Remember Reza Berati and demand protection for asylum seekers

February 7, 2023
A placard remembering Reza Berati
Photo: An image of Reza Berati

The ninth anniversary of the brutal killing of Reza Berati on Manus Island will be on February 17. Berati had just turned 24. The assault was perpetrated by G4S guards, other workers and local vigilantes.

Berati was returning to his room that night after gunshots had been fired into the compound, when he was hit from behind by a local detention centre worker. The weapon used was a length of timber spiked with nails. Berati was hit not just once, but multiple times.

Another worker then dropped a rock on Berati’s head, as he lay injured on the ground. It is reported that Berati was then surrounded by up to 10 men who repeatedly kicked him in the head.

At least 70 other refugees and asylum seekers suffered significant injuries that evening — two losing eyes and another having his throat slashed.

Two local men were convicted of Berati’s murder, while an Australian and a New Zealander who were involved were whisked off Manus Island, never to face trial.

Benham Satah, the main witness, said he had received threats from other guards at the centre and even from the defendants, when in hospital at Lorengau. He was told to withdraw his affidavit or they would do to him what they had done to Berati.

An official interpreter, who witnessed the assaults on February 17, came forward to give her account: she blamed the security group G4S. Speaking out came at the cost of her job with the Australian Department of Immigration.

The corporate media referred to the events of that night as a “riot”. But it was more like an act of retribution against asylum seekers who had been holding daily protests for a month, demanding that their claims be processed.

These protests had been entirely peaceful.

In the six months leading up to the violent attack, tensions had increased at the Manus Island prison. The number of detainees had increased tenfold from 130 in July 2013 to 1340 in February 2014.

The prison had been built to hold 500 people. Refugee activists and authors Behrouz Boochani and Jaivet Ealom, who were incarcerated there, have described these conditions in devastating detail — barbaric, dehumanising, deeply and deliberately punitive.

It is understood that the government knew, or should have known, that there was a high likelihood that tensions would rise and violent protests occur because of the overcrowding.

A Senate inquiry found the violence was “eminently foreseeable” and blamed the events on the delay in processing asylum seeker claims.

In total, 14 people have died in offshore detention from violence, medical inattention and suicide. While we mourn all of them, Berati’s death has become a symbol of the brutality and impunity of the offshore system of imprisoning asylum seekers and refugees. It is deliberately designed to demoralise and break asylum seekers; a punitive system designed to deter others from seeking asylum in this country.

Berati belonged to Iran’s Kurdish ethnic minority that faces an ongoing history of attempted genocide. He was the only one of his family to attend university, where he studied architecture. Berati was described by fellow prisoners on Manus as a learner, a joker and a “gentle giant”.

A former school friend has said that before Berati left Iran, he advised he was going to Australia where life was better and where people’s rights are respected.

Berati was to discover the hard way, along with thousands of others locked up and mistreated, that successive Coalition and Labor governments had fashioned a policy that determined that “rights” will not be afforded to those seeking asylum on our shores.

Boochani described this as “a competition in cruelty”. This model has been used to manipulate the public since the MV Tampa disaster: the refugees and their family members left behind are the real victims of this “populist and sadistic policy”.

The anniversary of Berati’s tragic death should be a time to reflect on the government’s asylum seeker policy.

Has it changed under the newly elected Labor government? Not yet! Labor went to the election last year promising to give permanent protection visas to temporary visa holders. To date, nothing has happened. We hear it is going to happen, but that the situation is “complex” and “takes time”.

The reported 14 deaths in offshore refugee prisons is just a fraction of the lives lost as a result of this punitive policy.

The Monash University Migration and Inclusion Centre keeps a database of Australian Border Deaths. It says there have been 2031 such deaths since January 2020, including those who are missing, as well as those who have not been rescued or recovered and are therefore feared drowned.

Time is not on the side of those seeking refuge or braving the high seas in a desperate search for safety. Action must be swift before more minds are destroyed, futures denied and lives lost.

This government must give permanency to temporary visa holders. It must provide the opportunity for those same people to seek family reunion.  And, while this is not something Labor had the courage to promise, it must shut the offshore prison system once and for all and end the ultimate — and unlawful — cruelty of boat “turn backs”.

[Janet Parker is an activist in the Western Australia Refugee Rights Action Network.]

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