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Issue #1630      March 12, 2014

Manus Island tragedies

Major human rights questions

The murder of 23-year old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati, and the injuries suffered by more than 70 others during an attack on detainees in the Manus island detention centre three weeks ago, has raised profound questions about Australia’s immigration policies.

Barati was a qualified architect, but he could never practise. Because he was from the oppressed Kurdish minority, and because of economic restrictions from international sanctions, professional opportunities were virtually non-existent for him.

His fiancée remained in Tehran. He wanted to study architecture in Australia, but ended up in an asylum seeker boat and then in Manus Island after it was intercepted.

He never had the chance to see one of his designs materialise, beautiful, strong and ready to serve human needs, or to marry, raise children and experience a full and productive life.

After the attack Immigration Minister Scott Morrison immediately blamed detainees for the violence and claimed that Barati had endangered himself by escaping with them from the compound.

However, his cousin informed relatives that he and Barati were in the centre’s computer room when the attack began. When Barati opened the door to investigate, he was pulled outside, savagely beaten and dragged away.

Moreover, evidence given by witnesses, including the courageous interpreter Avita Bokal, forced Morrison to admit that “almost all” the detainees’ injuries were inflicted inside the centre.

The PNG Deputy Commissioner claimed the paramilitary “Mobile Squad” was not involved, but later admitted that police had fired shots “to calm the situation”. The involvement of police has been confirmed by others, including a guard who stated that before the attack police entered the compound with dogs.

A coroners’ report has revealed that Barati was killed by multiple blows from a heavy wooden object. Seven severely-injured victims were taken to Port Moresby and one to Darwin. One was shot in the buttocks, while dozens are being treated for injuries to face and hands, proving they were the victims, not the instigators of the violence.

A smouldering fire

According to a Fairfax report a week before the attack an argument took place between a detainee and one of the catering staff, who then subjected the detainee to a savage beating.

Rod St George, a former occupational Health and Safety officer on Manus Island, has also revealed that there have been repeated instances of rape and torture in the detention centre – which is exactly what you would expect in a vile, crowded single-sex prison where the inmates appear to have little hope of release.

Many people who have been involved in Manus Island predicted violent upheavals, but their advice was studiously ignored by the government.

A previous Immigration Department review into Mr St George’s allegations airily dismissed the allegations of rape and torture but had to admit that instances of self harm, lips being sewn together and detainees swimming into the sea to escape the island had occurred.

According to Mr St George the presence of certain Departmental officials during the review hearings intimidated a number of witnesses, and the Department attempted to deflect the blame for all such events away from itself. A similar approach will almost certainly be taken during the Department’s review of the attack in which Barati died.

So far, most information on the attack has come from victims or witnesses, not from the government. Journalists who attempted to take photos of victims’ injuries had their cameras seized and the images destroyed by security staff. Detention centre staff are forbidden from publicly discussing conditions and events at Manus Island or Nauru.

Two fundamental issues

Australia is surely breaking the UN Refugee Convention, which it has signed and ratified, and is clearly guilty of a mass violation of human rights.

Article 31 of the Convention forbids host countries from penalising refugees who declare themselves to authorities and show cause as to why they have sought asylum. Article 16 requires free access to a court of law, and Article 33 forbids their expulsion or removal to any place of danger because of their race, religion or beliefs. Article 26 says the host country must allow free movement of refugees.

However, more than 4,300 people who have committed no crime against Australia, and who have not been charged or tried for any offence, are now imprisoned in Australian detention centres. Many are separated from their families.

By last December 1,028 children were in detention on the mainland, and 116 on Nauru. The terrible and long-lasting effects of imprisonment on children are well-known, but have been ignored by the government.

In many cases the detention of asylum seekers is indefinite. For a long period the Australian government has processed few if any applications for asylum, and no applications have been processed in Papua New-Guinea since Operations Sovereign Borders began. For many detainees determining their refugee status has not even commenced.

Indefinite detention is in effect a punishment for arriving here unannounced. The punishment is magnified by the banning of asylum seekers who have no visas from ever settling in Australia.

