The Coalition's Manus Review Is A Farce

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When Reza Barati died — on the night he was trampled, beaten, and felled by a blow to the head — the towering Iranian was just 23-years-old.

It has now been 100 days since the young asylum seeker was killed on Manus Island, a grim milestone that arrived at 4am this morning.

Earlier in the week Robert Cornall handed down his report into the events leading to Barati’s death. Across 106 pages of testimonies, submissions, findings and recommendations, the report explores the details behind the violence that took place on Manus Island and the context leading to the protests and violence that broke out in mid-February. (Much of what is contained in the reivew had already been unearthed by reporting from New Matilda, the Guardian, the ABC, and Fairfax).

The review documents a slow decay of morale among the asylum seekers locked-up on Manus Island as the realisation they would never be resettled in Australia, even if they were found to be refugees, bore down upon them.

Eerily, it points to Australia Day 2014 as the beginning of a troubled month during which those interned became increasingly desperate. Neither Cornall nor the G4S staff he interviewed were able to explain why this day, already so heavily burdened by the politics of race and immigration, served as a turning point.

By late January, many of those awaiting processing on the island had reached a point of no hope. Rumours of a Christmas amnesty had proven false and there was still little to indicate when the processing of claims would be completed. Concerns about the safety of being resettled in PNG, as well as the prevalence of diseases in the country, were widespread among those living in the Manus compounds. One asylum seeker interviewed said he believed 70 per cent of PNG’s population were HIV positive.

At this stage in time 1,340 men were packed in to the overcrowded detention centre, many of whom were already battered by the trauma they had fled and the journeys that had led them to Manus.

To make matters worse, serious tensions were building between those in detention and the staff tasked with running the operation, the majority of whom were locals.

The review also uses the testimony of staff to argue the centre was fraught with internal racial tensions between the various groups locked-up — a point that is no doubt valid, though not explored with much depth or nuance.

It was at a meeting with Department of Immigration and Border Protection and PNG Immigration officials that, according to Cornall, all these tensions became impossible to contain.

Asylum seekers had put questions to both governments.

“Is there a process? What is it?” was the first one, referring to the process of being assessed and then accepted as a refugee.

“How long are we going to be here?” another asked, while yet another goaded, “Why won’t Immigration allow media to come and interview us?”

Though some questions were specific, the most poignant were broad and desperate.

“When will we have our freedom?” one refugee asked.

After waiting 12 days for responses, around 70 asylum seekers gathered in the Mike compound and were met with written responses that underscored just how vague their futures were and how few rights they had in the meantime.

“Strict controls have been placed on access to the centre in order to protect the privacy, identity and dignity of all people who reside here,” they were told in relation to the question about media interviews.

While hardly the worst, the response captures the disingenuous nature of the concern offered to those in detention.

But Cornall was not tasked by the Coalition to answer these questions — his job was simply to record the dissatisfaction they revealed.

To his credit, the report does explicitly spell-out the link between asylum seeker anguish, induced by Federal Government policy, and the trouble at the centre. 

In its list of factors which contributed to the unrest it includes:

• Anger at being brought to Papua New Guinea;
• Anger with the policy that, if they are found to be refugees, they will be resettled in PNG, not Australia;
• Frustration at the delay in determining their status as refugees, and a lack of information about the likely timing for completion of those determinations;
• Further anger and frustration resulting from the uncertainty about their future, including in particular how long they will be kept at the Manus Centre; and
• Frustration arising from the lack of information about what resettlement in PNG would mean for them and their families.

The interviews conducted with asylum seekers on Manus leave an impression on the report. On the nights of February 16 and 17, their rage finally boiled over and was met with a brutal response from G4S and Salvation Army staff and, catastrophically, the PNG Mobile Police Squad.

The report backs the theory presented earlier by The Guardian that Barati was killed by a Salvation Army staff member. It also finds G4S did not invite the Mobile Squad to enter the compound, although, confusingly, includes some evidence that they were, as also reported by the ABC. The report encourages the Australian Government to aid the investigation by PNG police.

For all this, Cornall’s review tells us very little we didn’t already know. The indefinite denial of freedom has devastating impacts on those seeking asylum; establishing a small penal colony on a tiny island, itself part of a struggling and poverty stricken nation, leads to tensions with the local community; rounding up traumatised people and leaving them locked-up together stokes racial tensions.

These can hardly be said to be revelations.

But what is most jarring about the report is it’s clear presentation of the suffering asylum seekers are subject to in detention, set against it’s negligence in asserting that the ills of Manus Island are an inevitable consequence of our indefinite, offshore detention regime.

As Waleed Ali (and no doubt many others) pointed out days after the death of Barati, terror is not an accidental part of offshore detention and settlement. It’s a necessary component.

To end the suffering endured by asylum seekers, and its expression in protest and conflict, there is only one solution — shut the system down.

Instead, Cornall pushes a range of options that tinker at the edges, some of which will bring minor relief to those interned, many of which are almost comically vague or symbolic.

At one point, Cornall endorses an Amnesty recommendation that those asylum seekers be given access to clocks, to help them get to medical and processing appointments on time.

In another, he suggests a notice board be erected to allow for public notifications to asylum seekers and that small groups from Delta compound be taken to walk the beach from time to time.

Two further recommendations, designed to release the pressure valve and bring calm to those locked-up, work as a perfect metaphor for the review itself.

• Removing the locks from internal compound gates. The gates are not open but this symbolic gesture indicates trust in the transferees.
• Removing shade cloth from the fences so transferees can see out through the chain link fence.

As even Cornall recognises, the changes are largely, if not entirely, symbolic. In the absence of recommending their freedom be granted, Cornall recommends asylum seekers be allowed the opportunity to look out upon the earth they cannot walk. As is so often the case, cruelty to asylum seekers is dressed up as kindness.

Meanwhile, the major recommendations tend to focus on organisational and infrastructural changes; new fences, CCTV, better training for staff, better communication between police and G4S.

One gives a particularly chilling insight into the psychology of detention.

“In its risk assessment, KPMG suggested the introduction of incentive-based, tiered accommodation options to encourage and reward appropriate behaviour.”

When someone has nothing left to lose they are difficult to control. So, it follows, give them just a little bit of comfort, a little bit of joy, and they become dependent and subservient again, knowing you can take it away from them for any perceived infraction.

Reza Barati may be the first asylum seeker killed by an employee of our detention regime, but he is just one among the scores to have died under its care. The recommendations put by Cornall will do nothing to attack the underlying malaise that causes asylum seekers to protest and sometimes to riot, and it will do even less to arrest the alarming rates of self-harm.

Meanwhile, 387 “transferees” on Manus Island are still waiting to take the first step in the multi-stage processing gauntlet.

The number who have been resettled from the island remains at zero. Even if that process begins in the near-future (something the report suggests is extremely unlikely), a whole new raft of problems and human rights concerns will arise.

When Kevin Rudd announced the ‘PNG Solution’ in August 2013 he pushed the ALP over a moral chasm from which it may never climb back, one in which Richard Marles has happily floundered in since taking the job as shadow Minister for Immigration.

With the Coalition unfazed by the ongoing cruelty, only a massive shift in grassroots public sentiment can open the political space necessary for humane policy reform.

Until then, there will be undoubtedly be more Reza Baratis, and some of them won’t make 23-years of age.

Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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