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Manus deadline looms: opinion

By Jane Salmon

Festival of the Dead, Halloween, is also the literal deadline for the Manus men still at Lombrun RPC.

On that date they are to be forced out of the compounds that have housed them for 4 years, and into Lorengau.

My children will be running around lush front lawns collecting treats in fancy dress while Manus friends feel like they have an actual date with death.

They fear that PNG locals will fight them violently for every job or resource available and that, instead of liberation, their lives will become even more desperate.

Their fears have some foundation. Machete attacks and thefts have occurred during day trips on the island. Those with no tribesmen or “wan toks” to defend or avenge them are treated as fair game.

Men at Lorengau Transit Centre have gone mad and then died as recently as last month.

The kindness of some Manusians does not completely offset the fact that PNG is still a very harsh, struggling country. There has been envy and anger towards the strangers who have been warehoused by Australia.

Australia’s exercise in colonialism ended abruptly 40 years ago. This latest failed exercise in offshore detention has managed to signal to the world that we left PNG in chaos, one of the least safe travel destinations in the world.

The irony of men wanting a safe form of freedom being herded out the gates of RPC by force is acute.

There is no “freedom to thrive” waiting for them on November 1, 2017.

They see the trap. Moreover, their main strength has been their solidarity. Dispersal means disunity. What the men have achieved together through fellowship, collective action and mutual compassion across 4 tough years is also under attack.

These are real refugees. Their backgrounds have been checked and rechecked.

On paper they have been given thorough medical discharges and records. In reality, they get a bunch of untranslated words they don’t understand and a month’s supply of medication.

These are medicines they would generally not have needed if in community detention in Australia. Tropical ulcer treatments, addictive antidepressants, sedatives would have been less necessary if they had been free to work, to mix with people of their culture and to make headway in supporting wives, kids and family stuck in perilous circumstances.

The immediate risk of overdose by depressed and anxious hostages by strong pharmaceuticals is high and Manus Hospital is not resourced to help the psychotic or suicidal hereafter. Even the Port Moresby health system falls short.

There is little or no prospect of ongoing medical attention or redress once the Manus guys are forced into PNG. Their untreated fractures, malaria, ulcers, new cigarette  pharma addictions and nightmares will go with them.

Refugee allies in Australia might dream of protecting them in refuges or running a hospital ship. Doubtless they would feel the need to help locals, too. The reality is that sustaining refugee hostages of the past 4 years is beyond the means of most community activists. They have done a great deal to help the men across that time. And perhaps also to delude themselves and their offshore friends that wholesale rescue was still possible.

Some lawyers have worked hard for the release of individual refugees. Deals were done with Border Force to conceal each release from publicity. The image of a boat blockade remains roughly intact.

The truth is that some boat arrivals have been admitted to Australia and others have not. The arbitrariness of the process is shocking.

So the the Halloween deadline seems ominous in more ways than one.

Activists have strong bonds with these 700 men. They fund-raised for phones, shoes, t-shirts and bath towels. They have counselled them through sleepless tropical nights and reached out to the families left behind.

As with the Rohingyans, it is perfectly clear that taking a plane back home is equally perilous. Some of the homesick have gone. They felt they could not leave their families unprotected in poverty for any longer.

Survival rates of those refouled is less clear. Some have found ways to cope. Some have simply fallen silent.

The experience of those refugees transferred to America last month is another paradox. These men took planes, were given accommodation and a chance to find jobs. They feel “lucky”, even if Dutton does envy them the odd flash t-shirts or fit-bits.

American gun violence, racism and poverty seems benign by comparison with the issues faced by PNG.

So the few handpicked, highly educated men perhaps not destroyed by the uncertainties of detention who were airlifted from Manus by America get a chance at real life.

Hundreds more do not. And children remain trapped on Nauru: a small pile of rocks with high unemployment, tents … and machetes.

Then we have the plight of mainland refugees.

What is already dead is the compassion of Australia’s right wing conservatives and white supremacists. Many others choose to affect numbness.

