The report into the death of Reza Barati is only a partial one, but it reflects poorly on Scott Morrison’s efforts to spin the tragedy.
Bound in a flimsy plastic spine, unadorned, barely 100 pages long, the physical document Review into the events of 16-18 February 2014 at the Manus Regional Processing Centre by Robert Cornall isn’t much to look at. The content isn’t much better, but what is in there reveals much about Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, as well as events that led to the death of Reza Berati and serious injuries to a number of asylum seekers.
Cornall, ostensibly picked to provide an “independent” perspective, is a former head of the Attorney-General’s Department under Philip Ruddock and a loyal functionary of the national security establishment; that is, he could be relied on not to stray beyond the narrow terms of reference laid down by government. The result is a peculiar report in which evidence from key participants in the events on Manus Island is absent. The PNG police, whose entry into the centre played a critical part in the immediate circumstances leading to Berati’s death, had no input into the report; nor, seemingly, did the Department of Immigration, which while it provided officers to assist Cornall (making a mockery of the report’s independence), declined to make a submission to Cornall, beyond a written briefing on refugee status determination and resettlement processes.
Nonetheless, the report, which relies heavily on direct interviews with asylum seekers on the island and feedback provided by them, illustrates a circle of rising tension in the facility that security provider G4S was aware of, and which it warned needed to be addressed. In particular, it details the resentment about being sent to Papua New Guinea on the part of asylum seekers, the lack of information provided to them on their futures and the aggression and outright racism of a number of Iranian asylum seekers, directed toward asylum seekers from other countries — particularly if they refused to join in protests — and, most of all, toward local Papua New Guinean staff, whom they derided as savages.
In turn, locals, who were already hostile to the mere presence of the facility, made clear what they would do if they were able to get their hands on asylum seekers, many of whom became worried about their incapacity to defend themselves if there was a clash.
In the end, their fears were justifed after G4S lost control of the camp on the night of 17 February and PNG police entered the Mike compound, as detainees were set upon, often inside their rooms, beaten and robbed, regardless of their role in protests or escape attempts. Berati was, according to an eyewitness, struck down while fleeing pursuers up the stairs toward his accommodation, then repeatedly kicked by his pursuers — a mixture of PNG locals, PNG employees of G4S and Australian expatriates — before a large rock was used by a local employee of the Salvation Army to crush his skull.
“… the report demonstrates how wildly and shamefully wrong Morrison was in his initial claims about the events on Manus.”
Based on the report, it’s only a matter of luck that the death toll wasn’t considerably higher: the previous night, an asylum seeker who had escaped had his throat slit after he was returned to custody, while Cornall observed several bullet holes at chest height in the centre — despite G4S urging the PNG police not to use firearms.
Most obviously, the report demonstrates how wildly and shamefully wrong Morrison was in his initial claims about the events on Manus. He initially claimed about Berati that “people decided to protest in a very violent way and to take themselves outside the centre and place themselves at great risk”, in effect blaming Berati for his fate, a claim it took several days for him to admit was false. He claimed “there were no PNG police inside the centre last night” the day after. He said about detainees “I can guarantee their safety when they remain in the centre and act cooperatively with those who are trying to provide them with support and accommodation” less than 24 hours after peaceful detainees had been hunted down in their rooms and attacked and robbed.
And in parliament a week later, Morrison sought to extend the blame to Labor, saying the Cornall report would “go into the performance of the service contractors that those opposite contracted. It will go into the security arrangements that were put in place and left to the opposition when we formed government … I know those opposite will be concerned about the specifications and arrangements they put in place in Manus Island.”
Cornall entirely discredits Morrison’s argument that Labor’s arrangements played a role in what happened in February. He discusses how the role of Manus Island changed after the July 2013 resettlement deal between then-prime minister Rudd and PNG’s Peter O’Neill, that the centre was rapidly expanded, but that the caretaker period for last year’s election halted further work, such as funding allocation for more security, until the new government was sworn in.
Indeed, the person responsible for the overall security assessment of Manus Island is the sainted general Angus Campbell, who according to Cornall, conducted a “Force Security Review” in October 2012. “The government accepted the Task Force’s assessment and allocated funding to meet its recommendations. The Task Force provides monthly risk remediation updates covering the security risks.”
The problem is, as the potential for violence increased and security provider G4S became increasingly concerned after Australia Day this year, its concerns weren’t fully addressed. G4S “accurately predicted severe protests and violence around 16, 17 and 18 February”, Cornall found, and had “raised its concern about the high risks involved in accommodating up to 1400 single adult males in a low-security, temporary centre with the department on a number of occasions in the months preceding the incidents …”
The department, Cornall said, responded to G4S’s requests for more guards, but rejected its recommendation that there be significantly better communication about the fate of asylum seekers in PNG, the issue that proved to be the flashpoint for the violence. However, the department initially refused to meet with detainees on the basis that this would be “negotiating” with them. A meeting to communicate resettlement information to detainees was only called by the department on 5 February, and it was disastrously handled.
Morrison hasn’t finished yet with not telling the truth about what happened. In yesterday’s media conference, he made a point of saying media reports in Australia had helped stir up detainees at the centre, as though Australian journalists had some culpability in what happened. The only support Cornall lends to this claim is G4S’s January security report, that says
“The media attention given to the release of the UNHCR and Amnesty International reports (both prior to and post the reports’ official release) gave further weight to a potential change [in Australian policy, or the prospects of amnesty].”
In the end, however, Cornall’s report is partial and far from comprehensive. We don’t know the exact circumstances in which PNG police entered Mike compound, whether they tried to prevent locals, whether employed in the centre or not, from attacking detainees, or why they were shooting at a level evidently designed to hit people. We don’t know what assessment the department made about security concerns versus “negotiating” with detainees.
Most of all, the report ignores the broader question of whether it’s viable to run a facility the entire purpose of which is to house people indefinitely while their fate remains deliberately unresolved.