Manus Island

For the last five years, the Australian government has been courting disaster in the Manus Island detention camps, and the wider zone of influence on the island. There has already been violent death, negligent death, sexual abuse and institutional violence in the system. Those were bad enough; a larger, more tragic event, an atrocity, has been avoided. The government now seems intent on creating one, under the cover of a supposedly humanitarian transition in the system.

Close to a year and a half ago, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that the detention of asylum seekers at the “Foxtrot” camp was illegal under PNG law, and that the government had had no right to make a deal with Australia, dependent on such detention. This was a cause for hope for the detainees and their supporters.

Hope triumphing over bitter experience, as it turned out. In response to the court’s ruling, which should have had the detainees brought to Australian soil, they have been forced out of the camp itself, into either a more open transit centre in another part of the island or into the general Manus Island community. Confusion reigns; the Foxtrot inmates are being passed from limbo into purgatory.

The move leaves them without one thing the Foxtrot regime did provide, a barrier of sorts, in an island society with a certain amount of violence. Now the Foxtrot prisoners are exposed to it, violence both opportunistic and with deeper roots, leaving them with very little security at all.

You can’t help but marvel at the evil intent of this. By obeying the letter of law as regards the PNG court ruling, it has acted against its spirit, which had a view to the men’s (the prisoners are all male) human rights. It’s of a piece with the sleazy amoralism that has become the standard operational procedure of offshore detention over recent years. Inside the centre, they faced brutal treatment from some guards (some of whom have hard-right, anti-immigrant politics), intra-detainee violence and sexual abuse, bad food, poor medical treatment or none at all, boredom and despair.

[Rundle: the tortured moral philosophy of offshore detention]

Outside, they face a populace for whom the camp is simply an alien colonial imposition, only some of whom need to be hostile for them to be in a very dangerous situation indeed. Those who are refusing to leave Foxtrot, and a secondary camp, “Mike”, they were decanted to, have been threatened with a police raid to throw them out. Cruelty, suffering and absurdity, which were once expected byproducts of the regime, have now become their core intent, as a deterrent to others.

But I wonder if the Turnbull government really understands just how dangerous is the situation it is creating in Manus. Hundreds of men have been plonked down in the middle of PNG society, as if they had been put in Glen Waverley or Parramatta or some such, zones of arrival and departure, and public physical space, which is substantially anonymous.

That is not PNG, and anyone with the knowledge necessary to running such a policy should be aware of this. PNG is a modern state ruling over a set of small and distinct societies that remain held together by kinship and claim on place. The state itself is a post-colonial creation from two colonial possessions stitched together; the writ of nationhood barely runs on its mainland, let alone the outlying islands yoked into it, after hundreds or thousands of years of separate existence.

So quite aside from the resentment any society would feel at having a prison camp put down in its midst, there is the specific question of the Foxtrot inmates being put in a place where cannot simply “be”, without being in relation to other groups. The Foxtrot inmates have been put in a society where mutual obligations and regard can be expressed by either reciprocal exchange, or by expressive violence against a collective entity.

This would explain the reported robbery and assault on an Iranian asylum seeker who was cut with a machete by his attackers in a way that appeared, to witnesses, to be intended to have him bleed to death. There seems no doubt that the account is true, and that the violence went far beyond that required to rob the man. Trying to bleed someone out has pretty well-known connotations in this context.

The situation is exacerbated by the possible imbalance between cash-poor locals and the Foxtrot ex-inhabitants, who may get cash-transfer payments. The gender imbalance created by the men’s presence in the region, relationships between the men and some of the local women, and criminal acts by some of the men themselves, have all created a microcosm of 21st-century imperialism.

To all these triggers, add the grand absurdity of all; they are now owed more than $71 million by the Australian government, as compensation for violating their human rights, by exactly the process that keeps them there, surrounded by very poor people who do not want them.

Kevin Rudd has been tweeting furiously, trying to distance himself from the PNG “solution” as it exists now. But he has no excuse. He’s a smart man, well-educated in the humanities. He knows that PNG is something other than Extremely North Brisbane, that it’s not a place people can simply be “settled” in — that the mix of traditional mores, with the traumatic impact of colonisation, and its revival with this new recolonisation, is a recipe for disaster.

But the mooks in the Turnbull government? This is a bunch of law/commerce grads who think the whole world wants nothing more than to put on a cashmere sweater of a Sunday morning, go to brunch, and come back in the Prius, singing along to No Jacket Required. They know fuck all about anything, and I suspect they genuinely do not understand what they have wrought. I’m not trying to let the Turnbull government off the hook here. Many of them have a racist indifference to anyone with brown skin, and without such disdain, the offshore detention system could not function. But, for political self-interest as much as anything, I presume they do not want the situation to deteriorate further.

[Rundle: refugee suicide by fire our new eternal, nihilistic flame]

Yet the least that the ex-Foxtrot inmates face, rehoused in the town, is continued harassment and petty crime. The worst they face is a spiral of affront taken, and collective payback, which quickly spirals into a very bad situation indeed. Anything is now possible. The situation has been underplayed because, with all the structural and procedural violence the Australian state is applying to the Manus Island prisoners, it seems unfair to focus on the threats arising from PNG people, who have also been used and abused by the process. But of course putting them in that situation is part of the process, a double jeopardy.

It will be October before interview for resettlement in the US, as part of the Turnbull-Obama deal, recommence. And Trump and the Republicans are so opposed to that deal that the chances of it being discontinued are high. In the meantime, the strategy appears to be to allow the ex-Foxtrot inmates to be so terrorised in daily life that they voluntarily return to the countries they left.

Above all, the intent is political, always political. It’s to try and jam up those campaigning for the abolition of offshore detention altogether: well you wanted ’em released, now they are fnarr, fnarr, fnarr. What a triumph — creating a situation so dangerous that detainees are barricading themselves into the prison. Another new low in the moral squalor of offshore detention.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey