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The Politics of Manus Island: Refugees, Responsibilities and Contracts

In what has been a nightmare at Christmas, the plight of refugees relocated to other sites on Manus Island after the closure of the facility at Lombrum Naval Base has worsened. The latest scenes at East Lorengau Transit Centre, where 300 men have been since December 19, have been ugly and pitiable. In the broader scheme of things, they have been far from surprising, expected with the dread that has become all too natural.

Local landowners have been none too pleased at the political machinations of the Papua New Guinea government and officials in Canberra. They were the ones frozen out of negotiations about how best to solve the refugee problem. They were the ones side-stepped in another arrangement that sees Australia ignore those responsibilities outlined in the Refugee Convention.

From November 29, they have been engaged in a campaign of protest against staff management and the refugees, notably JDA Wokman, the contractor charged with resettlement services. They, so goes the argument, want compensation for not getting the necessary contract for running the new detention facilities. The company in question there is Peren Investments. Keep it brutal, but keep it local.

The scenes on that day in November worsened. Access to the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre was blocked. The police were called in. As Manus Province police commander, David Yapu, explained, “Because the situation was tense and level of threats was high, Police intervened and acted as a middle person to negotiate with PNG Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority, Peren Investments and JDA to come to some mutual understanding and clear the road block and allow the services to flow into the centre.” There was one group conspicuously absent: the refugees themselves.

As Kurdish-Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani has observed with characteristic grimness, “Some powerful [people] in island are competing & using us as tools for their aims. Nobody here to guarantee our safety. Anything bad happens to us, those who took us here by force are responsible. We resisted because situation outside predictable.”

Boochani’s observation has relevance beyond the plight of his fellow refugees on the tropical island itself. It speaks to the vulgarity of the refugee debate in Australia, the refusal by the major parties to consider the human element, preferring electoral gains, political mileage.

Locally, the situation is perpetually volatile. Various members of the local populace are starting to show that their bite is every bit as effective as their irate bark. According to Sri Lankan refugee Thanus Selvarasa, “These local people attack us, the camp (and) we are hostage people now.” Boochani’s sentiment is similar: “We are now hostages of landowners. There is no food and medicine here and if they continue it will be a critical situation.”

For Selvarasa, there are scenes of war, combat, the language of conflict and struggle. “We have some rice only but today it’s mostly finished,” he claimed on December 20. The contractor has attempted to deliver food by stealth, but was halted on being stopped by protestors.

Meetings duly took place between the various groups – landowners, immigration officials and members of JDA Wokman. Accordingly, some breathing space was given, with the blockade being lifted. “Money and political interests,” lamented a depressed Boochani, “are their priority, not people’s life.” Such arrangements are only temporary.

The Australian angle on this has been painfully familiar. Despite the contract regarding the new camps being an Australian one; despite being fuelled on the money of Australian tax payers, responsibility is being ignored. “This is a matter for the Government of PNG,” came the dismissive remark from the Department of Home Affairs.

Not so, came the comment from Cecile Pouilly at a UNHCR briefing in distant Geneva prior to Christmas Eve. “In light of the continued perilous situation on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island for refugees and asylum seekers abandoned by Australia, UNCHR has called again this week on the Australian government to live up to its responsibility and urgently find humane and appropriate solutions.”

It is exactly the sort of thing Australian politicians do not want. Before them stand such figures as Boochani, who inhabit a world where borders are asserted to restrict rather than permit. Boundaries are drawn, fictional doodles that are treated as reality. It was the destiny of Kurdistan to be parcelled after the First World War, and since then, Kurds have inhabited a world without borders, or least of their own. There is, for Boochani, only one recourse in the face of this absurdity: a form of stateless humanism. Even in deracination, roots can be put down.

For the bloodless managers, the populist number crunchers, the procedural, paper-driven fanatics, the refugee is a removable contrivance. The borderless concept suits the apparatchiks in Canberra, those who insist that refugees are creatures of the vanishing, disposable refuse in the game of higher politics.



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  1. Jack Russell

    The outrage I feel about our current government, and their enablers, is so potent it is visceral.

  2. David Stakes

    Surely the whole world must be looking on in amazement at this countrys attitude. I find it hard to believe that the rest of humanity is callous and uncaring. And can turn a blind eye to what is going on. Un need to take action now.

  3. Jennifer Gregory

    Excuse my ignorance but does the Australian government now “own” these people? Surely not? How can the Australian government prevent them going to NZ or Canada or wherever they want? I don’t understand it. What’s to stop a private ship picking them up and taking them elsewhere to claim asylum? How would Australia prevent that?

