Asylum seekers on Manus Island say their hopes were crushed by visits from the Minister for Immigration Brendan O'Connor and his shadow, Scott Morrison last week.
The visits took place during six days of water shortages which left toilets overflowing. Some 274 detainees, including 34 children and six pregnant women, were unable to shower or wash in the hot humid conditions.
Neither politician took time to carefully investigate the conditions in the camp, in which the detainees have been imprisoned for months.
Minister O'Connor told AAP after his visit that he disagreed with the United Nation Refugee Agency's recent report that conditions are"harsh or oppressive" and described them as "adequate" for a "temporary facility". Detainees told the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) this week that "we told him everything about the facilities here and the lack of water". A spokesperson for the minister said that he did have some concerns about lack of books for children and the crowded sleeping arrangements.
Detainees told the RAC that Morrison spent 15 minutes inspecting the compound and five minutes talking to them. They say they told him about lack of water, electricity, air-conditioning, proper medical facilities including any access to emergency treatment and the problems being experienced by pregnant women. "We told him that we sleep in wet beds and about the mice and snakes," the RAC was told. They did not see him visit the toilets.
The despair and conditions on Manus were less dramatic than the desperate scenes that would have greeted O'Connor and Morrison had they visited Nauru, where there are daily chanting protests. Between 20 and 30 asylum seekers are on a hunger strike and some have been so for up to 17 days. Of these, eight have sewn their lips together, four have been hospitalised on Nauru and one evacuated to Australia.
Following the politicians' visit to Manus, a 17-year-old Tamil girl attacked her body with a plastic knife after hearing news that a fellow asylum seeker friend on the mainland is going to school. While she suffered no serious physical injury, it was a sign of severe mental distress. Even those detainees who have been motivated to write stories say their hopes for freedom and an education are subsiding into a deep depression for which there is no treatment apart from counselling which they do not find helpful.
Their depression, which psychiatrists have repeatedly warned is produced by indefinite detention, is exacerbated when toilets overflow and there is no water for showers and washing in the stifling humid conditions that have left beds and tents sodden. This was the situation when the politicians visited.
O'Connor visited the camp on 25 February. On Sunday 24 February, there was no water for washing purposes between 10pm and 7am. On Wednesday 27 February, water ran out twice for hours at a time and on Thursday there was no water for six hours. This is not the first time water and power have been cut off during the long hot wet season on Manus Island. Even when the water flows, asylum seekers have only limited access to showers and must wash at scheduled times.
New Matilda does not know if O'Connor saw the toilets but a spokesperson for the minister who accompanied him said that she did not inspect them and used toilets elsewhere. No media were allowed to accompany the politicians.
In such a hot wet climate, one would expect that plenty of fresh water supplied by tanks on Manus Island. But there are no tanks at the camp.
When the decision was made to reopen Manus, the Australian Government knew that there was no fresh water. This had been one of many serious problems with the camp when it operated for two years under the Howard government. So it is not surprising that there have been continual complaints about the supply and quality of water since the camp reopened.
New Matilda asked DIAC for information about how the water is supplied and what is causing the breakdowns.
A spokesperson for DIAC told New Matilda:
"The department has ensured appropriate water supply solutions for the Manus regional processing centres, including harvesting of seawater through three Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Units (ROWPUs). The garrison service provider provides several trained ROWPU operators dedicated to the management and maintenance of the ROWPUs."
The "garrison" sounds like a military term but is in fact a reference to G4S, the world's biggest security firm that operates the camp. G4S is being paid $80 million by the Australian Government to operate the detention centre until October. Part of that contract includes the provision of water, which in Australia would be supplied by a public utility. As DIAC explained: "The contracted garrison service provider is responsible for managing water production vs consumption and applying appropriate water restriction measures if and when applicable."
What this means is that DIAC has left it up to G4S, a profit-making company, to decide how much water the detainees get each day and to apply restrictions if and when it wants.
DIAC also said, "the standards of water facilities and amenities in the Manus regional processing centre are in line with the living standards and amenities for local PNG residents on Manus Island." According to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, only 10 per cent of Manus's 50,000 residents have access to safe water and adequate sanitation which why there are outbreaks of diarrhea, cholera and typhoid on the island.
G4S received worldwide publicity last year when it failed to deliver on its contract to supply sufficient security guards for the London Olympics. Recently, it was voted the third worst company in the world in awards presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos by Public Eye, a project run by Berne Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland. After the announcement, G4S rejected the claims made by its critics but the accusations continue.
