A crackdown looms at a migrant prison camp

November 13, 2017

The Australian government has long taken a hardline stance against refugees and immigrants seeking to enter the country, often paying to house them in detention camps in nearby island nations, under frequently brutal conditions.

In recent days, local authorities on the island of Manus in Papua New Guinea have been engaged in a standoff with some 400 asylum seekers who barricaded themselves inside a decommissioned detention center. Authorities plan on removing the asylum seekers by force and relocating them to another incomplete facility, where refugees say the conditions are even worse and they are virtual prisoners.

The Australian government argues that the protest is merely an attempt to pressure it to change its immigration policy and allow refugees to settle in Australia. In recent days, authorities on Manus have disconnected the electricity and started to destroy the refugees' shelters. In an article written for Australia's Red Flag newspaper, Liz Walsh gives the background to the conflict as it came to a head late last week and calls for protest and resistance if the asylum seekers on Manus are attacked.

THE HUMANITARIAN crisis on Manus Island is galloping toward a frightening confrontation. At least 400 refugees continue to bravely resist all attempts to forcibly evict them from the prison camp.

November 11 was to be D-Day. But they have been given a new deadline of Monday, November 13, to move to three alternative prisons on the island, in East and West Lorengau or Hillside Haus in Lae.

There are conflicting reports about whether Papua New Guinea (PNG) police are preparing to use force, but refugees have relayed to supporters in Australia that force has been threatened.

These fears are echoed by Ben Wamoi, spokesperson for the Manus Alliance Against Human Rights Abuse: "My fear is that if the 600 men refuse to relocate, our government may use force. I know our police force. I know our military."

This is, after all, the military that, on Good Friday, shot into the Manus camp 100 times.

If refugees are removed with force on Monday, we need to respond with outrage and emergency protests.

SINCE OCTOBER 31, the Australian government has cut off all essential services--food, water, electricity and medical services--to starve the refugees into submission. The sewerage system has become blocked because there's no longer any flushing mechanism. This is creating dangerously unsanitary conditions.

A protest in a migrant prison camp on Manus in Papua New Guinea
A protest in a migrant prison camp on Manus in Papua New Guinea (Hincerooney | Twitter)

Attempts by refugee rights activists to supply the protest camp have been blocked by the PNG Navy, and locals have been threatened with arrest if they provide help to the men, though some food is thankfully getting through.

At a Melbourne protest on November 4, Greens federal MP Adam Bandt labeled Immigration Minister Peter Dutton a terrorist for using violence to achieve his racist political ends. He was right. And that terror has only increased.

On Thursday, November 9, the siege tightened its cruel grip when metal fences surrounding the camp were removed under the direction of Australian contractors, exposing the men to attack. It was psychological warfare.

The fear of attack is not unfounded. In February 2014, Reza Berati, an Iranian refugee, was bashed to death after disgruntled locals and security guards on the Australian payroll stormed the camp.

On Friday, PNG police and immigration officers swept through the camp dismantling shelters used by the men for protection from the harsh tropical sun. Rubbish bins containing rainwater they had collected were also emptied.

Dutton has painted the resisting men as ungrateful hooligans who have "trashed the accommodation" and are irrationally refusing to move to superior lodgings.

Pictures obtained by the Daily Telegraph exposed this to be a lie. West Lorengau was little more than a muddy construction site. The "housing" is shipping containers and security fencing is incomplete, allowing locals to traverse through the compound to get to their land.

In Lorengau, where the majority of refugees are to be detained, there will only be one doctor available during business hours--and miles from both camps--to service the hundreds of men who have suffered physical and mental degradation at the hands of their Australian jailers.

Six men have already died on Manus, most from systematic medical negligence. More deaths can only be the outcome of dramatically worse medical support.

Even if conditions in the prisons were to be improved, refugees remain unsafe on Manus. They have been regularly robbed and attacked with machetes and bush knives when visiting Lorengau town. Some attacks have hacked to the bone.

