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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.

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.

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32 comments

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32 thoughts on “Death on Manus Island: the govt is offshoring the accountability

  1. Wynn

    I’d just like some links or context for the statement that refugee advocates have “a history of overstating claims of abuse in detention centres”. For the most part, I’m not sure how anyone can be sure of this, for the very reasons stated in the article.

    This whole situation is horrifying, and our prospects of seeing the transparency the piece calls for seem to be nil.

  2. The Pedanticist

    The philosophy of outsourcing is to pay to transfer risk. This but serves to divorce the moral aspect from the operational aspect.

  3. rhwombat

    The veneer is cracking, and the ghastly truth shows through. The Navy went into Indonesian waters on Morrison’s orders, only for Morrison to accuse them of not following ‘policy’. Nobody but Toady’s minders, Rupert’s lackeys and the Menzies House kiddies believe the official story of the burnt hands of asylum seekers. There aren’t enough bread or circuses to distract from the immolation of our national reputation wrought by the Plutocrat’s Party.

    Meanwhile, Furnival has left another stinking corpse behind Credlin’s arras – this time with Big Alcohol’s prints on it, rather than Big Food, but theres little to distinguish their business models, or their methods. Wonder whether we’ll hear anything about this from any Newscorpse ‘journalist’?

  4. drmick

    Wonder if the “politician of the year” can figure out who the baddies and the goodies are in this one? He as used everyone but the army to get his political will, so maybe they will be called in to protect our border and “mop up” in Manus? if it looks like , smells like and the AFP “raid” a TV Station And lawyers office; it is definitely fascism. Who voted for that?

  5. Steve777

    We can’t ‘offshore’ responsibility.

  6. klewso

    This government is outsourcing responsibility and accountability on everything.

  7. MJPC

    The USSR had Siberia, Australia has Manus Island for its gulags.
    Remove all copies of “The Great Escape” from the camp library now!

  8. Electric Lardyland

    One thing that seems to have gone missing in the last few months of reporting on the new detention regime, is this: detainees at Manus Island are supposed to be processed and then resettled in PNG; is this happening at all? While I often reach for the remote, as soon I hear Abbott or Morrison mouthing platitudes about Operation Sovereign Borders, I don’t think I have heard any reports of refugees being settled in mainland PNG. Has this actually been happening, and if so, have any of these people been asked what they think of this arrangement? Or have asylum seekers just been festering in Manus; getting incrementally more desperate and inexorably angrier?

  9. Matt Hardin

    Perhaps a Royal Commission? After all, one was announced into the whole union movement for much less.

  10. zut alors

    I’m also curious about the line on refugee advocates overstating claims of abuse. Says who? Any proof?

    And while we have this ugly & inhumane distraction Toady & Co are about to appoint Lord Downer to the plum job as High Commissioner in the UK. Hardly a day passes when I’m not left in some degree of dismay by this government.

    Not that Rudd/Gillard were any better in extending solace to desperate refugees.

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