Tragedy and resistance: Australia’s refugee story

December 2, 2017

The Manus Island tragedy is the latest in a series of systemic human rights abuses by successive Australian governments in recent decades.

But there is another story: one of courageous resistance in some of the most hostile situations imaginable — a resistance led by several hundred people on Manus Island who are still protesting, still demanding “freedom, nothing less than freedom”.

In the days since PNG authorities brutally broke the blockade in Manus Island detention centre by sending in police armed with metal poles after depriving people of food and water for weeks, a new tragedy is unfolding.

Several hundred men have been forced into one of three alternative accommodation sites. One is called West Haus.

The men moved there have resumed their daily protests, which began in the detention centre months earlier.

In West Haus the men have to wait hours for water and power to be turned on. Dozens of men sleep in a room together, as many of the buildings are still being constructed. People who are very sick have not been able to see a doctor. There is a lack of food and the cost of food is high.

Kurdish refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani reported “the conditions are worse than the old prison camp”.

We have already seen what happens when people are forcibly resettled on a small island — Nauru. On Nauru — so small you can walk around it in one day — dozens of refugee families have faced abuse at school, sexual assault, poverty and inadequate medical facilities.

Every detail of this tragedy has been deliberately orchestrated from the dark, hollow halls of Canberra for maximum suffering and deprivation of hope.

Boochani’s documentary Chauka Please Tell us the Time, which was clandestinely shot in Manus Island detention centre, explores how one of the oldest methods of torture — time — is cruelly and expediently stripped away from people, leaving them with no hope and no reason to live.

Australian of the year in 2010 psychiatrist Professor Patrick McGorry called detention centres “factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder”. Last year, a young man on Nauru, Omar, felt there was no hope left and set himself on fire. He later died.

The choice Australia is offering refugees is indefinite life in detention where all hope is lost, or to accept refoulment to the country they fled, where they face persecution and possibly death.

A small handful may be offered protection in the US, but under the “deal” a majority will not.

The Manus tragedy began in 1992. Then-Labor immigration minister Gerry Hand proclaimed to parliament: “The government is determined that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed in.”

The Labor government amended the Migration Act so that any person who came seeking asylum via boat faced mandatory detention. It was passed amid rhetoric that migrants were coming to Australia to take jobs. It came when the government wanted to subordinate migrant workers and create divisions among workers.

It came when barely 200 people a year were coming to Australia via boat. Each new Labor and Coalition government wrote a new chapter of human rights abuses. It was never about stopping boats but about posturing to spread racism.

John Howard rapidly escalated the implementation of this policy with his “children overboard” lie and “we will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come” speech in the lead up to the 2001 election.

Howard’s racist attacks on people seeking safety and freedom won him that election despite pressure from union and social movements.

People fought back against this cruelty, as they always have. Refugees in onshore desert detention centres protested defiantly, as activists travelled out to them and in one case tore down the fences.

This helped inspire mass actions across Australia, which led to the new Labor government in 2007 closing the offshore processing centres.

As the Opposition under Tony Abbott began ramping up its racist, anti-refugee rhetoric, the Labor government swiftly caved and began re-introducing Howard’s detention system. Children were once again behind barbed wire fences in remote locations.

Former Labor NSW Premier Kristina Keneally said on Q&A in 2011: “I think we as a Labor Party have ceded the ground on asylum seekers and this debate to the conservatives for far too long.”

In 2013, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd introduced the PNG and Nauru solutions — where no one who arrived by boat would ever be offered resettlement in Australia — putting in motion the policy that has led to the inhumane and untenable situation we have today.

Labor’s fear of a racist voter backlash has allowed refugee policy to shift dramatically and rapidly to the right. Their silence allowed Operation Sovereign Borders and the turning back of people seeking asylum to countries where they face persecution.

Their silence today allows Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and immigration minister Peter Dutton to escape responsibility for the deaths of refugees on Manus Island.

It has led to a super ministry being created around the immigration minister that incorporates intelligence, immigration, defence and police departments. Dutton can now play god over people’s lives with extra-judicial powers.

While politicians in Canberra continue to write new chapters of cruelty, people on the streets are constructing a different narrative — one of hope and resistance.

From thousands taking to the streets, to scaling the Sydney Opera House and disrupting the Melbourne Cup, to church leaders chaining themselves to Kirribilli House in protest, ordinary people are saying no to cruelty and demanding the government bring them here.

The government is feeling the pressure — the nationwide attacks and intimidation against refugee activists by police is proof. People have been beaten bloody at demonstrations, strip-searched for no reason, had police come to their houses, faced hundreds of riot police at rallies and been hit with extreme bail conditions including anti-association laws.

It is doubly important to keep protesting in the face of this intimidation. 

Beyond this, the messages of gratitude that keep being sent from people on Manus Island and Nauru show why we must keep fighting for justice for refugees. Protesting is keeping hope alive and doing so defies this government’s cruel policy.

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