But above all else, the refugees are refusing to move because after four-and-a-half years of a living hell, they have had enough. They can't wait any longer for their freedom in a safe country.

As Behrooz Boochani, a detained Kurdish Iranian journalist, said: "We will never retreat and leave this hell of a prison. We will never move to another prison. We will never settle for anything less than freedom."

At times, the voices coming out of the protest camp are full of heartbreaking despair. On Saturday, a voice from Manus wrote: "Torture...stress...sadness...loneliness...powerless...starvation...humiliation...tears...thirst...careless...These are not just words...these are the part of life...and voice of heart..."

BUT SOMEHOW, despite everything, they continue to stand their ground because this is a fight for their very lives and for any hopes they may still have for a better future.

Their courageous resistance is not new. For years, the Manus detainees have protested for freedom. And as the current crisis loomed, for more than 100 days, the refugees organized daily protests. These have been incredibly disciplined and always peaceful, a stark juxtaposition to the violence being meted out by the Australian and PNG governments.

The refugees have not fought alone. There has been a wave of protests across Australia in solidarity. Since the siege began, there have been weekly street mobilizations in major cities. Government buildings have been occupied or blockaded and public events such as the Melbourne Cup have been disrupted with daring creative protests.

On Friday night in Sydney, wealthy donors at a Liberal party fundraiser had to run a gauntlet of hundreds of anti-racist protesters.

But while barbarism reigns on Manus, the media focused on what they considered was the real crime: Among the pushing and shoving, Christine Forster, Tony Abbott's sister and Liberal Party local councilor, had her "favorite" jacket torn. Oh, the horror!

Predictably, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) joined the chorus of condemnation, highlighting the bipartisan support for cruelty. The scale of the humanitarian crisis has not forced a rethink from the ALP. Labor leader Bill Shorten only days ago re-iterated his commitment to cruelty: "Australia is not and must not be a resettlement option."

Instead, he called on the government to accept New Zealand's offer to take 150 people and prattled on about third country settlement. Under the Gillard Labor government we got to see what a third country settlement might look like – exiling refugees to Malaysia where abuse of asylum seekers is rife.

Shamefully, no Labor member of parliament has broken ranks to call for the government to bring the refugees here. So it is right that deputy leader Tanya Plibersek was targeted at a recent public appearance by Mums for Refugees. We need to hound Labor politicians wherever they go and demand they break with their party's disgraceful position.

Missing in action has been the trade union movement. It took 10 days of this brutal siege to finally push Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Sally McManus to issue a statement. "We have taken their dreams of a better life, and replaced them with an unrelenting nightmare," she said.

The Victorian Trades Hall Council also issued a similar statement. Both condemned the Liberal government and called for the refugees to be evacuated immediately.

This is a start. But their statement fudges the key question--evacuate to where? To New Zealand, which has only offered to take 150 people? To the U.S., which has taken a mere 54?

The only place refugees can immediately be evacuated to is Australia. The main reason not to spell this out is to limit the pressure on the ALP. This is not good enough. Now more than ever we need our unions to show some courage.

WE CAN'T let up on the demand that Australia bring them here now. The Australian government exiled these men by force to Manus Island when they were seeking asylum in Australia. The Australian government has spent billions detaining them in hellish conditions designed to break their spirits. And now the Australian government wants to abandon them. We can't let them get away with it.

Importantly, a few individual unions have taken a stand. In Victoria, both street protests have been addressed by National Union of Workers organizers who were also refugees. They were supported by a contingent from the NUW and Victorian Trades Hall. We need to build on this. We need to pressure our own unions to speak up now and join the protests.

In the fight against the racist institutions that dominate Australian political life, our forces are painfully inadequate to the task at hand. But with the refugees on Manus refusing to give up, refusing to lose hope, we too must respond to the crisis with energy and urgency so that we can build up a fighting movement capable of forcing both major parties to abandon their obsession with torturing refugees.

Now is the time for action. Get yourself to the next protest!

First published at Red Flag.

Further Reading

From the archives