Many people suffering in Manus Island and Nauru detention centres are struggling to find hope that their situation will change. One such person is Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist who fled Iran and has become well known for his writings about life in the Manus Island detention centre.
In a conversation on Facebook he said: “After four years we got disappointed with Australian political parties and the rallies to change the policy. I can say that people in Manus feel that they are out of sight and out of mind and I think they are right because nothing change after four years.”
Manus Island detention centre was opened by Labor in 2013 and many of the people inside are now into their fourth year of detention. They are facing increasing uncertainty that they will ever be released.
This has been compounded by the PNG Supreme Court ruling almost a year ago that the detention centre must close. Yet it still functions.
Then there was the announcement of the US refugee deal — which may see no one resettled in the US.
Behrouz describes this situation as mental torture. “They are playing with our minds with fake news and rumours every day. They have made us tired by [the] uncertainty [of the] situation and news.
“They are threatening and humiliating people in different kind of ways. We have to stay in a long line for each meal. The officers search our bodies, the system calls us by number. It is a big humiliation.”
Recently, immigration officials set up a food serving area that forces people to queue up in long lines for food, which they receive through a small window that is too high for some people to reach. It gives immigration officials more power to deny people access to food.
Manus Island detention centre has been condemned for its human rights abuses by international organisations ranging from Amnesty to the New York Times.
Two crimes against humanity stand out: the deaths of Reza Berati and Hamid Kehazaei.
Berati was murdered when detention centre guards attacked asylum seekers and refugees inside the centre. They kicked Berati in the head while he was on the ground, before someone smashed his head with a large rock.
Kehazaei was murdered by the system. He suffered a small cut to his foot and was consistently denied medical attention as it became more and more infected. Eventually he died from septicaemia. Subsequent medical reports said if he had been given adequate and timely medical aid he would have survived.
Now the Australian government is ramping up the pressure on people in Manus to accept being deported to the countries from which they fled.
After four years of torture and no hope of ever being free, Australian Border Force officers are reportedly telling people: “You don't have any choice. Sign and we will give you $US25000, or we will deport you just like we deported your friend.”
Behrouz said in one of his regular Facebook posts on March 30: “Six Lebanese guys went back to Lebanon 'voluntarily', but actually it was not voluntarily because they were under such pressure for a long time and only signed to go back under this pressure.”
Asked how people are managing to resist and survive in Manus Island detention centre, Behrouz said: “It’s hard to explain how people are resisting in this prison. People try to survive in this prison in any way they can.
“Some people are doing artistic works, some are in touch with their families, some are seriously damaged and are wasting time in the medical clinic. This prison is the same as other prisons and people just do some simple thing to survive, although a lot of people are broken in this cruel prison.”
This is the result of Australia’s policy of mandatory detention, which is now in its 25th year. It has never been about saving lives at sea or finding solutions to the global refugee crisis. There are now more than 20 million refugees globally. Australia takes about 10,000 a year.
In 2015, the UNHCR global trends reports showed Lebanon, Jordan and Ethiopia received more than two million refugees between them. Even when they could still come via boat to seek asylum in Australia, about 20,000 asylum seekers was the highest you would see in a year.
At its inception in 1992, then Labor immigration minister Gerry Hand told 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.”
Barely 200 people a year were coming to Australia on boats. The changes to the Migration Act to make detention mandatory came amid the rhetoric that migrants were coming to Australia to take away people’s jobs. The government wanted to keep migrants subordinated, create a scapegoat and sow divisions between workers.
Since then, successive Coalition and Labor governments have destroyed the lives of refugees as they erode welfare rights, free education and workers rights, among other attacks on society.
It is now more important than ever that we unite and build social struggles to make mandatory detention too politically costly for the government to sustain if we are too have any hope of building a more just, humane world.