  4. Terry2


    Barnaby Joyce told New Zealand on Radio NZ :

    It’s best if you stay away from another country’s business.

    Because otherwise they will return the favour at a time they think is most opportune for them.

    The coalition game plan seems to be to allow the situation to get so bad that eventually Labor will blink and say, ‘bring them here’. At that point Dutton and company will unleash the hounds of hades and all you will hear between now and the next election is :

    Labor is weak on border protection

    Labor is rolling out the red carpet to people smugglers

    The hordes will be boarding boats to Australia, there will be deaths at sea

    Only the coalition can keep our borders secure

    The script is written and all other questions of policy and government fiscal competence will be lost in the cacophony and we will be told to be scared, very scared and we will re-elect this deeply flawed gang of cynical thugs.

    A private ship ? Remember, these people have no travel documents or passports this is why they cannot get off the islands (Manus and Nauru) . We learned the lessons of Guantanimo well.

  5. Max Gross

    Anyone for UN peace keepers and direct intervention? How about a Dunkirk-style rescue?

  6. Andreas

    There’s got to be a different way. A good number of parliamentarians of either side have had a very good run, have accumulated untold super and anything between 8 and 50 investment properties. Any person of reasonable intelligence will realise that this will at one time come to a stop. I am appealing to any politicians fitting that profile: Muster the courage (it doesn’t take that much as you’re already home and hosed financially), talk to your colleagues on both sides, band together 3 or 4, threaten your party leaders to cross the floor on any legislation they put forward unless they break this stalemate, and watch the result. Revolutionary? Yes, but it only takes a handful, and your names will be in the good books of this country for a long time. Think about that…

  7. Glenn Barry

    I could envisage some live fire accidents under orders from Dutton with a Dunkirk style rescue – though I had wondered if any nation would be willing to risk a diplomatic incident and send ships.
    NZ comes to mind however Barnaby’s threats were breathtaking…

    The perfect solution would be charges for crimes against humanity for Howard, Reith, Ruddock, Downer, Abbott, Morrison, Turnbull and Dutton, then a Dunkirk style rescue

  8. Andreas

    #Kevin Moore @ 6.06: Pauline calling… That’s what makes the “Sunshine State” so utterly appealing…

  9. Glenn Barry

    @Andreas – I made the same observation and came to the same conclusions, plus the One Nation and anti-Islam ads plastered all the way down the right hand side of the page gave me a little clue

  10. Wam

    Only a bipartisan solution is possible.
    johnnie set the scene with his ‘we will choose’ speech gillard eaffirmed with her Malaysian solution and the reopening of nauru and manus. The rabbott ravaged rudd in 2013 and fixed the hatred for asylum seekers in the electorate since then hundreds of men who seemed to have deserted their families with the aim of bringing them to Australia later cannot garner any sympathy from the electorate. Labor may drop a few votes to the loonies but any hint of a soft line is immediate surrender to an admission as a security risk and that will hand the next two or three elections to trumbles.
    This fact is well known to Di’s boys and they have shown no mercy since voting the carbon price down, scaring off a labor heavyweight for brand and, just recently, jumping over the coffin of a labor member. So expect plenty of dirty tricks over the next two years till the election.
    Don’t like the chances of any bipartisan discussion?

  11. Terry2

    Kevin Moore

    I had read the article by Alanah Robinson which you had previously linked and for some reason have now posted in full.

    Ms Robinson talks a lot about the poor and sometimes sexually motivated behaviour of some of the men on Manus.

    I am aware that the media covered one instance of suggested paedophilia involving a young boy and played up by Peter Dutton. I am also aware that the matter reported was subsequently found not to have anything to do with paedophilia and this was confirmed by the boy’s family but was used by Dutton to whip up asylum seeker hatred in Australia : a pattern that has been evident in all of Dutton’s manufactured hysteria.

    But let’s assume there is some sexual frustration among the 900 plus young men who have been detained on the island for over four years. Let’s assume that you took 900 young men from within the Australian community and you detained them on a small island without trial, without conviction and without a defined detention period. Let’s assume that you denied these young red- blooded young Aussies contact with women wouldn’t you expect some frustrations to arise ?

    Ms Robinson says that deep seated misogyny, violence and an often paedophilic nature that permeates their culture. When you consider that these young men come from a variety of different countries and backgrounds it would seem that this is a highly racist statement from Ms Robinson and makes me think that this is a spoof article manufactured by those who want to continue to demonise these young men and keep them detained.