On Manus Island detainees were told that if they complained they would receive no legal assistance and their applications for asylum would be ignored.

Some detainees whom ASIO has classified as security risks are in effect serving life imprisonment inside the detention centres, together with their wives or husbands, and their children. They cannot access or contest the evidence for their detention, which is known only to ASIO and the government.

Whereto from here?

The PNG Prime Minister has declared that the Abbott government should fly detainees from Manus Island to Canberra, at its own expense, to testify before the Senate inquiry into the attack.

However, Greens Senator Sarah Hansen-Young says that Senators involved in the inquiry should visit the island to inspect conditions for themselves. Moreover, flying detainees to Canberra and then returning them to Manus Island would inflict terrible psychological distress according to mental health expert Louise Newman from Monash University.

In fact, the scope of the inquiry should be broadened to include detention in all offshore centres, and parliamentarians should visit the island detention sites, accompanied by officials from the UNHCR and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Both those organisations have a vital interest in the issue. The UNHCR has described detention on Manus Island as arbitrary and harsh. Human Rights Commissioner, Professor Gillian Triggs stated: “The primary obligation that Australia has is to offer protection for asylum seekers and we cannot abdicate that responsibility by sending people to a third country, in this case Papua New Guinea.”

An open investigation would give the Australian public a clear idea of the terrible results of the policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing. This would certainly not be welcomed by the Abbott government, which would doubtless claim that people smugglers would benefit. Displaying an amazing degree of hypocrisy and condescension, Abbott recently declared:

“We are in a fierce contest with these people smugglers. And if we were at war we wouldn’t be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we have an idle curiosity about it ourselves.”

Bishop Christopher Saunders, chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Commission contradicted him, saying: “if it is a war, then it is being fought against wretched and defenceless people”.

The Pope has said that “Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity”. But that’s exactly how they’re being treated by the Abbott government, which is demonising asylum seekers for electoral advantage.

Moreover, the government now intends to reintroduce temporary protection visas, which would disallow family reunions and facilitate forcible repatriation, and it has reduced the number of refugee places from 20,000 to 13,000 per annum.

It also plans to deport from the community or to return to indefinite detention 1,000 asylum seekers whose claims for asylum it has rejected, even though they include stateless people and others who have not yet exhausted the full appeal process in the courts.

The costs

Last year $2 billion was added to the estimated $10 billion cost of administering Operation Sovereign Borders over three years. That far outstrips the $7 billion bill for Australia’s participation in the Afghanistan war, our longest military engagement.

According to a Fairfax report, the average cost of a bed at the offshore detention centres is now approximately $900 per day, compared to $590 for a harbour-view room at Shangri-La, a five-star Sydney hotel.

Transfield, which runs the Nauru centre, has been awarded a $1.2 billion contract to run the Manus Island and Nauru centres for 20 months, apparently without normal tendering processes. Transfield will retain existing arrangements at Manus Island.

Since 2003, fees paid to four firms for running offshore detention centres have exceeded $5.6 billion. Toll Holdings received more than $3.5 million for providing a kitchen in Manus Island since October 2012; G4S was paid $244 million to run the centre from October 2012 until last Friday. Transfield got $302 million for running the Nauru centre last year.

Subsidiaries of G4S are located in five tax havens. The British firm paid no tax in Australia, nor in Britain, during 1012 – in fact it received a $2 million refund from the Australian Tax Office!

But the cost to the nation is not only financial. Australia’s national conscience already carries two terrible burdens of guilt, but the “white Australia” policy has at least been dropped in favour of multiculturalism, and there has been some healing for those affected by the stolen generation tragedy because of the Labor government’s formal apology.

We are now facing another appalling moral dilemma with regard to the shocking treatment of asylum seekers, in which both Labor and conservative coalition governments have participated.

If those parties refuse to amend their vindictive approach to asylum seekers, the Australian people will have to replace them. It can and must be done.

Next article – Why I’m a sole parent activist: Kerry Arch

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