The Manus Island detention centre has long been controversial, alternately supported by the Coalition, Labor or both. With the recent hunger strikes and incidents of self-harm at the centre, Crikey reviews its troubled history.
2001: The immigration detention centre opens on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in 2001 under the John Howard government, as part of the “Pacific Solution”, a hard-line border protection policy introduced in response to the Tampa affair. The policy — which has bipartisan support — involves, among other measures, detaining asylum seekers in offshore processing centres while their refugee status is decided. Boat arrivals are processed on Christmas Island or sent to offshore processing centres at Manus Island or the Pacific Island nation of Nauru.
June 2004: A lone asylum seeker at the centre, Aladdin Sisalem, is granted a visa and arrives in Melbourne. In July his only companion at the centre for the last 10 months he was there, a cat named Honey, is also brought to Melbourne.
February 2008: Filled with promises to end the Pacific Solution, new prime minister Kevin Rudd officially closes the offshore processing centres. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees welcomes the move and promises to carefully monitor the remaining border policy. “This is the end of a long and fairly painful chapter in Australian asylum policy and practice,” UNHCR’s Richard Towle says. Asylum seekers arriving by boat will now be processed at Christmas Island.
August 2011: Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister approves the Gillard government’s proposal to reopen the detention centre. Parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles says that asylum seekers will be treated with respect, regardless of speculative criticism.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison condemns the move. “Once again the prime minister will enter the negotiation on the back foot, holding a blank cheque, with taxpayers set to foot the bill”, Morrison says.
November 2011: The Gillard government reopens the centre, fuelled by public support for tougher treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Immigration minister Chris Bowen announces the first group of asylum seekers in detention will shortly be released on bridging visas.
June 2012: Following the sinking of several boars resulting in many deaths of asylum seekers on the way to Australia, prime minister Julia Gillard appoints an expert panel to create a report “to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives on dangerous boat journeys”.
August 2012: The expert panel, led by former Defence Force chief Angus Houston, releases its findings on the asylum seeker policy, including 22 recommendations. The report is based around the “no advantage” test, meaning those who arrive by boat will not be processed ahead of those who are awaiting a decision in a refugee camp elsewhere. The “no advantage” test is meant to create a deterrent for those considering making the dangerous voyage from Indonesia by boat, but the term is not fully explained.
October 2012: Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill confirms that the country is ready for the arrival of asylum seekers in Manus over the next few weeks. In an interview with ABC Lateline’s John Stewart, Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs predicts the processing facilities on Nauru and Manus Island may reach capacity within a matter of months. “The numbers have simply mounted to the point where it’s very likely that we are going to reach those goals or those capped limits of, let’s say, 2100 in Manus and Nauru, and the government will then have to consider increasing the numbers coming into Australia and processing those asylum claims in Australia,” says Triggs.
February 2013: Asylum seekers are visited by immigration minister Brendan O’Connor and opposition spokesman Scott Morrison during water shortages. O’Conner finds the conditions to be “adequate”, disagreeing with the United Nations refugee agency’s recent report, which states that conditions are “harsh”.
April 2013: A report by the Immigration Department says the temporary accommodation is cramped, posing safety and health risks.
June 2013: Federal Liberal MP Judi Moylan campaigns against detaining children. “I remain stridently opposed to indefinite mandatory detention and the continued detention of children, 2000 of whom are currently in detention under our management. These practices have gone on in our name and will stand as a matter of great shame,” she said.
July 2013: Prime minister Kevin Rudd promises to settle all new asylum seekers who arrive by boat in Papua New Guinea, hoping to discourage people smugglers. The arrangement is set to apply for 12 months before an annual review. “Our expectation … is that this regional resettlement arrangement is implemented, and the message is sent loud and clear back up the pipeline, the number of boats will decline over time”, Rudd says. The Greens label the agreement a “humanitarian disaster waiting to happen”. The Coalition welcomes the deal as a promising initiative.
December 2013: The UNHCR releases a report raising health and legality concerns, claiming every asylum seeker housed on Manus Island is displaying “apparent signs of anxiety and depression”. UNHCR calls for the situation to be reviewed before any more asylum seekers, particularly children, reach Manus Island. “The current policy and practice of detaining children should be terminated as a matter of priority”, Towle says. Human rights organisations continue to express concern over water access, overcrowding, medical services, facilities, hygiene and mental health at the centre.
The Department of Immigration and Citizenship recognises some criticisms of the report but maintains that “all people transferred and accommodated in the Manus Island RPC are being treated with dignity and respect and in accordance with human rights standards”.
