Australia is facing a potential humanitarian crisis, as hundreds of asylum seekers situated on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island as part of our nation’s offshore detention policy refuse to abandon the now-shuttered detention centre at Lombrum Navy Base.
The detention centre was officially closed yesterday, months after the PNG government ruled it unconstitutional. Australian-funded security staff have abandoned the site, and electricity, food, and drinking water have been cut off to detainees.
While the Australian government says alternative accomodation has been provided in nearby communities, asylum seekers claim say the threat of violent reprisals from local communities is keeping them from relocating.
Those remaining have been warned that the Papua New Guinean Navy could move in to reclaim the site. Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian asylum seeker and journalist long detained on the island, says the situation is dire.
There is not water, power and food. Even the toilets do not work. People gathering in stress. Any time we expect that someone attack us— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) October 31, 2017
Manus prison camp is like a war zone and people are refugees again from this war. Experiences as refugees repeated. People are homeless here— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) November 1, 2017
Some sources are saying immigration and Navy were in meeting today. Any time we are expecting Navy to attack us. So scary.— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) November 1, 2017
As we wait to see what new horrors await the men on the island, it’s worthwhile examining how the hell we got here.
Here’s a quick rundown.
In 1992, the Keating Government sought a way to limit the influx of asylum seekers hoping to arrive in Australia by boat. Their solution was the Migration Amendment Act 1992. Under that amendment, anyone intercepted trying to enter Australia’s borders via boat without a valid visa could be detained, and the threat of detention was hoped to deter anyone from making the voyage.
That law allowed the detention of asylum seekers for up to 273 days, while authorities verified the legitimacy of their claims to refugee status. In 1994, that time limit was removed.
Roll on 2001 and the Tampa affair, which saw the Howard Government initially refuse to accept hundreds of asylum seekers rescued off Christmas Island by a Norwegian tanker. In response to the incident, the Coalition implemented what became known as the Pacific Solution: detention centres were established in the Pacific Islands, namely on Nauru and Manus Island, to facilitate the offshore processing of asylum seekers rather than placing them in mandatory detention on the Australian mainland.
Kevin Rudd’s Labor government chose to can the Pacific Solution, resettling Nauru detainees on the Australian mainland in the process. However, by the time Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in 2010, asylum seekers were still travelling to Australia in large numbers. After failing to deal with Malaysia on a proposed third-country processing solution, the Gillard Government announced in 2012 its decision to revive the Nauru and Manus Island processing centres.
Rudd’s return to power saw Australia strike a deal with the PNG government, effectively stating that no asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat would have a shot at being resettled here as a refugee. Instead, they’d be offered settlement on PNG; if they were found not to have a legitimate claim to refugee status, detainees could be sent to their nation of origin, or a third party nation.
Those policies continued under the Abbott Government, and it’s under his leadership that humanitarian concern over the facilities reached crisis levels: conditions at the facilities were soundly criticised in the Australian Human Rights Commission‘s The Forgotten Children report, which uncovered the serious psychological damage indefinite detention has on young detainees, and The Moss Review, which reported on numerous instances of sexual abuse and physical assault at the Nauru centre.
Things haven’t gotten much better under the Turnbull Government. Several asylum seekers have taken their own life while in detention, and a 2016 Amnesty International review of the Nauru centre found that the Australian government was acting in a systematically cruel manner, effectively implementing torture as a means to deter asylum seekers. Those claims were pretty soundly denied by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, and the Coalition still maintains its hardline stance on taking asylum seekers out of those conditions.
However, in April 2016, the PNG government ruled the Manus Island centre to be illegal on the basis that it curtailed detainees’ rights to free movement under their constitution. As such, the PNG government decreed the centre to close.
Alternative housing has been provided, but residents have long sought effective resettlement in third-party nations: local communities on the island have been seen by detainees as inhospitable, and there have been numerous reports of violence perpetrated by locals on the asylum seekers.
So, they’re staying put. Given the choice of a familiar centre with reinforceable fences and makeshift water storage facilities, and unknown housing facilities closer to the local communities, hundreds of detainees have chosen the former. The Australian government says they’re PNG’s problem, PNG says they’re Australia’s problem, and they could now be at the whims of the PNG military.
PNG immigration is saying they had a meeting with Navy and asked them to be patient. We are living under Damocles' sword.— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) November 1, 2017
It’s bad. It’s so, so bad. And it could stand to get worse.
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