Festive season brings more refugee cruelty, deaths

January 16, 2017
Manus Island detention centre.

As the people on Manus Island prepared to see in the New Year, drunken immigration officials and police beat up asylum seekers who were then taken into police custody and denied food and medical treatment. PNG politician Ronny Knight responded by tweeting “They deserved what they got”.

Barely a week earlier Faysal Ishak Ahmed, a Somali asylum seeker in Manus Island detention centre, died on Christmas Eve after months of being denied adequate medical treatment.

Meanwhile, bureaucratic hurdles continue to delay a court case that will determine the future of the Manus Island detention centre. The centre was found last year to be in breach of Papua New Guinea's constitution .

And no one is closer to being resettled or given citizenship in the United States. The refugee deal is showing its true colours as a political tool and not a “solution”.

Welcome to the beginning of the fourth year in offshore detention centres for many refugees and asylum seekers. This year also marks 25 years since the policy of mandatory detention was first introduced in 1992.

Refugees beaten, killed

The beatings of asylum seekers came almost three years after Reza Berati’s murder in February 2014. Berati was beaten to death in an attack on the Manus Island detention centre by guards and local vigilantes.

Many hoped these brutal scenes would lead to an end to offshore detention.

Instead, two local PNG guards were convicted for Berati’s murder, each given jail sentences of five years. Some people have spent longer in detention.

An Australian and a New Zealand guard also accused of involvement in the attack were whisked off Manus Island before they could be charged.

No police officer or guard was charged or detained for the assaults on New Year’s Eve. Authorities have claimed it was the refugees who attacked them — photos of the injuries the refugees sustained suggest otherwise.

Later in the same year that Berati was murdered, another murder of a different kind occurred. Hamid Khazaei died from septicaemia that developed from a small cut.

Subsequent reports have squarely laid the blame on numerous requests for medical treatment being denied by the private contractor International Health and Medical Service (IHMS) and approval for an emergency evacuation by Department of Immigration being delayed until it was too late.

Ahmed’s death was also the result of being denied medical treatment for several months, during which he suffered regular blackouts. More than fifty refugees on Manus Island wrote a letter to the Department of Immigration asking them to provide him with access to medical treatment.

Their deaths are separated by almost three years. Three years of countless reports, testimonials and the most tragic of circumstances detailing how the denial of medical treatment is leading to deaths in detention.

Nothing changed.

Their deaths, like the abusive guards, are not a fault in the system but its purpose.

Mounting pressure

While human rights abuses worsen in detention, the pressure to close them is growing. If offshore detention was winning public support, there would be no need to be bandying about the US refugee deal.

A concerted campaign to reveal the human rights abuses in offshore detention centres, coupled with diverse protests since their introduction, is making them increasingly unpopular.

Crucially, refugees in detention are playing a leading role in this movement through their ongoing protests and constant release of photos, videos and social media updates, often going to great personal risk to get information out of detention.

Benham Satah — who witnessed Berati’s murder — faced death threats in the lead up to testifying in court and was refused a transfer request from PNG.

Despite the huge geographical distance between refugees protesting in detention and activists in Australia, people are constantly finding inventive ways of communicating and collaborating.

It is probably for this reason that the Department of Immigration announced in late last year that it is planning to ban mobile phones in detention centres. This needs to be resisted as it would not just be another attack on freedom of speech; it would also remove a critical support network for many people in detention.

As the government continues to trample human rights, more details of its sinister US refugee deal are coming to light.

People in Manus Island detention centre have been told they need to move to the East Lorengau camp, which is outside the detention centre, to apply for a US visa. This would allow the government to close the centre down and leave the several hundred men on Manus Island.

Manus is a small island where many people live off the sustenance of what they can grow and catch. Its medical services — especially psychological care which many refugees desperately need — are limited and stretched. Manus Island does not have the capacity to cope with resettling the refugees there.

By pursuing this plan, the Australian government is fuelling conflict between refugees and locals. This has already led to violence towards refugees.

There is speculation the government is pursuing this path to remove people from the detention centre before the PNG court case is decided. The case has been consistently stalled by moves such as demands that lawyers obtain more than 700 individually signed applications from people in the detention centre before proceeding further.

The refugees involved in the case are hoping the court’s judgement will order that the men in Manus Island detention centre need to be returned to Australia.

This year marks 25 years since the introduction of mandatory detention: a policy that has rapidly become more horrific and is normalising the inhumane.

It is also coming under more public pressure than ever before, as greater numbers are becoming outraged at the cruelty and getting involved in the refugee rights campaign.

This year started off with more cruelty towards refugees. Let’s end it with the camps closed.

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