that they are made literally sick by it. They attend psychiatrists and take mental health medications for the historical PTSD they feel over how their ancestors tortured and robbed the lives of 6 million people during WWII. It’s called “historical guilt”, and it is a very real, bizarre and scary thing that the German population still has to deal with now, in 2017, decades after the Holocaust.
Now, Australians are really very good at forgetting our past disgraces (and our present ones) — the lack of guilt over or reparations made to the First Nations people in this country whom we oppressed, killed, raped, enslaved and ripped from their families is a very apt and ongoing example of this country’s inability to recognise its collective faults.
But I still wonder, in this new self-aware age, whether we can forget the men and women we have and will continue to torture and kill in our state-sanctioned concentration camps offshore, out of sight and ostensibly out of mind. Will we be able to move beyond what we are doing on Manus Island? Will we, as a country, as a community, which prides itself on fairness and democracy, survive our own refugee policy and the evil we commit against vulnerable humans everyday?
If you would like to express your concern about the current situation on Manus Island, please ring one of the following MP offices. It’s simple, effective, and takes 30 seconds. I hate talking on the phone deeply, but I’ve called every one of these numbers (some twice), so I bet you can too!
Malcolm Turnbull: (02) 6277 7700
Peter Dutton: (02) 6277 7860
Rebekah Sharkie: (08) 8398 5566
Cathy McGowan: (03) 5721 7077
Bill Shorten: (02) 6277 4022
Tanya Plibersek: (02) 6277 4404
Shayne Neumann: (02) 6277 4755