While initially hailed as a win for refugees, the closure of the detention centre on Manus Island has left almost 600 men in limbo, with nowhere to go. They are without water, food, or electricity, and have been stripped of what hope they had for their future. Food donors have reportedly been barred from entering the centre, and the men have turned to digging makeshift wells to get water to drink.
In the words of one refugee, the past week has been a series of ‘mortifying days and nights’, spent in a pitch dark camp. Even this, though, seems preferable than the alternative accommodation provided for them by the Australian government.
This ‘alternative accommodation’ – consisting of three sites, each plagued by its own problems – is grossly inadequate to sustain the 587 men. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said it is simply ‘not ready’ to house them. Human Rights Watch has detailed a recent increase in violent attacks and looting by armed locals targeting the refugees and asylum seekers. The list goes on.
Spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition Ian Rintoul is one of many who have spoken out against the actions of our government, saying that the Australian government is trying to drive these innocent men – most of whom have been judged to be genuine refugees – ‘into even more unsafe conditions.’
The Australian government is turning its back on vulnerable, innocent people, while the nation looks on.
Meanwhile, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has re-affirmed a longstanding offer to take in 150 refugees from Manus. Malcolm Turnbull, however, appears set to reject the offer, on the grounds that it might act as a “pull factor” for people smugglers to ‘tempt would-be asylum seekers into attempting to come to Australia by boat.’
The sentiment behind Mr Turnbull’s statement is as predictable as it is callous. It reflects the government’s blind faith in adhering to a strict policy of deterrence.
While spuriously claimed by some in the government’s ranks (as well as several from across the floor) to be a pragmatic and humane approach to the refugee crisis, the use of deterrence in any immigration policy is fundamentally unacceptable.
Let’s be clear. Deterrence relies on the prospect of life after arriving in Australia by boat being worse than the conditions being left behind. The vast majority of people who come to Australia by boat seeking protection are genuine refugees. This means that they have a genuine need to flee persecution in their home country.
In making conditions here worse than the conditions these people are forced to flee, we are not some benevolent saviour figure, stopping people from dying at sea. We are simply condemning them to die elsewhere, freeing our hands of guilt.
The current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has called the current situation on Manus Island an ‘unfolding humanitarian emergency’, urging the Turnbull government to restore services on Manus immediately.
‘All migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, are human beings’, Zeid said. ‘Like all of us, they have a right to a safe and secure environment.’
As we reflect on what is going on under our watch – what we as a nation are wilfully letting happen to innocent people – we would do well to listen to Zeid’s words of caution. And Mr Turnbull and Mr Dutton would do well to do the same.