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Manus lessons

By Jane Salmon

I have been glued to mainstream and social media on the Manus issue as an advocate for 3 years. And I’ve met a few refugees along the way.

But yesterday took the biscuit. The sight of Aussies swallowing dishonest propaganda whole has shaken me. We’re in deep trouble if we think that Dutton and Bishop can lie straight in bed at night, let alone display any sensitivity to the facts of four years of offshore detention.

Every knee-jerk racist troll claims that the refugees on Manus trashed their own living space yesterday. They have dutifully maintained Dutton’s line that each of us can blame refugees for anything. They even claimed that drawing on your sweating prison walls was vandalism. Well what else was there to do for 4 years? Never happens in white jails, surely!

Xenophobic patriot trolls ignore the tidier “before” pictures of Wednesday 22nd in the camp and the many touching images of tired, hungry, traumatised men cleaning up the camp “after” Dutton’s destructive proxies and PNG thugs left in the evening of 23rd.

They get their story from Ray Hadley and a glance at scant, slanted mainstream news if they notice it all. Other (very busy) trolls work for the very companies and ministry that abused the men.

Our “patriots” have missed the fact that since staff left Manus RPC, the men have been empowered and become more organised. They have done this despite a lack of water, medication, medical care, sanitation, electricity and the demoralising blockade of food. A handful of judiciously used solar battery chargers are looked on as proof that the men are lying about having no power or flushing loos. Because belief is all that matters to a racist.

[“Oh well, mate. It’s alright. They’ll get compo. They’re cool. And they got food. They’ve got their lives. What more do they want?”]

Well there are at least six men whose families would actually like their sons and their lives back. There are men who are injured permanently. There are still vibrant, dynamic, clever young adults who won’t ever forget the powerlessness they have experienced. And they have been slandered again and again by Australia’s officials and their supporters. Just because they were vulnerable.

These refugees are not saints. But jail never brought out the best in anyone. However, the abuse they experienced has led these men to cooperate pretty well. The emotional maturity and organisation that most Manus refugees have displayed under pressure is an example to us all.

As one whose grandfathers and also father came back from wars physically and emotionally damaged (Dad’s Korean War spinal shrapnel used to set off airport metal detectors, four great uncles died over Britain or France, Grandpa Jack lost an arm, Grandpa was ultimately finished off by the gassing); as one whose Great Uncle Ron, a banker, survived camps in Singapore for four years and came back pretty damn broken; as one who has worked alongside an ex-Changi inmate, I disgree that a lousy $35K will fix any of that.

And don’t the “Patriots” see the “do as you would be done by” parallel in any of this? Or are they really too thick? How long would they manage up there in the tropics? (Oh, that’s right, a few of the Aussie “security” staff got a bit violent and rapey. Marvellous!).

Career Officer Molan took professional pride in demonstrating that this Fortress Island would not be breached on his watch. (Note that this is not a man who has been directly exposed to war in his own home country. Sure, a few subs approached Darwin and Sydney in his parents’ lifetime). He probably also believes that every non-Anglo is a potential terrorist because that’s what the chaplain led him to believe in Sunday school. He has only devoted his mind to military and naval strategy since.

Foreigners are not lesser humans. Even the ones whose parents were, luckily, not killed by the Taliban or bombed out of house and home after their sons and daughters had left.

No amount of compo will change the fact that the Manus refugees were singled out because they chose boats instead of planes after July 2013. Those who arrived by plane pre-Abbott endured a shorter stint in camps and got back on their feet more easily. They were more able to support their mothers, brothers, sisters, wives and children. The “not drowning” argument doesn’t wash. Boats still come but are turned back or captured before they reach Australian waters.

“Safe transit countries” like Indonesia are overflowing with people. The immigration detention camps there are horrifying, too.

The compo is a distraction. It was a cynical settlement. It doesn’t compensate the men for their lost health, their abuse, their near death experiences, death of friends nor for isolation torture. $35K each is merely an expression of Australian Border Force culpability. We used these men as deterrents.

Bottom line, any vulnerable Australians (whether in Don Dale or at the mercy of another government institution) can expect similar treatment if we shrug off this event as a one-off.

People can be disempowered in so many ways in an information age.

Scared for their own jobs, SBS decided to imply that the remaining men elected to leave in buses today. The vision of beatings with sticks were dismissed as misattributed or not real or somehow less than persuasive. The Manus refugees have in fact lost free choice and self determination. They are back inside fenced compounds with security guards watching over them and or protecting them from machete armed raskols. Who cares that the crates are newly fitted?

The truth is, the violent ouster of the men across the past two days was in contempt of PNG court. Men like Behrouz Boochani were held in handcuffs without charge. There was undue force. The rule of law has not been respected. The next court date was for December.

As a Labor Party member, I’m not supposed to say “Shame on you” to Shorten and his ineffectual Shadow Cabinet. But I will. They let the xenophobia grow by failing to stand up to One Nation and LNP racism. The unions have only recently spoken out about Manus. Many old lefties still fear that their wages will be undercut by refugees. Even though they have seen the government grow its own budget in order to find $10 billion to squitter away on detention. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The alternative for Labor is … quite a few more electoral routs like Northcote. And it serves them right. Because racist fascism will affect the safety and well-being of my kids as much as any time I spend online or any culinary shortcuts I dare take around their FODMAP allergies.

No more of this “jobs worth” crap from SBS or Shorten, please. Better people than you have fought and died for the truth.

Intercepting refugees in Malaysia and Indonesia will prevent some unanticipated arrivals. But swift and humane solutions would also include simply accepting people and providing them with orientation and the means manage in their new countries. There is plenty of positive work in supplying the supports the newcomers need. We don’t need to insist on unnecessary suffering. As an unadulterated leftie, I’d argue that we can afford to help everyone if we tax our own 1 per cent properly.

But we can argue about that one when Manus is over.

These men may deserve millions in compo each but they also deserve fresh starts in nothing less than safe third countries. No machetes. No racism. No fear. They have shown what they are made of and I salute them.

Nothing can distract the burgeoning community of refugee advocates from that.


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  1. paul walter

    It has seldom been a more depressing time to be alive. I agree with this essay 90%, but it is true that part of the response from many Australians relates to fear of labour market swamping, which as Jane Salmon points out would not be an issue in a rationally run economy.

    Unfortunately, both the national and global economies are not run to any civilising purpose.

    They have been captured by the same sort of criminals who ran WW2, Colonialism and now Neo Colonialism.

    In fact, as control has been consolidated by a feudalist global oligarchy (whatever the rivalries within this global oligarchy), the gloves have been well and truly off since the Meltdown and the Arab Summer and people in the privileged West have realised that refugee flows are a permanent, not a one of a kind thing. Many realise that refugee debates are essential to divide and conquer, drawing attention away from the realisation that the System itself is f*cked and why and by who. The people who run things know full well that the global system of starvation and compulsorily acquired debt is immoral and know it is plain enough to see that people will offer outraged cries of anguish at the global horror that Manus is the comprehensible representation of. Equally, they know that fear of people flows is a lever through which the people who run things can also thieve off places like Australia. This is done via FTAs and censorship, while the public is distracted by propaganda induced fear of loss of autonomy and identity, a mechanism perhaps leading eventually to the same conditions here that exist throughout the Third World.

    The Middle East, Africa, South America Asia will continue to feed massive outflows of people driven out by wars and poverty, disease and famines (Yemen is newest example, along with Myanmar). It induces horror within civilised people and a chronic argument as to what do, ensuring the reification of the System in perpetuity.

    You can’t live without a guilty conscience here or physical existential torment throughout most of the world. Nothing has changed over thousands of years.

  2. king1394

    I used to think what happened in Nazi Germany to minority groups was an aberration. Now I know that it can happen anywhere, and that I am dragged in to be part of it through my helplessness to act meaningfully in this situation. I am horrified constantly by the acquiescence of the Parliament, the judiciary and the legal world, the cheer squad mentality of much of the media and the willingness of our society in general to focus on anything but this scandalous flouting of our country’s obligations to treat with compassion a few people who have come to our shores seeking help and safety.
    Will we ever see people such as Dutton facing criminal charges?

  3. Terry2

    Dutton made it very clear yesterday in his carefully crafted lies that this is all about political advantage.

    After his normal patter about lives lost at sea and turning back the boats he then launched into the political message, that should Labor get in at the next election the people smugglers will rise up as one and launch their fleets of boats at Australia.
    Evidently the people smugglers are not aware of the fortress Australia policy or the ring of steel they are just awaiting the return of a Labor government.

    The Manus detention policy has not changed or closed as required by the PNG Supreme Court, it has just been shifted to another part of the island. Let’s be clear, Manus is or at least was a very pleasant island where people lived in the traditional way of gardening and fishing : there is no formal employment and to even suggest that these asylum seekers have been resettled is a deceptive lie and Australian policies are causing irreparable to the island way of life.

    Dutton knows that to accept the New Zealand offer to stop this stalemate by starting to resettle some of these men would ruin his scheme and he wants to keep this thing going right up to the next election as he probably sees border security scares as the only way of staying in power.

    Interestingly the PNG authorities said yesterday that they would be reluctant to negotiate directly with New Zealand as to do so would imply that this whole mess is their problem which, of course it isn’t : the responsibility for these men and those on Nauru is squarely that of the Australian government.

    I too am disappointed that Labor has not been more outspoken but at least they have said that they would negotiate with New Zealand to initiate transfers and don’t underestimate that Dutton has used this issue very effectively as a wedge on Labor and they need to play this man with great care. Any concession by Labor whilst in opposition will bring a crescendo of howls from the coalition that “Labor are weak on border security and only the coalition can keep us safe”.

  4. paul walter

    Yes, the race card is the only card they have left to play. It is the same card they have played for fifteen years and the rubes still fall for it.

  5. diannaart

    Indeed. The race card is all that is being played, from up a sleeve of course – must never reveal the race card. But we all know it is there.

    Australians know it. The rest of the world knows it.

    The pilloried refugees will never forget it.

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