Nearly 400 men are languishing on Manus Island in the South Pacific because they dared to try to reach Australia by boat. A majority of them have been detained there for more than four years, and most are legally eligible for resettlement. Technically, the site is not a refugee camp but a “regional processing center,” which is a misnomer because it implies a process and an outcome, and there is little sign of either for these men.
This is the culmination of Australia’s oppressive refugee policy, under which asylum seekers who travel to the country by boat are prevented from ever settling here. This holds even if they are legally found to be genuine refugees. Instead, these “illegal maritime arrivals,” as the Australian government calls them, are shunted to poorer neighboring countries — Nauru and Papua New Guinea, of which Manus Island is a part — indefinitely until they can be resettled somewhere that isn’t Australia.
The Manus crisis has unfolded slowly. In April 2016, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court found that the detention of the asylum seekers on Manus Island was unconstitutional. In September, the Australian government agreed to pay detainees $53 million in compensation for their mistreatment.
A deadline was set for the closing of the camp by Oct. 31. The men were to be moved to another location arranged by the Australian government. Electricity and running water were cut off at the Manus camp, and workers took down the perimeter fencing that protected the men from the local gangs who prey on them.
Hundreds of men have remained in the abandoned camp — because for some reason they are distrustful of the promises of the Australian government. A video from within the center was released last week by the activist group GetUp showing cramped dormitories, mold-ridden showers and rainwater collected in garbage bins for drinking. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described the situation as an “unfolding humanitarian emergency.”
Refugee policy is to Australians what gun policy is to Americans, our unshakable madness. Irrational, cruel and surprising to the outside world, we cling to our ideas despite all evidence. Many Australians are working hard to bring about a change in attitudes and policy, but harshness toward refugees who attempt to reach Australia by boat is an article of faith in our culture that is difficult to budge.
We are so committed to our refugee policies that we have been willing to spend billions to ensure that “boat people,” as they are known, will never settle in Australia, even if it means behaving in ways that are contrary to international law. So mad have our refugee policies become that we even spent around $41 million on a deal with Cambodia to resettle our refugees, which ended up settling seven individuals, later whittled down to three, at a cost of more than $13 million per refugee.
In the past few years there have been six deaths of asylum seekers on Manus, including by suicide and murder by the islanders, who have mixed feelings about the center and its inhabitants. We knew, and we continued. For many Australians, the more distressed and ill these humans become, well, that is just further proof that they are too troubled, crazy and foreign to belong here with us.
Expecting Australians to rise up when we see the full scope of our policies toward refugees misunderstands the purpose of these policies. The purpose is not to save us money; it would be cheaper to settle these men in Australia.
Cruelty is the very aim of our refugee policies. Where some may see human rights abuses, many Australians see policies having their intended effect. Successive federal elections have made it clear that voters will not accept anything less than ever-harsher treatment of refugees.
As the United Nations Human Rights Committee put it more politely in recent criticism, there is particular concern about the use of detention powers as a “general deterrent against unlawful entry rather than in response to an individual risk.” What else can explain Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s refusal of an offer by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand to take 150 of the men on Manus?
This state-approved cruelty toward refugees shows a darker side to the Australian character that we seldom admit to, and it is related to the way we think about our history.
We do not accept our past; therefore we are not vigilant about our future. We celebrate our war dead, but other than that we live in an eternal present.
Australians like to chide South Africans and Germans for their racist histories, when in fact both those countries have done so much more to face up to what has occurred on their soil than Australians have ever done. We profess to love the underdog, but this sympathy for sporting teams does not extend to foreigners facing battles of life and death.
As a former prime minister, John Howard, put it at a time of an earlier crisis brought about by our refugee policies, “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” an idea that is laughable in many places of the world right now, like Lebanon or Lampedusa, Italy. We present ourselves as easygoing and open, yet we also relish the brutal exercise of authoritarian power when it comes to refugees.
It may be that the rules governing refugees and displaced people need to be transformed to reflect the changing nature of conflict and movement of people in the 21st century. Rather than leading meaningful and humane reform, Australia has led the Western world in undermining the very tenets of the right to seek asylum. In doing so, we are providing inspiration for far-right political movements in Europe and North America.
If only we could find a way to apply the best of our national character to the refugee problem, rather than the worst. As events continue to unfold on Manus Island, I hope the world is watching and holds us accountable for the failings that we will ignore.
Lisa Pryor, a medical doctor, is the author, most recently, of A Small Book About Drugs.