Manus Island crisis becomes an emergency

Refugees and asylum seekers at Australia's processing centre at Manus Island peacefully protesting.
November 17, 2017

Four hundred men are still protesting in the Manus Island detention centre. They are calling for nothing less than their freedom and will not move to another centre on the Island. They have held out since the Australian government shut down the centre and removed services on October 31.

November 15 was the 107th consecutive day of protest on Manus Island since the Australian government announced it would close the centre.

Refugee activists in Australia and organisations across the world have held protests in solidarity with the men in Manus Island. Amnesty International has put out an international call to all its members to take action and activists in Australia have taken direct action by disrupting the Melbourne Cup and climbing the Opera House.

The men on Manus Island sent this message to activists on November 14: “Gratitude from Manus.

“Australian people in Australia and across the world have shown us great love and compassion. You expressed this by conducting large protests and you sent endless calls and emails to your elected leaders.

“I want to say that makes great difference in our lives. It means we aren't forgotten. It rekindles our hope. Thank you for your tireless support.

“Your efforts will end human right [sic] abuse that's done in your name.

“I have never seen people who are more courageous and resilient than you. Please don't give up on us. We love all.”

The men have lived without food since October 31. They began collecting water from a well they dug and set up the gutter system to catch rain water.

PNG authorities then went into the centre and removed the water, turning tanks over and spilling it onto the ground. They also destroyed huts the men had made to provide shelter from the tropical sun.

Some PNG authorities were seen laughing at the destruction and Australian Border Force officials were reported to have been in the background watching as it happened.

The men did not resist, as they want to maintain a peaceful protest. At their daily protest on November 15, 400 men held up empty water bottles.

Some of the men have moved to one of the three alternative accommodation sites on Manus Island. But the sites are still under construction, there are no security fences for protection, no running water, toilets do not work and they do not receive an allowance to help them pay for food and medication.

The men staying there fear attacks by locals. There have been numerous attacks over the past couple of months, including some with machetes. 

Several men have returned to the detention centre from the alternative sites, but others have been stopped by authorities.

The men have been told they must now buy their own medication, as when Australia closed the centre it stopped providing medical care. However, the men do not have the money to buy medication, leaving many in a desperate situation. There are reports the local hospital has refused to treat the men because they cannot pay.

Originally, the men had been promised they would be given an allowance for medication, including medication prescribed by Australian-provided International Health and Medical Services doctors, if they moved to one of the alternative centres. This has not happened.

Many of the men on Manus Island want the Australian government to accept New Zealand’s offer to take 150 refugees, with one man saying: “We Manus detainees highly acclaim the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her constant support and effort to find a durable solution of settlement in New Zealand.”

Many of them demand Australia allow them to be resettled in another UNHCR country, such as New Zealand or Canada.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is reported to have “snubbed” an offer from Ardern at the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on November 15 to discuss a solution to the Manus crisis.

Arden has been vocal about allowing refugees from Manus Island to resettle in New Zealand, saying: “No matter what label you put on it there is harm being done … I see the human face of this and I see the need and the role New Zealand needs to play.”

The UNHCR has called on Australia to accept the offer. But Australia has always refused to allow people in detention in PNG to seek asylum in other countries.

It raises the question: if Australia says it has no responsibility for the men on Manus Island since it has closed the centre, can other countries negotiate directly with PNG? 

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