Australia maintains detention centre 3,000km offshore

Political parties support detention on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea

It is not widely known in Australia that the government has a centre for the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island, which is almost 3,000km away.

Nor is it generally known that detainees there were on hunger strike recently and that some had sewn their lips together.

The Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea opened in 2001 as part of what became known as the “Pacific solution” to the number of boats carrying asylum seekers. It was officially closed after the Australian Labor Party won power in 2007.

In doing so, prime minister Kevin Rudd fulfilled an election promise to end offshore processing. But Julia Gillard,who took over from Rudd in an internal Labor split, reopened Manus in late 2012 as the number of asylum seekers making their way to Australia by boat increased.

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In its just released World Report 2015, advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticised Australia and Papua New Guinea.

“Asylum seekers on Manus Island deserve better than to be locked up in squalor and at risk of violence,” says HRW director Elaine Pearson.

Overcrowded conditions

“Both Papua New Guinea and Australia are clearly failing in their commitment to provide safe and humane conditions for asylum seekers.

“Facilities on Manus Island are overcrowded and dirty, and asylum claims are not processed in a fair, transparent, or expedient manner, contributing to detainees’ physical and mental health problems.”

Under Australia’s current Liberal-National government, there are 1,044 asylum seekers detained on Manus Island and they have been told they will never be resettled in Australia.

Despite this, the hunger strike has ended, amid allegations that some of the more vocal detainees had bullied others to take part in protests. Papua New Guinean police have detained 58 so-called “agitators” at a provincial jail and in police cells.

Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, says “a degree of force” was used to end the stand-off. “It’s always going to be the case that these issues will arise from time to time [and] you will see flare-ups.”

But Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition says the hunger strike and other protests were ended by “brutality”.

“We saw them turn off the water in Delta compound,” he say. “In Foxtrot compound we saw 50 to 60 security guards went in there and stripped the joint.They pushed people into the gym while they went into all the rooms. They took every blanket, every sheet, every phone, every cable.”

The Australian government keeps a very tight lid on what happens on Manus Island, but information still gets out.

“We’ve managed over the last few months to get a lot more phones into the detention centre, so even as of today we’re still getting photos, we’re still getting information from people who are in the compound,” says Rintoul.

“In Mike compound they did a raid yesterday and confiscated 15 phones, but they haven’t got them all.”

The lack of knowledge in Australia about what is happening on Manus Island is not just a case of out of sight, out of mind, according to barrister and refugee rights advocate Julian Burnside.

Compassion fatigue

“First of all, it’s been going on a long time and compassion fatigue sets in soon enough. Second, the public in Australia have been conditioned to think that these people are criminals.

“By constantly calling them ‘illegals’ since 2001, I think there is a significant number of people who think that they are, in fact, criminals and that we’re being protected from those criminals,” says Burnside.

Rintoul adds that “the government’s determination to keep the mistreatment of asylum seekers a secret,” is a major factor in the public’s seeming lack of interest.

“[This] is why they’ve been so concerned to try and silence the people who have phones or were able to send messages or photos out of Manus Island.”

In limbo

“Desperation” at a lack of answers leads people to protest,

says Rintoul. “Finally [they feel] that’s all they can do, hunger strike or stitch their lips . . .

There is no resettlement arrangement with Papua New Guinea. They’re desperate and in limbo.”

Burnside says the number of federal parliamentary seats concentrated in western Sydney – an area widely seen as anti-boat people, despite being home to a huge number of migrants – means both main political parties will continue to support offshore detention on Manus Island.

“The western suburbs of Sydney have more federal seats than all of South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory combined. You are really looking at the gravitational centre of politics in the western suburbs of Sydney,” says Burnside.

In an example of Australia’s determination to keep the Manus detainees under tight control, the detention centre has just refused a A

$30,000 (€20,592) shipment of

“Freedom” muesli bars because the brand was thought inappropriate to give to asylum seekers who were locked up.