    And guess what, after all this chit chat and finger pointing, the men are still there and those responsible have still not developed a resettlement strategy and still refuse to accept offers made by New Zealand originally in 2013 to take 150 people a year : had we accepted this generous offer from the Kiwis this problem could have been solved by now.

  12. Kaye Lee

    That article from some rag called Cairns News is an absolute disgrace and I really object to it being posted here. “rapefugees”? Seriously? What trash! And to think that the husband of the person who wrote this filth was actually working at the centre fills me with disgust. No wonder she was banned from facebook. She should get the same treatment here. We don’t need that sort of ignorant racist crap here.

  13. Kyran

    “It speaks to the vulgarity of the refugee debate in Australia, the refusal by the major parties to consider the human element, preferring electoral gains, political mileage.”

    The paucity of the debate is simply mind numbing. Australia wants to argue it is not responsible for ‘sovereign nations’ actions, whilst funding the actions, to the tune of billions.

    “It is in Australia’s interest to support a stable and economically sound and resilient Nauru that has the capacity to effectively manage its resources and deliver to its community the benefits from economic and labour mobility opportunities. Australia is Nauru’s most significant donor, contributing approximately 15 per cent of domestic revenue in 2014–15. Australia’s aid in Nauru forms part of our broader economic and diplomacy efforts to promote prosperity and security in the Pacific region.
    The Australian Government will provide an estimated $25.4 million in total ODA to Nauru in 2017-18. This will include an estimated $21.2 million in bilateral funding to Nauru managed by DFAT.”

    The rest of that read is vomit inducing. Or there is our aid to PNG.

    “The Australian Government will provide an estimated $546.3 million in total ODA to PNG in 2017-18. This will include an estimated $478.7 million in bilateral funding to PNG managed by DFAT.
    Despite huge resource potential and close proximity to Asian markets, PNG faces economic challenges and fiscal pressures. Poor law and order, lack of infrastructure, complex governance arrangements, weak public service, inequality between men and women, and rapidly growing population are challenges to its future prosperity. PNG also remains vulnerable to climate-induced and other disasters, including earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.”

    If you add to that ‘foreign aid’ (which we are meant to believe has no strings attached) the billions spent on contracts, often without oversight, with private contractors; and the tens of millions spent on settling court actions before they ever see the inside of a court room, you can see the reality. We are funding this, which is the very definition of ‘responsibility’.

    “Detaining a single asylum seeker on Manus or Nauru costs $400,000 per year. Detention in Australia costs $239,000 per year. By contrast, allowing asylum seekers to live in the community while their claims are processed costs just $12,000 per year, one twentieth of the cost of the offshore camps, and even less if they are allowed the right to work.”

    Detention costs

    That’s before you start on the inane proposition that the Australian government has no interest in the actions of these ‘sovereign nations’ whilst threatening all and sundry to abide by Australia’s obscene edicts about third country resettlements.
    There was a recent PNG court decision which has presented yet another hurdle to Dutton and his obsession to ignore the law.

    “The Government had contended that an application by Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani for enforcement of his constitutional right to freedom of liberty was made outside the allowable time.
    But the Supreme Court rejected that and found the asylum seekers had the right to a hearing of their claims.
    The ruling is significant because it means the men have won the right to have a trial against the PNG Government next year.”

    Do you really think the PNG government isn’t going to ask the Australian government to underwrite the potential outcome?
    As recently as a year ago, I would have agreed with Terry2’s observation.
    “The script is written and all other questions of policy and government fiscal competence will be lost in the cacophony and we will be told to be scared, very scared and we will re-elect this deeply flawed gang of cynical thugs.”
    The sheer volume of independently released reports, testimony and video footage has left this pack of fools without any defence of this barbaric policy. It seems odd that the one article referred to by Mr Moore hasn’t been seized on by Dutton. As Terry2 pointed out, he and his 82 spin doctors have already been caught out lying in their abuse of ‘news’ reports.
    Thank you Dr Kampmark and commenters. Take care

  14. Adrianne Haddow

    I am in absolute agreement with Kaye Lee.
    The AIMN has standards which this piece of vitriol does not meet.

    And to think it was posted on Christmas Day… open the presents, tuck into the turkey, prawns and ham, then a quick excursion into racist trash to balance out all the faux goodwill being served up on mainstream media.

    By all means, leave the original post with the link, so those so inclined can visit the cairnsnews website and see for themselves the sort of mindless racism served up on that site.

  15. Michael Taylor

    Adrianne’s suggestion that the text of the comment be removed was a good one, and it has now been removed.

