Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is looking like a man holding a bowl of steaming excrement he is trying to pass off as Weet-Bix and warm milk. The decision by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court to rule that Australia’s detention centre on Manus Island is illegal has left him with the toxic legacy of a failed and inhumane policy of offshore detention put in place by his predecessors. Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and even Kevin Rudd before that all thought the out-of-sight-out-of-mind solution of that small island at the north of our former colony of PNG might work as “the solution” to our refugee “problem”. However, it now turns out the people of PNG don’t want this problem dumped on them. Fair enough. No matter how much money we have thrown at them, the Supreme Court of PNG — which we, as a colonial power, established in line with our own system — has turned around and ruled the detention centre on Manus Island illegal and inhumane.
There is a heavy irony here. Manus has been used as a dumping ground for inconvenient human beings by the Australian government since the 1960s, when it detained two West Papuan leaders there as they tried, vainly, to get to New York to protest against the UN-approved takeover of their country by Indonesia. Manus was and is still used as a place of exile by successive Australian governments for inconvenient individuals. With this latest ruling by PNG’s Supreme Court, Australia’s own tropical gulag has been given notice. The 850 people (mostly men) who are still detained there want to come to Australia. They don’t want to live in PNG, nor do they want to live in Cambodia. Successive Australian governments have tried all they could through the hired mercenaries they pay to induce the asylum seekers to go somewhere else, anywhere but Australia. People have died, through self-harm and from the brutality of guards and locals.
It is a place that has long been associated with violence and hopelessness, disease and distress, depression and despair on behalf of those incarcerated by our own government, in our name, with our money, apparently for our own well-being. Now, to their credit the people of Papua New Guinea have said enough. No longer do they feel they need, or want, to continue carrying this human burden, this relic of colonialism. They no longer want their country used as a dumping ground for those unwanted beings washed up on the shore of their wealthy and selfish former colonial overlords to the south.
As Europe struggles to deal with the largest mass movement of refugees since World War II, from the wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia (all conflicts Australia has participated in at the behest of our US and British allies), we in Australia thought we had found a “solution” with our own tropical concentration camp on Manus. Our former prime minister Tony Abbott even went and lectured the Europeans on our way of doing things; by comparison, our problem was minuscule. The numbers of dislocated asylum seekers from wars we supported and fought in that managed to reach our shores paled in comparison with the tide of humanity that continues to seek refuge in Europe. By and large, the countries of Europe have accepted and dealt with the flow of refugees in a humane and decent way — notably Germany, a country torn apart in the aftermath of WWII, which has been most generous in accepting and resettling those displaced. Why is that? Maybe, deep down, they remember what it is like to be bombed, homeless and hungry — or at least their parents do.
In Australia, though, we send them to camps, in places like Manus and Nauru, so inhospitable and punitive they literally start killing themselves. With a kind of heartlessness that would be funny if it were not so tragic, we revile and demonise them. Both sides of politics in Australia are guilty of this. Now, the people of PNG do not want the human detritus of our white wealthy guilt dumped on their country anymore. No matter how much aid money we send them, they have made a decision. It is time for Australia to start standing up to it’s responsibilities as an international citizen. For a country settled by immigrants (who displaced the original inhabitants) we have been shamefully cruel to those who have recently tried to come here and now the people of Papua New Guinea, who we used to rule, have said, basically, get stuffed. Good on them. We deserve it.