The consequences of the inhumane policies by successive Coalition and Labor governments to make life as unbearable as possible for asylum seekers are unfolding on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
One person was killed on Manus Island overnight on February 18 and at least 77 others were injured in violent attacks by guards and locals. This came after weeks of sustained peaceful protests, which turned chaotic when detainees were reportedly told they would not be resettled in PNG. Instead, they could remain indefinitely detained on the isolated Pacific island even after having their refugee claims accepted.
The former federal Labor government reintroduced offshore refugee detention on Manus Island in 2012 in a bid to outdo the Coalition's extreme policies. At the time, asylum seekers were told they would be resettled in Papua New Guinea.
Once Prime Minister Tony Abbott and immigration minister Scott Morrison took office, they took the opportunity Labor provided and began dumping hundreds of asylum seekers in the former military barracks on the island. Asylum seekers were forced to live in tents, managed by private contractors — a cruel and prison-like regime, according to a December Amnesty International report.
Now the consequences of Labor's and the Coalition's collective efforts to create the worst conditions for refugees — part of whipping up and playing to racist sentiments as a distraction from problems caused by their neoliberal policies — are unfolding on Manus Island.
Asylum seekers had been protesting their situation for weeks. The Refugee Action Coalition said on February 16 that refugees had been holding protests throughout that day, until asylum seekers were told at a 2pm meeting to address questions about their protection claims that they would not be resettled in PNG. Morrison has denied this.
However, RAC said: “Around 4pm Manus Island time, events escalated and the G4S riot squad went into Oscar compound. A couple of hours later, fences were knocked down and the whole detention centre was locked down as the protests spread to all the compounds. There were reports of a fire being set in one compound and tents have been destroyed.
“It seems the perimeter fence of one compound, perhaps Oscar, has now been breached and a major protest is under way.”
On February 17, refugee advocates in Australia received frantic messages from Manus detainees. They said police and private G4S security guards were armed with machine guns and attacking them, letting off gunfire. They described the area as a “battleground”. Many refugees reportedly suffered injuries from head wounds to broken hands.
Then it was reported that locals armed with machetes, knives and guns began attacking asylum seekers as they fled the compound. Some reports said locals were breaching the fences themselves. Refugees were making last-minute phone calls and sending messages to Australia, saying they feared they would be killed during the night.
The first death reported was a 24-year-old Faili Kurd from Iran, who suffered a head injury and died on the way to the hospital. Morrison said he was attacked outside the compound.
Most staff had withdrawn from the centre and asylum seekers requested media visit the centre to protect them. They said G4S security guards told them that if locals attacked, they would withdraw from the area.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said asylum seekers were fleeing for their lives, some hiding in the jungle. It said: “[There are] reports of dozens of asylum seekers being seriously injured including attacks with machetes.”
By the time Morrison fronted a press conference on February 18, further reported injuries included one gunshot wound and an asylum seeker in a critical condition with a “basal skull fracture”.
Azita Bokan, an interpreter who had worked at the camp for a week and witnessed many of the injured, told Fairfax: “There was blood everywhere. The number injured was horrific: people with massive head injuries, at least one with a slashed throat.”
She verified the early reports that guards and local people provoked the violence, and said refugees had been defending themselves with plastic chairs: “Definitely, 100 per cent, I stand by the statement that the local people, including some employed by [security contractor] G4S, they were the ones who caused this drama.”
RAC spokesperson Ian Rintoul said: “Broken hands and baton injuries indicate a use of force last night out of all proportion. One asylum seeker has 70 stitches in his head.”
Morrison said 77 people were being treated for injuries sustained during the attacks. He blamed refugees for initiating the protests, saying that by doing so, “people decided to … place themselves at great risk”.
However, locals have been resentful of the detention camp since it was opened. Asylum seekers, for their part, have suffered months of uncertainty in unbearable conditions. This created conditions for such violent clashes. The only way to ensure no further violence or tragic deaths is to return all asylum seekers to Australia, which is ultimately responsible for their protection.
But Morrison continues to put more lives at risk. He told the media on the morning of February 18 “the centre [would] resume normal operations”. He has so far refused calls for an independent investigation into the crisis.
Stop Abbott and Morrison's war on refugees
Close Manus Island and Nauru | No boat turn backs | Permanent not temporary visas
Saturday 22 February
Meet at Circular Quay Wharf 3 to take 11am Manly ferry
or meet 12pm Manly Park to march to Tony Abbott's office.
Fri, February 21, 12.30pm at State Library.
Canberra candle-lit vigil
Sat Feb 22, 7:30pm
Garema Place, Canberra in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory