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Feb 18, 2014

Death on Manus Island: the govt is offshoring the accountability

The government lost control of the Manus Island detention centre, and people are dead and seriously injured as a result. There must be full transparency in establishing what happened on our watch there.

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What happened last night on Manus Island? One thing is clear: the government lost control of the detention centre, which was re-established by the Rudd government and maintained by the Abbott government. As a result, one person is dead, another is critically injured and 13 others are seriously injured. Dozens more were taken to hospital.

Whether the death and injuries were the result of rioting and escape attempts by asylum seekers or, as refugee advocates claim, the result of assaults by Papua New Guinea police and locals, isn’t yet clear. Refugee advocates have a history of overstating claims of abuse in detention centres. But the allegations made — that PNG police have been involved in unprovoked attacks on asylum seekers — are extraordinarily serious.

The following, from yesterday, was provided to Crikey from a source on the island:

“The PNG police have just entered the compound on Manus Island with machine guns. A client called me, and I heard machine gun shots. People are going to die tonight. There’s nothing on the media because they cleared the expats out of the centre. It’s just the PNG police and locals beating up our refugees. I called a refugee activist, but there’s not much I can do. I’ll probably lose my job for leaking info.”

The rationale for Australia’s offshore detention and resettlement policy — and in particular, the use of Papua New Guinea as both a temporary and permanent destination for asylum seekers arriving by boat — is that it deters people from undertaking the risky maritime journey to Australia, which regularly results in drownings. Thus far it appears to have worked — since the Rudd government signed its agreement with PNG that re-established Manus Island, boat arrivals have fallen precipitately; the extent to which the Abbott government’s policy of surreptitiously sending asylum seekers back to Indonesia while our navy risks unauthorised entry into Indonesian waters has contributed to the decline remains open to debate.

But even putting aside that Australia has a duty of care toward those it detains, once people begin dying and being seriously injured while in our custody, that undermines this bipartisan policy rationale of seeking to prevent deaths.

The Coalition professes to be concerned about the welfare of asylum seekers. When then-prime minister Julia Gillard announced the government’s asylum seeker swap deal with Malaysia, the Coalition opposed it on the basis that the rights of asylum seekers were at risk. Then-opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison mounted his high horse to complain that asylum seekers would have no work rights or access to education, that the Malaysian government would not protect their human rights. Tony Abbott was later forced to make a humiliating apology for these claims to the Malaysian government when he became PM.

Whatever might have happened in Malaysia, it doesn’t appear comparable to what has occurred on our watch on Manus Island. Morrison, who was so concerned about asylum seekers being caned in Malaysia, readily notes the high levels of violence outside the Manus Island detention centre should asylum seekers try to escape detention.

And judging by his media conference this morning, Morrison is already seeking to use the location of Manus Island — on PNG soil — to deflect responsibility. This is an intended consequence of offshoring — the diffusion of responsibility when things go wrong, making accountability and investigation that much more difficult. This is what governments of all kinds now do: they outsource, offshore and delegate responsibility to other agencies, to the private sector, to other countries (in the case of asylum seekers, all three), enabling them to duck responsibility and redirect scrutiny.

Overlaid on this is the Abbott government’s refusal to provide even basic information about its treatment of asylum seekers, with the absurd excuse that we are engaged in some sort of war that justifies national security-style secrecy. Moreover, it lashes out in confected fury at media scrutiny, claiming the ABC was unpatriotic in reporting allegations of abuse by Royal Australia Navy personnel — although curiously, the likes of Coalition frontbenchers Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop didn’t demand an apology from Fairfax or Reuters when those outlets followed up those allegations with additional evidence.

Allegations of physical abuse are one thing; now, an asylum seeker is dead because of our detention policies, and others severely injured. A transparent inquiry into the circumstances in which these injuries occurred is critical both in terms of providing accountability and to assure Australians that, together, the Labor Party and the Coalition haven’t offshored the issue of asylum seekers into exactly the kind of violent world so many of them are fleeing.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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