    And Kaye has every right to be disgusted that it was published here. For that, I take full responsibility.

    Under normal conditions it would not have been. It’s Xmas and we’re on skeleton staff at the moment, so it snuck through. ☹️

  16. Terry2

    Kevin Moore

    I have been doing some research on this matter and , whilst I live in the Cairns region and have done so for some forty years I am not aware of the Cairns News publication. There is the Cairns Post the daily Murdoch tabloid but that’s altogether another publication.

    Kevin, you may care to comment on some factual reports by Fairfax and the ABC concerning Australian security guards on Manus as follows :

    July 2015 The Sydney Morning Herald :

    Three Australian guards on Manus Island found naked with a woman who claims she was drugged and raped were sent home before local authorities could investigate, the ABC reports.

    PNG police said the men and the local woman were found in a state of undress, drunk and sniffing an unidentified substance in mid-July.

    But Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection has angered PNG police by allowing the detention centre guards to return to Australia before an investigation could be carried out.

    The Australian security guards wer employed by Wilson Security. The ABC subsequently requested access to a report on the incident under Freedom of Information :

    ABC Lateline June 2016

    The MP for Manus Island has accused the [Australian] Federal Government of a cover-up after the Immigration Department released a largely censored report into the alleged rape of a detention centre employee.

    The 68-page document obtained by Lateline under freedom of information refers to the alleged rape of the Papua New Guinean woman by three Australian security guards in July last year.

    It is alleged the woman had been drinking with the Wilson security guards, when she was allegedly drugged and later found naked and unconscious in a bathroom at the security staff quarters.

    A short time after, the men were stood down and returned to Australia.

    In December last year, Lateline lodged a freedom of information request into the case.

    Six months later, the Department released the document, however almost every page has been redacted.

    Kevin (if that’s your real name) and Ms Robinson (if you really exist) would you care to comment or are we getting too close to home ?

  17. Lee

    I think the claim that it costs “$12,000 per year to live in the community” should perhaps be removed, as it would obviously be easy to argue that figure is grossly understated. At a bare minimum the Newstart Allowance is $13k, plus Medicare, Public Housing and other means of Resettlement Assistance. Making statements that are clearly wrong will only incite more hatred and distrust.
    Also we need to acknowledge that the ALP is just as much to blame when it comes to offshore detention. Liberal bashing just presents a very subjective and one sided argument.
    New Zealand has every right to send a ship and pick up every man on Manus. It would be in everyone’s best interest if this happened. Turnbull can slap a permanent visa ban on all men. No back door entry. The same could work with Nauru also, as it is geographically close to NZ. I highly doubt that the people smugglers would try to start up again, as it is clear that Dutton has turned around every single boat attempt.

  18. Kaye Lee


    No fault to be attributed at all. I could have removed it myself but didn’t want to overstep my position. We are occasionally allowed to leave our computers 😉

  19. Kaye Lee

    Dutton has done nothing at all. Internal and external reviews of his department have produced scathing reports of disfunction, waste and maladministration. He has been unable to come up with any solution for the people stuck on Manus and Nauru. Similar to when he was voted worst health minister ever by doctors.

    Dutton is an absolute dud who has been promoted WAY past his ability level because Turnbull is a spineless inauthentic failure who has to prop up his leadership by gifting things to anyone he thinks can help him stay there.

    Promoting Dutton and Cash is just laughable. And “Big Beast Brandis” is farcical. Not to mention making Cormann the overseer of ethics. I knew Darren Chester couldn’t last long under Barnaby. Far too sensible. Got to get rid of him. Vote against my wishes and you will be gone says the champion of family values whose wife just kicked him out for getting his staffer pregnant. But let’s get that band back together to play Onward Christian Soldiers as Scomo marches off to war against anyone who offends his religious sensibilities….because that’s what Treasurers should spend their time doing…particularly when P Duddy and the Terminator are stealing his limelight.

  20. Kyran

    With respect, Lee, I disagree. As I understand it, asylum seekers don’t get access to too much ‘government assistance’. The government stipend is sweet fa, they don’t get access to housing assistance and there is no resettlement assistance. They get access to Medicare and a paltry allowance. And they are not allowed to work. The housing and supplementary income is generally borne by charities and their communities. The deception is not in the cost, it is in the reality that so many are prepared to help out.
    As to your reference to the ALP and their pathetic ‘metooism’, I couldn’t agree more. These political parties that claim to represent us are a disgrace. Saying ‘this crowd has got to go’ is not saying that the replacement is likely to be any better.

