After depriving hundreds of men of food, water and medical support for more than three weeks, Papua New Guinea police moved into Manus Island detention centre on November 23.
They are forcing the 400 men left in the centre to move to alternative accommodation on Manus Island which, according to Kurdish asylum seeker and journalist Behrouz Boochani, is like “moving to another prison”.
The statements, photos and videos that have emerged from the refugees inside paint a brutal and tragic picture.
PNG police entered the centre in the early morning, yelling and assaulting people, including punching men who have serious health problems and beating others with poles to try to force them onto buses. The police also threw rocks at men sitting on the roofs and set fire to people’s meagre possessions.
One man said: “We don’t know if we have a future. These might be the last days of our lives.”
The PNG authorities confiscated every phone they found in a desperate attempt to stop the asylum seekers recording what is happening and telling the world.
Boochani was arrested and released two hour’s later. His reporting has alerted the world to the cruelty of the PNG authorities, supported by the Australian government.
This is the cruel climax of decades of bipartisan cruelty towards people seeking asylum.
Kevin Rudd’s Labor government decided in the lead up to the 2013 federal election that no one who came to Australia by boat would ever be resettled in Australia. Instead, they would be sent to third countries, including Australia’s poor neighbour Papua New Guinea.
The crisis we are seeing on Manus Island is the direct result of that policy.
The peaceful protests by asylum seekers on Manus are beginning to create political difficulties for both major parties. Their resistance and the hardline reaction by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and immigration minister Peter Dutton have prompted many, including 12 Australians of the Year, to call on the Coalition government to change its stance.
Various online polls, including one by Sky News, showed majority support for the men to be evacuated from Manus Island.
But the Australian government’s answer to this crisis is to only evacuate the centre. Shamefully, it is able to get away with its inhumane position because the Labor opposition is not prepared to break significantly with the government.
The Greens are the only parliamentary opposition; the party wants the men to be brought to Australia immediately.
Labor’s lack of principle is allowing the Coalition to ride out this latest crisis. The only difference is Opposition Leader Bill Shorten wants Turnbull to accept New Zealand’s offer to take just 150 refugees from Manus Island. However, when it was last in government, Labor refused the same offer.
The men in the Manus Island detention centre want to be able to apply to be resettled in a UNHCR country, such as New Zealand or Canada. One of them said: “We need the people of Australia to force the parliament to take an urgent decision to finish the tragedy of Manus hell very soon and leave us in the hands of New Zealand.”
This has sparked collaboration between Australian and New Zealander refugee organisations. Activists have begun planning how Australian organisations can help New Zealand cope with taking all 600 men from Manus Island, including raising money to pay for staff.
Turnbull and Dutton have rejected New Zealand’s offer, with the former saying the United States deal to take the men still stands — even though US President Donald Trump derided the plan organised by his predecessor. Even if the US accepted every person, it would take years and many asylum seekers would still be left on Manus Island.
New Zealand could bypass Australia and deal with PNG directly, but it has said it does not want to do this.
If Australia is closing its Manus Island detention centre and claims it is not responsible for the men on Manus Island, why are Turnbull and Dutton stopping the asylum seekers from being offered protection in a UNHCR country?
Both major parties know their cruel boat turn-back policy has not — and will not — stop people from seeking asylum in Australia. They continue to pretend it is effective because this sort of dog whistling fits with the racism they have helped foster.
Labor’s complicity allows the Coalition government to get away with its murderous policies towards asylum seekers.
On November 23, the Victorian Trades and Labour Council tweeted its disapproval of Labor’s cowardly position, saying: “Shame on a government that says votes are more important than human rights violations. Shame on an opposition that provides no opposition. Bring them here and let them stay.
Socialist Alliance is in full solidarity with the refugee rights movement and is adding its weight to the growing demand that all 600 men on Manus Island be brought immediately to Australia, New Zealand or another country where they can find safety and freedom.
We need to build a mass movement that will make it too politically costly for the government to maintain its cruel policy of boat turnbacks and reverse Australia’s anti-refugee policy that ignores the global refugee crisis to which it is contributing.
[Zebedee Parkes is a member of the Socialist Alliance National Executive and is a refugee rights activist.]