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States of Cruelty: The Dead Refugees of Manus

In those seemingly interminable refugee debates being held in various countries, cruelty is pure theatre. It is directed, stage managed, the victims treated as mere marionettes in a play of putrid public policy and indifferent public officials. Barriers have been set; barbed wire has been put in place. Open zones such as the European Union are being internally bordered up, the principle of mobility derided and assaulted.

In all of this, Australia has remained a paragon to be emulated. It first began with tentative steps: the establishment of onshore detention facilities at Villawood, Sydney and Port Hedland, Western Australia, in 1991. Then came that vile concept of mandatory detention, introduced in 1992. The hobgoblin of offshore detention, financed afar by the Australian taxpayer, would come with the Howard government.

The worded rationale since the Hawke years has tended to follow variants of the same, only differing in terms of shrillness and savagery. “Australia,” came the grave words of the Hawke government, “could be on the threshold of a major wave of unauthorised boat arrivals from south-east Asia, which will severely test both our resolve and our capacity to ensure that immigration in this country is conducted within a planned and controlled framework”.

The list of obituaries arising from such a policy is growing and should be chiselled into a wall of remembrance. There is the Kurdish-Iranian refugee Fazel Chegeni, who perished on Christmas Island in November 2015 after escaping the North West Point detention centre. His state of mental deterioration had been documented, along with three reported attempts at suicide.

There is the youthful Hamid Kehazaei, who succumbed to sepsis after his request for a medical transfer was sternly refused, only to then flounder before the overgrown resistance of Canberra’s bureaucracy. The details of his maltreatment laid before the Queensland coroner Terry Ryan have proven to be kaleidoscopically torturous: the refusal to supply intravenous paracetamol for two nights in a row; suffering hypoxia; being left unsheltered at the airfield un-sedated.

The case of Manus is particularly grotesque, given the decision made by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court in 2016 that detaining people indefinitely was decidedly illegal, a constitutional violation of personal liberty. Those facilities replacing the camp have done little to arrest the decline of the health of the remaining population.

Earlier this week, a Rohingya refugee by the name of Salim was found dead in an apparent suicide, taking to seven the number of asylum seekers and refugees who have met gruesome ends on Manus since July 2013. He had jumped from a moving bus near the refugee transition centre, and duly struck by its wheels. The Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul was adamant: “He should not have been taken there in 2013, and he should not have been returned there after he was brought to Australia for medical treatment in 2014.”

Farce became tragedy when a call by a staff member of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre to Salim’s spouse revealed, prior to any notification from Australian officials, that her husband had committed suicide. The worker in question, a certain Kon Karapanagiotidis, was, by his own admission “lost for words”.

During Question Time, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton exercised his long-held approach of rebuking the heart sleeve wearers. “I’m not going to take a morals lecture from the Greens when it comes to border protection policy.” His own department, also adopting another standard line to questions on Salim’s death, deemed it “a matter for the PNG government.”

What is in place in Australia’s singularly styled gulag is a measure of calculated degradation, a brutal hierarchy of violence manufactured to defeat the spirit and aspiration of the UN Refugee Convention. Few countries of the nominal democratic world have been so avidly dedicated to this cause, citing counterfeit humanitarian considerations even as the noose – quite literally – is being tightened.

Adding to the heavy-handed attempts by those in Canberra to deter refugees and asylum seekers from contemplating a journey to Australia, resources and services are being trimmed back. Nait Jit Lam, the UNHCR’s Deputy Regional Representative in Canberra, offered the following observation on May 22: “With the passage of too many years and the withdrawal or reduction of essential services, the already critical situation for refugees most in need continues to deteriorate.”

Medical care in acute situations is being refused, notably when it requires treatment that would only be possible on the Australian mainland. The oldest Afghan Hazara held on Nauru, one Ali is said to have advanced lung cancer. He is being housed at the Australian-built RPC1 camp, a woefully inadequate, threadbare facility which is bearing witness to his last days. Doctors have had the ear of the Australian Border Force, but the establishment remains stony towards calls for help. The Department of Home Affairs has preferred to remind Ali that he best shove off his mortal coil back in Afghanistan.

The growing list of deaths, the burgeoning number of psychological wrecks, the casualty list in what can only be deemed a planned campaign against refugees and asylum seekers, is such that even the extreme centre, the Australian consensus approving such treatment, might be changing.

The Victorian State Labor conference, by way of example, will consider an urgency motion calling on the party, on winning federal office, “to close offshore detention centres, transit centres and other camps on Manus and Nauru within the first 90 days, and to bring all the children, women and men who are refugees or seeking asylum remaining there to Australia.”

As ever, such moves stem from the left wing of the party, those condemned as bleeding hearts or soggily wet with teary sentiment. But in federal parliament, refugee advocates could get some hope at the remarks made by Labor MP Ged Kearney, fresh from her by-election victory in the Melbourne seat of Batman.

Still untainted by the wearing grime of the Labor Party apparatus, she could still state in her first speech to the federal parliament that Australia’s refugee policy was not only vicious but corrosive. “We are a rich country. We can afford to take more refugees. I doubt, however, we can afford the ongoing cost to our national psyche of subjecting men, women, children to years of indefinite detention in camps.”