    Terry2, I was going to suggest either of the dynamic duo search the names of Reza Barati, Faysel Ishak, Hamed Shamshiripour, or those who have been raped on Nauru, or those that have committed suicide in detention rather than face the unending uncertainty that is indefinite detention, or those that have died simply because the medical facilities aren’t up to scratch.
    The list goes on. Those suffering the abuse are the detainees. Those perpetrating the abuse are the detainers. That has become irrefutable.
    But then the sad reality hit. Who the f#ck are Cairns News?

    Oh Dear.

    “Cairns News reserves the right to edit material from our numerous contributors in Australia and international correspondents.”
    So, Cairns News likes censorship.
    “We are receiving so much copy from contributing writers that we cannot promise to read all of it.”
    So, Cairns News can’t read.
    “This is, so far, an ad-free community media service where all correspondents provide copy in an honorary capacity.”
    So why does their website have so many ads?
    “We thank our contributors, some of whom are disillusioned reporters for mainstream media. They realise the editorial panels of the major media have become propaganda machines for vested interests and seldom publish unbiased ‘news’ particularly since the US television network CNN broadcast many false news items about President Trump and the Sandy Hook training exercise.”
    So Cairns News can’t spell. The word is ‘delusional’.
    “Trump now prohibits these lying networks and some print media from attending his media conferences. Thank you for those White House bulletins that actually present the truth.”
    So Cairns News subscribes to the theory that Trump is the arbiter of truth. Oh Dear. The hits just keep on coming.
    From their ‘About’ section;
    “Main stream media across Australia publish what they are instructed to print by their political and corporate masters. Cairns News publish what they refuse and what you the people need to know.
    Cairns News editor is Robert J Lee assisted by Harry Palmer editor of SOS-NEWS”

    Cairns News

    As a word of caution, it is a seriously sick site.
    Maybe Robert E Lee would have been more credible. The only assistance afforded by Mr Palmer appears to be a gratuitous ‘five finger’ hand job.
    As for Dutton, Ms Lee, how can it be that a vegetable is so maligned merely through the unfortunate resemblance to a minister?
    Oh Dear. Ah well, we have a new year coming up. Take care

  21. Terry2


    Two points on your post:

    It has been acknowledged constantly and with monotonous regularity that both Labor and the coalition have responsibilities for the offshore detention & processing mess. But, the coalition are in office so it is only they who can sort it out…………the opposition have no executive power surely you understand that ?
    New Zealand are not seeking to take responsibility for this offshore detention mess, all they did – both John Key Conservative and Jacinta Ardern Labour – was make a goodwill neighbourly gesture to Australia to help overcome the political impasse, no more, no less.

    The responsibility for resolving this problem is not New Zealand’s or Papua New Guinea’s or the United Nations’ it rests with the Turnbull government.

  22. Wam

    Well said Terry2 the responsibility lies with the government! Was it gillard who opened Manus??

    Bipartisblame is the go.

    Wonder who benefits and hopes to pocket the cash?

  23. Terry2

    Kaye Lee

    On the subject of Australian Border Force now Home Affairs, I note from the SMH that ABF chief Roman Quaedvlieg is still on paid leave and has been so for seven months while he is under investigation for possible abuse of power.

    Quaedvlieg is one of the country’s most senior public servants and is paid $618,000 a year.

    According to the SMH :

    *a spokesman for Home Affairs, formerly the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, confirmed Mr Quaedvlieg remained on paid leave this week.He has been out of the office since May 29 2017, when he stepped aside pending an investigation by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity into possible abuse of power.

    The commission is investigating whether Mr Quaedvlieg acted improperly by allegedly helping his girlfriend – a younger woman in the ABF – secure a job at Sydney Airport. Mr Quaedvlieg denies any wrongdoing*.

    What are the odds that this investigation will eventually find that he has no case to answer and, after an extended publicly funded holiday, he will be reinstated

  24. Glenn Barry

    Terry2 – I would hypothesise that the length of the delay in the investigation indicates the difficulty in confecting exculpatory evidence, or just waiting for the attention to fade so a guilty finding can be flashed past quickly without causing a fuss

  25. Matters Not

    Both Dutton and Quaedvlieg are ex Queensland coppers whose paths have crossed over the years. And as any special branch walloper knows – never let a chance go by. Thus they probably have the goods on each other – know where the bodies are buried and all that. Therefore the problem becomes simple – how, when and where do we resurrect Roman without an almighty outcry. Perhaps an overseas appointment? A homecoming in Canada?

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