Refugees: Four years of lies, abuses and sparks of resistance

A Bring Them Here rally in Sydney last year

Much has happened in the four years since former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s announcement that no one who sought asylum by boat would ever be given protection in Australia.

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July 19, 2013: Rudd's offshore resettlement announcement

The Rudd government introduced offshore resettlement in PNG and Nauru, with the announcement that no asylum seeker found to be a refugee would be resettled in Australia. The previous year, then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard had re-opened the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres as regional processing centres.

To this day, every person who has come to Australia seeking asylum since July 19 has been denied resettlement in Australia. Many have spent more than three years in offshore detention.

At the time it was dubbed Labor’s “lurch to the right” on refugees and the Liberal opposition struggled to criticise the policy it secretly approved. This prompted former Greens Senator Scott Ludlum to say: “You know it is bad when Labor announces a policy so dismally offensive that even Scott Morrison hadn’t thought of it.”

Thousands of people, including disillusioned Labor members, attended rallies across Australia in some of the largest post-Howard era mobilisations to date.

February 17, 2014: Reza Berati

Reza Berati, a 23 year old Kurdish man was beaten to death during an attack on the Manus Island detention centre by guards and local vigilantes. Two PNG guards have since been convicted of his murder but two accused Australian guards were whisked out of PNG before they could stand trial.

Activists in Australia communicated with people in Manus Island detention centre and revealed Berati’s murder. GetUp! initiated vigils around Australia called #LightTheDark that drew thousands of people to 750 locations across Australia calling for an end to offshore detention and resettlement.

Berati became a symbol of some of the worst aspects of the detention system.

Breathtaking sight at , Sydney.

— Amnesty Australia (@amnestyOz)

August 2014: Hamid Khazaei

Hamid Khazaei, a 24-year-old Iranian man, died from septicaemia in August 2014. It was caused by a small cut on his foot that became worse without treatment as he was forced every day to live among the sewage, flooding, tropical diseases, overcrowding and sweltering heat that is Manus Island detention centre.

He made multiple requests for medical assistance, all of which were denied. He was told there was nothing to worry about by International Health and Medical Services, the private company that had the health contracts for Australia's detention centres.

In an inquest into his death released in April last year, doctors involved in his treatment said repeated calls for him to be immediately evacuated to Australia when his condition worsened were either delayed or ignored. This probably cost him his life.

Medical neglect is a part of the detention system and has resulted in more deaths since Khazaei, such as Faysal Ishak Ahmed, who died in December last year after being denied adequate medical treatment for months.

January 2015: hunger strike

More than 700 asylum seekers on Manus Island went on hunger strike against the conditions in the centre, plans to resettle them in PNG rather than Australia and the time their refugee assessments were taking.

The protest ended after two weeks when guards, wearing riot gear, tore down barricades in Delta compounded and started making arrests and confiscating phones, fans and other personal property.

About 60 men, considered the leaders of the protest were taken to Lorengau jail or held in solitary confinement.

February 2016: #LetThemStay and Baby Asha

The High Court ruled on February 3 that the Australian government could send 267 people in Australia for medical treatment, including 37 babies and 15 women who were allegedly sexually assaulted on Nauru, back to Nauru.

The decision sparked the groundswell #LetThemStay movement across Australia, involving thousands of people from unions, mothers’ groups, churches, bands, high school students, universities, sporting groups, artists and health professionals. This culminated in the vigil outside Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane where health professionals refused to discharge baby Asha if it meant she would be deported to Nauru.

Baby Asha and most of the 267 have still not been deported to Nauru and are currently living in community detention in Australia. It was a rare win for the refugee campaign.

March 20, 2016: Nauru protests

As dozens of community and church organisations joined Palm Sunday Justice for Refugees marches, refugees detained in Nauru detention centre began a protest that would last for hundreds of days.

Through low-resolution photos and shaky video footage, images of the protesters reached the world, despite intimidation from guards and new fences built to keep cameras out. People raised and crossed their arms as they chanted “shut down offshore.” Guards paced in front of them, trying to intimidate them.

The Immigration Department sent the protesters a letter saying they will never make it to Australia.

One hundred and forty-four people, including 50 children and babies, held up pictures of sad faces behind bars and banners that read: “We have been in detention since 1000 days ago” and “Don't stop the boats by processing us to death on Nauru and Manus”.

The protests lasted for 240 consecutive days.

April 26, 2016 PNG Supreme Court decision

The PNG Supreme Court ruled on April 26 that detaining asylum seekers in Manus Island detention centre without charge or trial is in breach of PNG’s constitution. Prime Minister Peter O'Neill asked the Australian government to make alternative arrangements for the asylum seekers held there.

However, immigration minister Peter Dutton refused to move the asylum seekers, claiming the court's decision did not mean the detention centre had to be shut down.

Subsequent court cases have defined the order to shut the centre and now the Australian government is making moves to close the centre. But it is still refusing to bring any of the people currently detained to Australia, leaving them stranded and confused.

One of the men in detention commented on May 13: “The Supreme Court has ruled that we are free. The Prime Minister of PNG has said that we are free. But the truth is that we are still locked up in this concentration camp.”

10 August 2016: The Guardian’s Nauru files

The Guardian released the Nauru Files, a document comprising 2000 incident reports from Nauru detention centre that exposed how the government's detention policy allows children to be assaulted, women to be sexually abused and guards to laugh off a man's suicide attempt.

In the face of the files, both major parties reiterated their support for offshore detention. Dutton said the reports are nothing new and many of the incidents are unconfirmed and might just be made up.

Considering that asylum seekers are concerned that reporting incidents will affect their refugee claims, it is more likely that there are many more incidents that have not been reported.

The release of the files sparked the #BringThemHere campaign, which saw a diverse crowd protesting outside more than 50 politician’s offices within days of the files’ release and thousands more joining protest marches.

November 13, 2016 US refugee deal

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a refugee deal with US President Barak Obama, which gave people on Manus Island and Nauru the opportunity to apply for the US for protection. It would not apply to people coming to Australia in the future to seek asylum.

The deal’s announcement was tinged with military symbolism, statements that it was the largest maritime surveillance operation ever and the tired rhetoric of political point scoring on border security and stopping people smugglers.

It means go and die somewhere else.

As details slowly came out about the deal, combined with Trump winning the US election on an anti-immigration platform, it has become increasingly uncertain how many people will ever be offered protection in US. The US could accept no one after it has finished its screening processes and would still be honouring the deal. As it stands there are more people in Manus Island and Nauru detention centres than the US has agreed to take.

US immigration officials have visited Manus Island and begun the screening process.

April 14, 2017 Shootings, Dutton lies

People inside the Manus Island detention centre were attacked by local vigilantes and navy personal on the evening of Good Friday. They used live ammunition, as was revealed in photos that showed bullet holes in fences, windows and the walls of the rooms in which people were attempting to hide.  

In one live Twitter video a man is speaking rapidly. He gives his name as “Maoud, my ID is GRL11”. He says: “The local guys attacked the camp and they just used the guns, they just shoot the gun. I don’t know what to do…” A gunshot is heard and he appears to duck, before looking up and saying “they just shoot”. Then the video cuts out.

No one was killed, however several people were badly injured. The night was eerily similar to the night Reza Berati was killed. Nothing has changed — if anything it has become worse.

Dutton claimed that refugees led a five-year-old Papua New Guinean boy into the detention centre and this caused distress to locals and led to attack the centre. This has been disproved by everyone involved, from people in the detention centre to the local PNG police commander.