Their Government has spent a fortune to make an example of boat arrivals.  Food, mouldy shipping containers or tents, meds and guards have cost Australian taxpayers a great deal. Sloppy accounting is worse.

Arbitrary attempts at breaking the smuggling trade has also resulted in waste of life.

My friend AR arrived on Manus after the Taliban came for him. A month earlier his father had received the Taliban’s death knock and did not survive. The family business was in repairing and reselling foreign vehicles. This was enough to incense fundamentalists.

The family had earlier tried to send AR to Japan to escape all this on a trade visa. He was refused. After the Taliban knocked, he found his way out of his country to a boat from Indonesia. There was no safe pathway. Had he obtained a tourism visa, flown in and overstayed, his life might already be back on track.

His mother and brothers have been cowering around the borders of Afghanistan ever since. His mum became catatonically depressed and eventually received treatment in a major city. The great fear was that the younger brother will be conscripted by extremists.

AR, a talented mechanic fluent in English, has used the 4 years to complete some online learning. He has also become more worried, atheist, deeply depressed and addicted to cigarettes. I helped with phones and call credit.

Will AR find a way into PNG life? Will he be safe in PNG? Will there be a job? A home? Medical care?

Australia is throwing away a stoic, resilient and talented future citizen.

His colleague Behrouz Bouchani, the camp’s famous resident journalist, is a cultured thinker who also has the makings of a great leader.

My greatest terror for these souls who naively turned to Australia for help … is the machetes. The second is a mass suicide attempt by medication overdose in the last half of this month.

Take a look at yourself, Australia.


8 comments

  1. Terry2

    1923 of the Manus detainees will share in the $70 million out of court settlement awarded after the Victorian Supreme Court action for unlawful detention, torture and neglect : that works at around $36,000 each.

    This foothold in a future life is absolutely critical to these people and we need to hear from the Australian government and in particular Peter Dutton that this money is being securely deposited in trust for these people to ensure their future welfare and independence : not easy when you consider that many of these are stateless people condemned to stay in PNG without support once the detention centre is closed.

    It has been hinted at by Dutton that these asylum seekers have cost the Australian government a lot of money to house over the last five years and it remains possible that he will try to find a way of ensuring that this money does not get to them. We need to watch for this as Dutton is nothing if not vengeful.

    This whole episode – and it still goes on for those held on Nauru – has been a policy disaster for succeeding Australian governments of all persuasions and will remain an episode of national shame that we will carry into the future.

    Various supporters of this detention policy will point to the success as being evidenced by stopping the boats and no deaths at sea : we need to be very clear that it is the so called ring of steel the maritime blockade and boat turnback policy that has stopped the boats, not indefinite detention on remote islands.

  2. helvityni

    Because they did NOT drown, but arrived safely in Australia, our governments punished them and put these innocent suffering people in detention…
    I pray and hope the lousy $ 36,000 indeed reaches their pockets, or will it be kept for their upkeep…? This is a sad chapter in Australian history…

  3. Kyran

    “What is already dead is the compassion of Australia’s right wing conservatives and white supremacists. Many others choose to affect numbness.”
    It is, indeed, difficult to remain in any way optimistic, when that is the cold harsh reality.
    The ‘policy’ is no such thing. It is blatant ideology, built on lies, obfuscation and outright secrecy.
    An abridged version of Ms Salmon’s article was one of three posts on Mr Burnside’s site yesterday. Another of which was the publication of a letter he had received from refugees held on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

    http://www.julianburnside.com.au/whatsinside/uploads/2017/10/Letter_DrR.pdf

    I recently wrote of Mr Zazai, one of the refugee’s on Manus, held in detention without charge or conviction. His future consists of choices in keeping with ‘Sophie’s Choice’, an impossible choice. He can stay in PNG, where he is not welcome and subject to daily threats of every conceivable manner. Or he can return to the danger he had fled.
    Right now, that is his future.
    When he heard of Dutton’s most recent foray into abuse, whereby refugee’s in Australia would be deprived of any government support, he ‘gifted’ his $30 phone card to the ASRC to assist with funding for one of the newly disenfranchised. That $30 phone card was a gift to him from a concerned Australian, like Ms Salmon, which he felt would be of better use here in Australia.
    “Take a look at yourself, Australia.”
    To quote Mr Zazai:
    “Please let me finish by asking you to keep speaking for us, to yell for us, to scream for us.
    Please keep putting peaceful, but loud, democratic pressure on the people who hold our freedom in their hard hands.”
    There will be marches held around Australia this Saturday. The cold, harsh reality is that there is no prospect ‘our government’ will change its ideology. Whether these marches are well attended or not is as irrelevant as the media coverage which may or may not happen.
    Welcome to Australia
    “Walk Together is Welcome to Australia’s annual national celebration of Australia’s diversity, designed as a tangible expression of the welcoming, fair and compassionate society we are committed to building. Faced with unjust policies towards people seeking asylum, it is more important than ever for us to amplify the values of compassion and welcome.”

    “We want to paint a picture of the multicultural, compassionate, and welcoming Australia we are, and want to continue to be.”

    https://www.walktogether.com.au/

    Not being able to speak is not the same as not speaking. Just as not being able to protest is not the same as not protesting.
    ‘Our government’ is deaf, blind and dumb when it comes to change. How any protest will effect change under such circumstances escapes me.
    What will be the tipping point for our politicians to do nothing more than observe the universal human rights it is charged with protecting from January next year? The cold, harsh reality is that this appointment is not likely to precipitate any change, given the composition of the ‘new’ council.

    “Ending a two-year campaign to join the UN body, Australia will now serve a three-year term on the body responsible for protecting human rights around the world, starting on January 1, 2018.
    Angola, Congo, Senegal, Slovakia, Ukraine, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Spain were also elected to the body overnight, while Nigeria and Qatar won second terms.”

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-17/australia-election-to-un-human-rights-council/9056728

    Like many, I despair that we are not heard. Like many, being quiet is not an option. The likes of Mr Bouchani, Mr Zazai, and so many others, have demonstrated they are people of intellect, courage, integrity and character.
    And compassion.
    Compassion made all the more noble because it can exist in a climate devoid of any compassion whatsoever.
    An ingredient missing from government since ‘Tampa’.
    “Take a look at yourself, Australia.”
    Thank you Ms Salmon and commenters. However dismal the prospects, being quiet is not an option. Take care

  4. diannaart

    The mistreated people who asked for help and were not only turned away but turned into scapegoats, what will become of them? How will they pick up with living good, healthy lives no matter where they are settled? Will they ever feel settled again?

    LNP & Labor – nothing more than shameful.

  5. Niko Leka

    This is so well said, it speaks my heart and mind. Have been fighting this ever since Rudd’s disgraceful U turn in late 2009, and ever since then every day it only gets worse. It has to end, there is no choice, nothing else to do in life, but to end this horror.

  6. Max Gross

    Welcome to Monstralia

  7. Jon Chesterson

    An inspiring piece which gave me an idea for one of these two poems, links below, thank you Jane! The first of these I expect to publish in an anthology or my first book within the next 12 months, but you are welcome to feature either should you wish to take up the opportunity. I already have other selected poems in 5 recently published anthologies over the past 2 years.

    Bottling Flies to Tear Off Their Wings: Overseas to Nemesis
    https://allpoetry.com/poem/13564673-Bottling-Flies-to-Tear-Off-Their-Wings-Overseas-to-Nemesis-by-Barddylbach

    Condemned to Sorrow https://allpoetry.com/poem/13545652-Condemned-to-Sorrow—-by-Barddylbach

    …and thank you to the AIM Network who like only a very small number of news-media agencies have integrity to report real news, with sensible, responsible, balanced, ethical, moral, challenging, informed and humane discussion, analysis and debate. An informed human dimension and independent, responsible, free press is the fundamental challenge of our times, if we fail to do this well we will lose our democracies and civilisation as we know will disappear, as history and the fall of ancient empires constantly remind us.

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