Manus Island: Broken Solution To Age-Old Problem

The Australian-run detention center on Manus Island was shut down on October 31, after it was declared illegal by Papua New Guniea court. Its short lifespan is a testament to the complexities of implementing a working policy that effectively deals with refugee and asylum seekers.

“Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees”. Such was the claim made by Kevin Rudd as Australian Prime Minister in July 2013 after negotiations between Australia and Papua New Guinea resulted in a controversial solution to Australia’s refugee situation.

The solution: to redirect Australian asylum seekers to the South Pacific via offshore detention centers. In doing so, Australia “effectively began outsourcing much of the[ir] responsibility…”  as BBC Reporter, Fariba Sahraei, surmises. The detention center on Manus Island became a processing center for displaced citizens looking to start anew in Australia. The majority were displaced by turmoil in the Middle East with many asylum seekers coming from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. In response, the Australian government introduced foreign detention centers as a deterrent to those looking to make the hazardous journey by boat to Australian shores. They argue that this deterrent saves lives from drowning and stems the flow of human trafficking.

The policy has resurfaced to the forefront of Australian society amid a cloud of controversy after Papua New Guinea police last week cracked down on the decommissioned detention center in Manus Island, forcibly removing 400 asylum seekers. The residents of the center were said to be refusing to leave citing fears for their safety. A standoff ensued and in efforts to prompt an exodus the electricity and water supplies for the center were cut off.

This sparked protests across Australia. Snap rallies began calling for the asylum seekers to be evacuated to Australia. In Sydney, Australian police had to use metal cutters to forcibly remove protestors who had chained themselves to the Prime Minister’s gate in protest of the treatment of the asylum seekers.

Prominent Australian doctors, including former Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry, signed an open letter expressing their ‘concerns about the ongoing health and well-being of the former detainees.’

Humanitarian aid group, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) were denied access to provide medical assistance to the refugees despite having been granted approval by Papua New Guniea immigration earlier this week. Dr. Stewart Condon, the President of MSF Australia, remarked that “[they were] not able to get past the gate…[despite] trying every day.’ He concluded, “we’re even more concerned about the medical state of these people”.

Claims criticising the living conditions of the detention center are rife. It has also been reported that during the removal operation, the refugee’s were hit by bars resulting in minor injuries. Psychiatric concerns are also a significant issue after the Guardian reported that the residents “were believed to have been given a month’s worth of medication to see them through the transition”.

The asylum seekers have now been re-accommodated in new housing units. It has been reported that these units also have poor facilities and sanitation. However, MSF has been prevented from verifying if this is the case.

Other human rights groups such as the UNHCR, Amnesty International, and Oxfam have all been vocal in their criticism. Despite this, the Australian government remains insistent that the alternative accommodation provided is sufficient and that it wants to see through its arrangement with the United States that will see the refugees eventually relocated to America.