On October 31, Australia’s detention camp on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea was closed. Nearly 600 refugees are refusing to leave, fearing discrimination within the local communities they are going to be resettled in. Meanwhile, the Australian government has cut off power and water and removed its people from the island. There is no medical treatment or food available to the former detainees. Many fear they will perish on the island.
Behrouz Boochani, a refugee held on Manus island, spoke with Al Jazeera on the phone and explained, “There are no medical services, no food, no water. Nothing here. And yet they left us here.” The Australian government stated that they have offered alternative accommodation but the men have refused to relocate. Only one of the housing facilities is operational, the other two are in the process of being built. It is also located within a community that is hostile to the refugees and is not equipped to manage an influx of some 600 men. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) has warned of an impending humanitarian crisis and reiterated its criticism of Australia’s offshore detention camps as “unsustainable, inhumane, and contrary to its human rights obligations.”
Manus Island, 300 km off the coast of Papua New Guinea, is one of two offshore detention camps run by the Australian government in order to keep refugees out of Australia. People who have fled countries like Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar attempt to journey to Australia from the southernmost Indonesia via boats, which are usually unseaworthy, and are intercepted by the Australian coastguard and sent to either Manus or Nauru. The Nauru camp houses single women and families, while Manus holds single men. Both camps were closed in 2008 after they fell into disuse, and Kevin Rudd, Australian Prime Minster at the time, relocated the refugees to Australia. However, due to an influx of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia’s shores in 2012, the camps were both re-opened. A deal was made at the time to eventually relocate asylum seekers from these camps into Papua New Guinea if their claim for refugee status was accepted. If they were not, they would be returned to their own country or a third country. In April 2016, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled the camps as illegal, which has caused their most recent closure.
The conditions within these camps are inhumane. There are reports of abuse, sexual assault, and self-harm. Men have filed legal claims against the Australian government and the contractors that ran the camps alleged physical and psychological injury and false imprisonment. One of these contractors continued the running of the camps. The detainees are not allowed to freely move and can only leave the island on planned day trips. The camps are off-limits to media and NGO groups like Amnesty International. People who have worked on the islands are not allowed to talk about what they have seen. The odd tidbit of information, however, occasionally manages to come out of the camps. Evan Davis, a former teacher on Nauru stated, “The whole camp was set up to break people’s spirits, to cause trauma. And that’s probably one of the most distressing things that I first realized and that is that I’m an Australian, I’m from a liberal democratic country where our rights are enshrined and personal freedoms and all those sorts of things, they’re covered by law, they’re protected by law. We consider that those things are really important, in fact, we consider them paramount and yet, the people in Nauru – the refugees and the asylum seekers – they were completely deprived of those things.”
It is important for the Australian government to consider the detainees on both Manus and Nauru Island as human beings and to treat them as such. While it would be ideal to prevent human trafficking of people via boats to countries like Australia, we must first acknowledge the reasons behind the need to endeavour on these highly dangerous journeys in which these people put their lives at risk. Punishing people fleeing persecution and horrendous living standards with more of the same is not the way forward and surely not something Australians want to be involved with.
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