February 17, 2014: Some 70 asylum seekers begin to protest against their detention and conditions, and G4S safety and security officers attempt to quell the unrest. The protest briefly draws to a close, erupting again less than an hour later. Tensions are reported at the Oscar compound, shortly before a power outage at Mike compound.
A Papua New Guinean police squad enters the detention centre. Reports indicate the situation becomes extremely violent at this point. Asylum seekers breach the internal fence, and shots are fired. The injured are taken to a makeshift hospital.
February 18, 2014: Immigration minister Scott Morrison holds a press conference announcing that one man has been killed, another man shot and 77 injured, including one in a critical condition. A guard’s eyewitness statement is released, naming Reza Barati as the deceased. The statement says the fence was breached by asylum seekers but that the G4S staff members were able to maintain order without force. Morrison initially denies the entrance of PNG police to the centre. “Their activities related only to dealing with transferees who breached the external perimeter”, Morrison says in a press release.
February 21, 2014: Morrison names the asylum seeker killed as Reza Barati, a 23-year-old Iranian, who arrived at Christmas Island in July 2013 and was transferred to Manus in August 2013.
February 22, 2014: Morrison admits he has now received information that casts doubts on whether Reza Barati was killed outside the centre.
May 27, 2014: The Cornall report into February’s violence at the centre is released. It finds that Barati was beaten by a group of employees and local contractors at the centre before having a rock dropped on his head. Two PNG locals working for the Salvation Army and G4S are later arrested for Barati’s death.
September 2014: Labor calls for a review after another death of an Iranian asylum seeker, Hamid Kehazaei, who contracted a bacterial infection after cutting his foot. A request to fly Kehazaei off Manus Island for treatment was delayed due to a visa concern. Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles says the family needs answers and the review needs to be public. “The Abbott government has a woeful record when it comes to transparency surrounding how it cares for asylum seekers,” Marles says.
In a move to deter asylum seekers from attempting to reach Australian shores by boat Australia reaches an agreement with Cambodia to permanently resettle refugees in the Asian nation. President of Cambodia’s Centre for Human Rights Virak Ou says Australia has placed the protection of refugees in potentially incapable hands. “Cambodia is in no position to take refugees. We are a poor country, the health system is sub-par at most.”
October 2014: An asylum seeker who was injured due to unrest violence at Manus Island detention centre in February writes to the United Nations to plead for proper medical treatment. Australian Human Rights Commission president Triggs reiterates the importance of the duty of care. “When you put people on islands hours away from medical care, you have an even higher duty of care to them than elsewhere because you’ve put them in harm’s way,” Triggs says.
December 2014: A parliamentary legal oversight committee dominated by Greens and Labor senators recommends the government compensate the asylum seekers injured in the February violence. The report outlines the foreseeable nature of the event, stating: “It is clear from evidence presented to the committee that the Australian government failed in its duty to protect asylum seekers including Reza Barati from harm”.
Morrison blames the policies of the previous government: “The Coalition government inherited a centre on Manus Island which was underfunded and incomplete, and resettlement arrangements were little more than a blank sheet of paper. Cost, chaos and tragedy was the order of the day … This is no longer the case under the Coalition government.”
January 13, 2015: More than 100 asylum seekers are on hunger strike as a protest at the Manus Island Detention Centre breaks out, beginning in the Mike compound.
January 14, 2015: Foxtrot, Oscar and Delta detainees follow suit, more than 500 join the strike. Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young says she has grave concerns for the protesters: “As the level of self-harm escalates it is clear that the refugees inside feel they have nothing more to live for”.
January 15, 2015: An asylum seeker swallows a number of razor blades in protest; the scale of the protest continues to rapidly grow.
January 16, 2015: Several asylum seekers collapse after several days without water or food.
January 14, 2015: More than 100 men from Mike compound are under medical care.
January 19, 2015: Reports claim protest leaders have been isolated and that protesters have boarded up areas to prolong the protest. More than 700 have joined the hunger strike, with more than 200 taken for medical treatment. There are 1035 asylum seekers in the centre. Guards force their way into Delta compound, which had previously been barricaded, detaining several men. They then move to Oscar compound, taking more detainees from the centre.
January 20, 2015: The blockade in one compound has ended; over 700 people are still on hunger strike. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton insists that the situation hasn’t turned violent, though authorities have used a “degree of force”. “It didn’t escalate to the point where the police had to present themselves and be in conflict with the people in that centre”, he said. Asylum seekers disagree — with one claiming detainees were “beaten like dogs” by PNG police.