Psyches captive to the police mentality that afflicts Dutton and government front benchers happily tolerate such ongoing costs. As would many of those on the opposite of the aisle. For such political creatures, deterring refugees who arrive outside that planned controlled framework stated by the Labor government of the early 1990s is not merely a job but a duty.


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  1. Ill fares the land

    We should be mindful that a small number of “boat” refugees pales into insignificance when compared to the very large numbers of people who come to Australia under the guise of a migration program. I am not in the category of folk who believe that we should stop immigration, but when I look at cities like Adelaide and its flood of Chinese students and Melbourne, which has essentially been colonised, the issues become very much more clouded. Migration has been very good for Australia, but we tend to live in a world where if a little bit of something is good, a lot more of that something must be better and I am not convinced that is the case – rapid population growth imposes large strains right across society – housing, jobs, university places, roads. Bear in mind that we live in cities that struggle on with road networks designed around traffic volumes far, far lower than in the modern era. Infrastructure programs tinker, but never really solve the problems of traffic volumes – to name but one problem.

    More difficult, to my mind is how utterly vile Dutton and people of his ilk are. We really should elect politicians who represent the best of what we are: instead, we elect people (like Dutton, Hanson, O’Dwyer, Morrison and Turnbull – and there have been some Labor shockers as well) who represent the absolute worst of who we are and humanity. Fearful, selfish, devious, lacking empathy, liars, cheats, scoundrels, incompetents and intellectual pygmies. We have elected these maggots and seem to be amazed when they behave in the way they do – well more fool us. We have got the political “leaders” we voted for and in the refugee saga, they are behaving according to type. I don’t doubt that the LNP are using Manus and Nauru to “wedge” Labor. My guess is Labor want to shut down these facilities, but to admit to that objective is to expose them to the shrieking from the LNP about “drownings at sea”, “supporting people smugglers” and “opening the floodgates”. That people are suffering and dying in these facilities is simply collateral damage in an evil political game.

  2. Regional Eld

    Yes Australia leads the world now in transforming refugees fleeing from strife in their home countries into long term political prisoners.

    Refugees are given the cynical binary choice of ‘ Return to your home country whenever you want, or otherwise you will not be leaving Manus Island or Nauru, while we the Australian Government will do every we possibly can to encourage you make the choice we want you to make. ‘

    Thanks Binoy for this article which demonstrates how for almost 20 years now as a nation, we have been atavistically channeling the very worst we can be.

  3. Josephus

    The waves of refugees fleeing war back home will be nothing to the numbers of climate refugees fleeing hunger, floods and cyclones. Cruelty is not the answer. Imprisoning people for ever is not the answer. What is? Euthanasia, birth control, wars over water? What can we humans do?

  4. helvityni

    Jim Molan on Q&A was laughing when the talk turned to asylum seekers, we are trying to revive beached whales ( who most likely want to die)…, but we are not concerned about the indefinite detention of asylum seekers which is driving them to depression and suicide….we are punishing them for NOT drowning, we don’t allow any of them go to NZ… We are confident that Trump does not want them either..

    What happened to our humanity and compassion…?

  5. king1394

    Few of the refugees would ever have left their countries if the Western powers, including Australia, had not indulged in actions that have created instability, wholesale destruction, anarchy, the rise of fanatics and virtually private militias as they manipulated regime change, and favourable(?) conditions to maintain their own oil supplies.

    The only way to halt the movement of refugees is to restore peace, law/justice and rebuild these societies, rather like what was done after World War II with the Marshall Plan.

  6. guest


    and the really vile part of what Molan said was when he told us that the prisoners held in indefinite detention are “free” to return to where they came from at any time. I felt sick in the stomach.

    All this “virtue signalling” (a sly Murdoch phrase) and talk of saving people from drowning, all this posturing about the Enlightenment
    and Western Culture and Democracy and “free speech” and “religious freedoms” is a lot of hocus pocus of the worst kind.

    I have been doing some reading on the role of “Christian” countries such as Britain, the USA and Australia in the greed for oil disguised as creating democracy or of getting revenge (when Iraq had nothing to do with the fall of the Trade Towers) in the Middle East.

    There are questions we could ask Molan about how long the adults and children will stay on the gulags and about what happened at Fallujeh in 2004.

  7. Glenn Barry

    Jim Molan is morally abhorrent and it begs the question about the ethics of a political party that both attracts, selects and promotes such abominations

  8. Wam

    I find the deliberate confusion between refugees disingenuous. Salim has every right to seek a better life outside of myanmar and he has taken the hazardous journey leaving his family behind.
    Nevertheless, to me, a refugee has no choice but to flee and an asylum seeker makes a choice. The former cannot leave the family behind the latter?
    Similarly, former boat arrivals who gain Australian citizenship and then return to their home countries to visit relatives are not refugees?
    But whatever, we are caught by little johnnies ‘we will decide..’ and only those who can never form government (loonies and independents) are able to plead humanity.

    IFTL I think your use of ‘WE’ and ‘ELECT’ applies to those who vote below the line in the senate and for independents. The vast majority vote on party lines making it ‘THEY’ (local branch member) who ‘SELECT’.

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