The crisis is deepening on Manus Island. The 600 men remaining at the former regional processing centre compound are being starved out, deprived of medical aid and having fences taken down around them as Green Left Weekly goes to print. Notices have been posted at the centre saying that if the men do not vacate, they will be removed by force.
The men are being told they must either relocate to “transit centres” at Hillside Haus, and East and West Lorengau, to Nauru, to the US or return to the danger they fled.
The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has condemned the transit centres as inadequate, unfinished and having no security.
Even if they are made suitable, relocation will not resolve the situation. In fact, it could well escalate things, especially if the men are subject to attack – the very real fear which has driven them to remain inside the detention centre.
It also will not change the fact that they remain prisoners of the Australian government and continue to suffer human rights abuses at the hands of immigration minister Peter Dutton and his underlings.
And it will not change the fact that the Australian government cannot shirk its international responsibility to provide these men with care and protection.
There has been an overwhelming response to the crisis from everyday people, with thousands of dollars having been donated to provide food and phone credit. Volunteer doctors are providing assistance and advice to the men by phone.
Local Manusians have risked arrest to get supplies to the men.
Activists across Australia are maintaining constant contact with the men via social media and other means, providing moral support and helping to get the word out about the reality on Manus. They are providing an essential counter to the government’s lies.
Emergency protests have been held across the country – and are likely to continue – demanding that the government restore food and water and evacuate the men to safety.
Teachers took action in support of the men by wearing “Teachers for Refugees” T-shirts and badges at school and protesting at the Department of Immigration in Melbourne.
Activists have dropped protest banners in spectacular style: from a crane above Flemington Racecourse on Melbourne Cup day; suspended above foreign minister Julie Bishop’s office; and by scaling the Sydney Opera House.
Activists in Brisbane have launched a protest vigil outside Dutton’s electoral office and in Melbourne, a blockade has been launched outside the offices of Border Force.
The Mayor of Indigo Shire in Victoria’s border region has offered to resettle the men and has called on other mayors to do the same.
The ACT government has offered to be part of a national program of resettlement for refugees and asylum seekers from Manus and Nauru and the Australian Refugee Action Network (ARAN) has launched a call for individuals and organisations to declare they are willing to take in the men from Manus.
By contrast, all Labor - our so-called parliamentary “opposition” – has done is urge the prime minister to accept New Zealand’s offer to take 150 of the men. Meanwhile, Labor spokesperson on immigration and border protection Shayne Neumann has reaffirmed that "Australia is not, and must not be, a resettlement option", thereby continuing Labor’s shameful, bipartisan support for mandatory offshore detention.
A number of trade unions have been vocal and active in support of refugees and against mandatory detention, but others have remained silent or put their loyalty to Labor above principle on this issue.
The events of the 2015 national Labor conference, which led the Maritime Union of Australia and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union to vote in support of Labor leader Bill Shorten’s policy of boat turnbacks, were dark days for the union movement.
The union movement now has an opportunity to put those days behind it and step up to force the government to act.
It is a welcome step that the Victorian Trades Hall Council released a statement on November 9, calling on the government to ensure food and water access to the men, to take up New Zealand’s offer to take 150 men, and to evacuate the remaining men from Manus Island and find them safe homes.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions and other unions need to follow suit – not just with words, but with action.
Geelong Trades Hall, under the leadership of its former secretary Tim Gooden – a member of the Socialist Alliance - was instrumental in establishing Geelong’s Combined Refugee Action Group (CRAG).
During the campaign to save Baby Asha in Brisbane in 2015, the Queensland Council of Unions got behind the vigil at Lady Cilento Hospital to support medical staff who refused to let Baby Asha and her mother be sent back to Nauru.
If we are going to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe on Manus, the campaign will need to broaden out and escalate. There are positive signs of this already. Let’s keep up the pressure until the refugees are brought to Australia.
[Susan Price is a refugee rights activist in Sydney and a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]