How Much Longer Will This Madness Continue?


It’s always depressing to say, “I told you so”. Not every prediction is accurate, and even an accurate warning can sometimes be ignored for the best of reasons. But when things go wrong it is necessary to ask why, and to remind ourselves that it didn’t have to be this way.

That’s the situation Australia finds itself in this morning, as we wake up to the brutal reality of our immigration policies.

After two consecutive nights of rioting in and around the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, one man is dead, 77 are injured, and Australia’s policy of sending innocent people seeking asylum to concentration camps in neighbouring countries is in tatters. NM editor Marni Cordell is covering the story as it unfolds.

When local Manus Islanders are sufficiently angry about the concentration camp in the middle of their home island to go on a violent rampage – breaking into the camp and attacking the inmates, reportedly aided by police – it’s plain that the future of the Manus Island centre is untenable.

When asylum seekers waiting to be processed can actually be killed, it’s plain that Australia has failed in its most basic obligations to care for those under our charge. And the government continues to hide behind a cloak of “operational security”.

It’s possible to construct a kind of utilitarian calculus to defend such a policy: one that argues that even a death and many injuries in such a scenario can be balanced by the many lives of those who no longer travel to Australia in leaky boats, lives saved by tougher deterrence.

That, roughly, is one half of the argument the government mounts on border protection – the other half being that border protection is something the Australian nation has a sovereign right to decide.

But the sad truth is such utilitarian equations can’t really be calculated with precision. We just don’t have the information. Owing to the veil of silence that has descended on border security policy, we don’t actually know how many boats have been turned back. We don’t know how many boats have sunk, undetected. We don’t know whether the monsoon is providing the real deterrent. All we know is that no boats have recently “arrived” – in other words, evaded the Navy and Customs.

Anyone arguing that tougher measures are saving lives is simply guessing. There is no data to support the claim. The data the government is releasing is incomplete and unreliable.

On the other hand, we know an awful lot about conditions on Manus Island. We know, though a Freedom of Information request by Guardian Australia, that there were 110 “incidents” on Manus in just four months last year.

We know that detention imposes crippling mental health impacts on those locked up in limbo. We know that the jail on Manus is manifestly inadequate, with substandard accommodation, sanitation and water supplies.

We know that the Australian government has set lower standards for Manus than for detention centres on Australian soil. We know that the firm contracted to manage and run the centre, G4S, has a notorious record for lax safety regimes and rampant profiteering.

We also know that building a multi-million dollar facility in the middle of impoverished Papua New Guinea was a recipe for local resentment and unrest. As one source told NM this morning:

“They’re really against the centre, they don’t understand what it is, they just see millions and millions of dollars being spent feeding and housing these people, and bringing all these people in to work just to house them. They just see all this money coming in.”

And today we know that know that one person has been murdered, and 77 more injured, under the Australian government’s care.

Informed observers have been warning of such a catastrophe for months. All the evidence was clear. Academic Kristian Lasslett warned in a series of articles on NM last year of the complexities of resettling asylum seekers in PNG.

“Approximately 85 per cent of Papua New Guineans live in rural areas,” Lasslett pointed out. “Their access to land – which is essential to livelihoods – is assured through a customary system of tenure that is organised along kinship lines. Land ownership in rural areas will thus be barred to refugees, because they have no connection with indigenous clans and lineages so vital to rural life in PNG.”

The fact that Manus Island locals disapproved of the detention centre was no secret. Back in July, the ABC’s Liam Fox travelled to the island and reported on local reactions to the facility. A local priest, Dominic Maka, told him that there would be big social impacts, but that locals hadn’t been properly consulted.

“There will be lots of moral impact too,” Maka said. “That all these thing we haven't given a chance to talk about.” In September, there was a protest against the Manus facility by local landowners. Manus elder George Lokowah told Fox that the priority should be development, not a foreign prison. “We need development like health, education, roads. That's what we need,” he said.

Offshore processing has failed. Just as many said it would. It is only popular because of the long and successful campaign of dehumanisation and demonisation mounted against asylum seekers on the basis of their hope for a better life.

How much longer will this border protection madness continue? Under Abbott and Morrison, the policy has already severely damaged Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. It is now destabilising our relationship with Papua New Guinea. And a man has been killed while under our protection.

In any kind of functioning democracy, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison would now resign. As the minister in charge of this evil charade, under Westminster conventions he is ultimately the person who needs to take responsibility. This is the course of action that the Coalition demanded of Labor’s Peter Garrett when four insulation installers – in the private sector, mind you, with no direct chain of command to the minister – died in 2009.

Of course, Morrison won’t resign. He has already demonstrated a surpassing moral flexibility when it comes to manipulating public sentiment for political gain. And even the refugee lobby recognises that harsh measures against asylum seekers are popular in the community. Such are the dark consequences of a decade-long campaign of dehumanisation, against innocent people, for the benefit of politicians and shock jocks.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.