The Manus Island and Nauru detention centres really are a slow-motion train wreck.
On Manus you have a company running the facility that no longer wants to be running it (as its new Spanish owners are concerned of future claims of human rights abuses against their company) but is being forced to extend it’s contract to run the centres by the Australian government. The company was forced to extend the contract, which is due to expire in February 2017, to October 2017.
You have the nation of PNG that hosts the detention centres — plural, because there are now two (more about that later) — declaring the detention centres’ existence illegal in its Supreme Court. And PNG is now trying to figure out a way to shut down the centres. You have 900 men who refuse to take the only two options being offered them by the Australian government: to resettle in PNG or go back to where they came from. And you have an Australian government maintaining this fiction that at least half of the detainees are genuine refugees and are technically free.
So how does our government try to pass off this fiction? The usual sleight of hand we have come to expect whenever the legality of offshore detention is questioned. Roughly half of the detainees who have been processed have opted to move to the “transit centre” closer to the island’s main town of Lorengau. They are now apparently free to come and go as they please. And as far as the Australian authorities are concerned, these people are no longer their responsibility. But go where? They cannot leave the island. They cannot work. They have little or no money.
So some of the refugees are now allowed out during the day. According to the Australian government that means Manus is now an open facility and they do not need to follow the PNG Supreme Court ruling to close the centres down or take responsibility for those detainees allowed out. When one Pakistani drowned at a local swimming hole last week it revealed how cynical this policy truly is. The Australians refused to pay to repatriate his body to Pakistan. The PNG government said they couldn’t afford it, and anyway it was the Australians’ responsibility — after all, they brought the man to Manus Island. In the end, the Pakistani ambassador in Canberra stepped in and offered to pay to send the body back to Pakistan for burial. It is still in progress. His body is still on Manus.
Meanwhile the international reports condemning the inhumanity of Australia’s treatment of refugees on Manus and Nauru pile up. Today The Guardian Australia released a staggering amount of leaked documents. The release has exposed the years of denials, obfuscation, the restrictions on media and the consistent attempts to keep conditions for those detained on Nauru out of the Australian public domain.
For years the Australian government — in collusion with those contracted by it to run the Nauru centre and the government of Nauru — has conspired to keep these details hidden. There have been condemnations and reports of mistreatment on Nauru from various UN agencies, from organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Save the Children and Amnesty International. The Australian government’s response has been to ridicule, ignore or question the motives of those organisations. These are organisations whose primary focus and reason for existence is the promotion of the basic human rights Australia has been consistently abusing and trying to keep from public view.
Australia has lost an enormous amount of moral capital internationally. Our ability to influence the reduction of human rights abuses in other countries is reduced to almost nil. The release of these detailed official documents is Australia’s equivalent of the Abu Ghraib photos and the revelation of US abuses in Iraq in 2004. Overnight that story changed the way the world viewed the US-led occupation of Iraq, including, and most significantly, among the Iraqis living under that occupation. It vastly increased the support for the insurgency that was to eventually drive the US out of the country. These documents should have the same effect for Australians and their view of what actually happens in our offshore detention centres.
The rapes, sexual assaults, self-harm and casual violence and neglect detailed in those documents and the people (the guards, health workers and other contracted staff) who carried them out leave no doubt of the veracity of the claims. No longer can the Australian claim, as it has in the past, that human rights workers “coached” asylum seekers to make these claims. These documents show the people running the detention centre in Nauru are documenting the same patterns of abuse we have been hearing, despite the Australian government’s best efforts, for years.
How long can this continue? The government of PNG, the people of Manus Island do not want them there. The refugees themselves do not want to be there. The amount of assaults by local residents against detainees now supposedly free demonstrates that the feeling is mutual. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has emphatically said the camps on Manus must close. The Supreme Court is still trying to work out how to do it.
On Nauru, the documents released replicate reports presented to the Australian Parliament by the Australian Human Rights Commission in its 2014 report The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. As you will recall, the president of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, was viciously attacked by the Abbott government, who demanded her resignation after the release of that report.
Ridiculed and derided by then-prime minister Tony Abbott and Attorney-General George Brandis, Triggs refused to resign for saying what has been revealed in the Guardian documents to be exactly the kind of abuse on Nauru that the very people working to run the centres were detailing in their official reports on an almost daily basis.
The jig, as they say, is finally up for the government on treatment of detainees and conditions in Australia’s offshore detention centres. They have tried everything: bribing governments, bribing contractors, enforcing confidentiality clauses on health workers, keeping the media and journalists at bay and away from the facilities and even discrediting and ignoring not only their own Human Rights Commissioner but the UN and any human rights group that criticised them. There is nothing more they can do. The truth is out now and the whole system needs to be dismantled. It is going to collapse anyway. They can’t bullshit their way out of this one.