Two important things were revealed when immigration minister Scott Morrison was finally forced to admit he had been wrong about most of the facts when one man was killed and at least 70 others were injured on Manus Island on February 16.
The first was that asylum seekers who rang and messaged advocates, supporters and friends in Australia in a panic over the outbreak of violence, saying that G4S security guards and angry locals were brutally attacking dozens of people, were telling the truth.
As a result, the story broke across social media sites and personal blogs before any corporate media or government press conferences responded. Members of the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney and the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) in Perth were posting firsthand accounts and witness statements on February 16 and 17.
Brisbane Greens candidate Rachael Jacobs shared a message on the night of the attacks, sent to her by an anonymous worker on the island: “People are going to die tonight … they cleared the ex pats out of the centre. It's just the PNG police and locals beating up our refugees.”
Reports from numerous sources made it clear that G4S-employed locals and others had provoked the violence in response to asylum seekers protesting their indefinite detention. More details of beatings with rocks, repeated gunfire and injuries, including fractures and cuts, rapidly followed. “All of the PNG's locals stand outside with knife and sword and also gun and waiting for us … we are really frightend [sic],” one Iraqi told RRAN.
Subsequent reports from former immigration staff, including interpreter Azita Bokan and migration agent Liz Thompson, have verified almost all of the claims made by asylum seekers on that terrifying night. Further sources have indicated the attack was pre-mediated: “I do think it was quite planned,” a source told New Matilda. “These people were told to go into their rooms if they didn’t want to fight, and that was where they were attacked. [The attackers] cut the power first. They’ve come in and cut the electricity, so they couldn’t see.”
The second thing Morrison revealed by admitting he knew his first statements about what took place were false, is that the government does not care, and will not be held accountable, for the obvious danger asylum seekers are in being locked up on Manus Island.
After Australians learned that a 23-year-old Iranian man, Reza Berati, had died that night on Manus Island, Morrison told reporters he had been killed outside the centre. He went on to say: “I can guarantee their safety when they remain in the centre and act cooperatively”.
That lie soon unravelled; Reza Berati was attacked and killed inside the centre while many other refugees were dragged from their dorms or cornered in the middle of the compound. And it is obvious that Canberra can do nothing to prevent future violence if the detention centre stays operational.
Yet the immigration department told workers to go back to “business as usual”. Guards who were involved in terrorising asylum seekers remained at their post. The contract to run the centre has been handed over from G4S to Transfield, but Transfield has said guards will keep their jobs.
Other disturbing facts about the detention camp include that its operation manager is former Sri Lankan military commander Dinesh Perera, and that migration agents were being told by Australian immigration to lie to asylum seekers about their resettlement chances.
Reza Berati was honoured and remembered by those who knew him as kind and good-natured, and a “low security risk”. Most have said that he didn't take part in the protests or act on the frustrations of indefinite detention like so many of his fellow detainees. He didn't “escape” the detention compound, rather he was the target of vicious one-sided abuse and his violent death is an appalling tragedy.
But those asylum seekers who did protest, who did raise the alarm about the lies they were being told and fears they would be detained forever, were justified and morally right to do so. They are detained in what can only be described as an illegal, arbitrary and inhumane prison camp.
The UN says the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres violate numerous international laws; countless human rights groups have condemned the conditions inside the camps as being physically and psychologically abusive. Medical organisations say that for people who have likely already suffered trauma, long-term detention with no end in sight is a form of further torture that causes irreparable damage.
Those who suffered injuries such as broken hands, slashed throats, gunshot wounds and fractured skulls deserve justice too.
But the fact that the detention camp continues to operate, and that Prime Minister Tony Abbott defended Morrison as not being a “wimp” for his cavalier attitude to the lives of asylum seekers, indicates that this government is beyond reason. Instead of facing the fact that the blood of Reza Berati is on its hands, the government has instead taken this time to brag about the lack of boat arrivals — while asylum seekers continue to be turned back to Indonesia at sea — and begin talks with Cambodia to accept Australia's rejected refugees.
However, the will of Australian activists and campaigners to get to truth out about what's going on inside Manus has so far been able to defy the government's tyrannical secrecy. And the thousands-strong candlelit vigils that took place on February 23 show the tide can turn against Abbott, Morrison and their scapegoating agenda.