Only last week, G4S's heavy involvement in Israeli prisons led to a protest outside its headquarters in London after Palestinian Arafat Jaradat died after allegedly being tortured in a prison where the company provides security services. G4S is also involved in other Israeli prisons including al Jalame interrogation centre where children have been locked in solitary confinement for as long as 65 days.
G4S security guards were also detaining Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga when he died during a forced deportation flight from the UK in 2010. The Home Office and G4S initially said Mubenga had been taken ill on the flight. However, a Guardian investigation found witnesses who said Mubenga complained of difficulty breathing while being restrained by G4S guards, shouting "they are going to kill me".
Speaking during a House of Lords debate in which he criticised the decision not to charge the guards, an ex-Inspector of Prisons, Lord Ramsbothom spoke of an earlier case: "There had been stringent criticisms by the coroner in the case of Gareth Myatt, a 15-year-old who died in Rainsbrook secure training centre following the use of similar procedures for restraint by G4S guards," he said. "He, too, had called out that he could not breathe before he died."
According to a report in the Daily Mail in 2012, G4S paid no tax last year on its $279 million UK earnings.
G4S's current job on Manus Island is similar to its other thousands of contracts around the world. It aims to deliver on its contract, including the production of water, while minimising costs and making a profit. Its chosen ROPWU units are designed for military or disaster purposes for temporary use when there is no clean water available. The units are powered by diesel which has to be imported. When they break down, as they periodically do, there is no water until they are fixed. All drinking water is supplied by plastic bottle, the current brand being Kakadu Kanteen.
New Matilda asked G4S's Australian branch a number of questions about the water on Manus Island on Tuesday to which it said it would respond shortly. Answers had not been received at time of publication. Answers will be posted after they are received.
New Matilda asked DIAC if G4S could penalised for breaching its contract for failing to supply adequate water. DIAC said that it does not answer questions about potential breaches of contract.
In January, Humanitarian Research Partners (HRP), an NGO that specialises in human rights research, sent a detailed report to the Minister for Immigration, then Chris Bowen, the Minister for the Environment and Sustainability, the National Water Board and the Water Ombudsman detailing its concerns that the failure to provide safe and adequate supply of water was a breach of human rights, including several United Nations Human Rights conventions.
HRP Director Ben Pynt told New Matilda that he received letters from the Board and the Ombudsman telling "us that were concerned at the issues but it would be more appropriate to go the directly to Minister". He has received no reply at all from the ministers so he sent the report to O'Connor again last week, specifically asking for an explanation of why no back-up water systems has been provided for the ROWPUs which can breakdown.
Pynt argues that temporary large tanks for fresh water are often used in refugee camps when no permanent tanks are available. They are easy to transport and not expensive. The reason why no one can given him an explanation could be because the government has outsourced its decision-making power over the water supply to G4S.
"It's really quite negligent on the government's behalf not to put any back-up systems that are cheap and really simple in place. It's a clear violation of the right to water and right to health of these vulnerable people who are in detention … we are of opinion that it is cruel and inhuman punishment as covered by the Anti-Torture Convention.Within a month people can go from fairly stable state of mind to uncontrollable anguish and a lot of that has to do with indefinite detention and a lot of that is to do with the physical conditions in which they are being processed."
HRP are currently trying to find ways of holding the Government responsible and making "sure they understand what they are doing and what effect it can have on people". During the Rudd Labor government, Australia said it would sign the option protocol of the Torture Convention which would allow individual complaints to be made, but this has not occured.
After his visit, Opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison expressed some "reservations'' about the state of the detention centre, raising the possibility a Coalition government could seek to shut the facility down or construct a permanent one. DIAC told New Matilda that it had no specific knowledge of plans for the permanent facility. A spokesperson for the Minister Brendan O'Connor said that he had inspected a possible site on the island when he was on Manus Island last week.
So the asylum seekers are left with no idea of what is going to happen to them other than that they will continue to live in these conditions. It must be scarce comfort to know that although O'Connor found the conditions to be adequate, Greens Immigration spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the UN, the Refugee Council, HRP, Amnesty and many other human rights organisation consider the Government's treatment of them to be harsh and mentally and physically punishing.
The latest person to want to investigate complaints for herself is Australia's Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs. But the Government has advised her that she cannot go to the island to verify complaints although she does have the power to investigate them from Australia. This is despite the centres being set up for Australia, operated by private providers according to contracts negotiated in Australia and paid for with Australian taxpayers' money.
Part of the aim of having the detention centres offshore is to avoid Australia's responsibilities under its own human rights bodies and international conventions. It may be, however, that Triggs will not need to visit Manus to establish that failure to provide adequate water is a denial of human rights.
Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that DIAC had no knowledge of a permanent facility and that the shadow minister had inspected the site.
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