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Issue #1628      February 26, 2014

Manus Island attacks

Govt’s moral bankruptcy

Events on Manus Island last week have totally discredited the vindictive offshore processing policies of the Coalition government. On Sunday February 16, government officials told horrified Manus Island detainees that Australia would never accept them for settlement; Papua New Guinea would, but if they weren’t found to be genuine refugees neither the Australian nor PNG governments would help them.

Despite the likelihood of persecution or death if they returned to their own countries, they were all advised to do so.

The detainees protested bitterly, and an exchange of verbal insults took place between them and the guards. On Monday evening refugee advocate Ian Rintoul and others began receiving desperate calls from detainees via mobile phones and the centre’s public phone that local GS4 security service guards and vigilantes had broken into the compound, and had launched a vicious assault with machetes, clubs, knives and shotguns.

A 23 year-old Iranian detainee died. Sixty-one other asylum seekers sustained injuries, 13 of which were serious and one critical. Forty were taken to hospital; two were flown out to Australia.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison immediately blamed the detainees, for breaking out of the centre. However, most of the injuries occurred within the centre, not outside it, and only the detainees were injured.

An interpreter, Avita Bokal, has now revealed that the attacks actually began on Monday morning, when guards used steel chair legs and rocks as weapons. The detainees defended themselves using plastic chairs as shields.

Horrified at the injuries, she intervened on behalf of one who was trying to reach the medical centre with an injured friend who had suffered massive head injuries. He “looked like a piece of meat” and appeared to be beyond medical help.

Despite his injuries the guards ordered him to get up. They refused to let his friend accompany him, nor would they let Ms Bokal push the wheelchair. After an argument she was forced out of the compound, placed under guard, and told she would be deported for interfering. Other interpreters were warned not to talk to her.

In the evening after hearing gunshots she climbed onto a roof and witnessed the attack on the detainees. In one instance she saw medical staff attempting to force a tube into the lungs of one patient through a gaping hole in his throat, in order to force in air and prevent him drowning in his own blood.

The local member of the PNG parliament confirmed that the “mobile squad”, a notoriously brutal paramilitary police branch, had used gunfire and rifle butts against the detainees.

Some detainees escaped from the compound and were cared for by local people. Six were arrested, taken to the local jail and crushed into a vile, mosquito-infested cage which was already crowded with convicted criminals and prisoners with psychiatric problems. They could only sleep on a mattress on the concrete floor, and there were no functioning toilets or showers.

They were released after two days, in anticipation of a visit by Angus Campbell, director of Operation Sovereign Borders.

How did we get to this point?

Ms Bokal broke the confidentiality conditions of her contract by revealing what happened last week, and thereby sacrificed her job. She now expects prosecution by the government.

Before she arrived on Manus Island she supported offshore processing, but now advocates the immediate closure of Manus Island and Nauru. The Manus Island conditions are truly horrific, with unbearable heat, malnutrition and outbreaks of disease. The only relief for detainees with dental problems is extraction of affected teeth by a local resident.

About 1,350 men have been detained there, some since late 2012. They are rarely let out. When they are, they can’t even go for a swim to relieve the heat, because of crocodiles. Mental depression is endemic.

Ms Bokal stated: “I would rather die than live in the camp”.

When she arrived on Manus Island she was puzzled by the detainees’ silence. Then she learned they had been warned that any “trouble-maker” who objected to the conditions or complained about mental or physical health problems would forfeit the right to legal advice and be put into isolation, and his application for asylum would not be processed.

However, after the official address those warnings lost their repressive effect, with explosive and tragic results. A group of former Salvation Army staff who had been stationed on the Island described last week’s events as “an inevitable outcome of a cruel and degrading policy”.

Settlement in Australia is now forbidden to any asylum seeker who attempts to reach Australia by boat. Settlement in Papua New Guinea is their only option, but its capital, Port Moresby, the most law-abiding place in the country, has been classified as the third most dangerous city on earth.

The UN Refugee Convention requires signatories like Australia to give asylum seekers legal protection. However, Australian law does not apply in Papua New Guinea or Nauru, both of which teetered on the brink of legal and social breakdown last year.

Since it accepted the current arrangement last year the Papua New Guinea government has not processed a single application for asylum. Indeed, it has a financial interest in not doing so, because of Australia’s payment for the Manus Island centre.

There is little chance of the asylum seekers being accepted by PNG citizens, because of cultural differences and the widespread belief that the detainees are getting a better deal than them. The government is well aware of all this but has nevertheless enforced the offshore processing policy.

… where do we go from here?

Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, has accused the government of ignoring its international responsibility for asylum seekers.

Ms Bokal says the government should admit it made a mistake and correct it. But the government won’t conduct an internal investigation into the attack, and intends to run a pilot program to resettle asylum seekers on the island. They even want Cambodia to accept asylum seekers on Australia’s behalf!

They also want to issue “temporary humanitarian concern” visas, similar to the infamous temporary protection visas, which allowed the visa holder to live in the community, but prevented family reunions and enabled the government to forcibly repatriate the holder at will.

The new visas apply retrospectively to 20,000 asylum seekers awaiting bridging visas. Those who accept one of the new visas will automatically forfeit the right to reapply for permanent residency. The precedent set by retrospective arrangements also poses a major threat to human rights in Australia.

After news of the attack emerged, Tony Abbott snorted haughtily : “We are a beacon of decency and generosity but we cannot allow people to take advantage of our generosity this way.”

Morrison has now admitted that the detainees’ injuries were inflicted inside the compound, but neither he nor Abbott has admitted to any wrongdoing. In an astounding display of callousness Abbott said the death and injuries were tragic, but at least there was no damage to the camp facilities, and he defended Morrison’s actions, saying you wouldn’t want a wimp running border protection. However, in an inadvertent admission of guilt he stated defensively that he would not give in to “moral blackmail”.

Thousands of detainees who have committed no offence now face indefinite detention on Manus Island and Nauru. That amounts to unjustified imprisonment on a mass scale, a crime the federal government is carrying out in the name of the Australian people. The matter surely deserves to be brought before the International Court of Justice.

The Communist Party calls on the Abbott government to:

  • Close the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru
  • End offshore processing and mandatory detention,
  • Process applications for asylum as rapidly as possible,
  • Abandon the policy of issuing temporary visas,
  • Abandon the “turn back the boats” policy and repair relations with Indonesia,
  • Establish offices in transit countries where applications for asylum can be lodged, and assure applicants that their cases will receive thorough, fair and prompt attention,
  • Provide those offices and the Immigration Department with sufficient resources to do so,
  • Ensure that Australia’s obligations with regard to the treatment of asylum seekers under the UN Refugee Convention are met, and
  • Treat all asylum seekers as potentially good Australian citizens who could assist the nation’s development and enrich its cultural heritage, as millions of others have done.

Next article – Editorial – Demonising the DPRK

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