Congratulations, Tony Abbott. You certainly got what you wished for on Manus Island: misery. Misery that forces desperate people to choose between the hell they left and the hell they are in now. Misery that has generated international headlines your Administration sees as helpful in dissuading future asylum boat arrivals.
Manufactured misery that has created rampant self-harm and suicide attempts. There is no will to process their cases for years. People are allotted 500ml daily of water in 40C heat, all with the added bonus of watching even unaccompanied children subjected to this offshore “detention process” too.
What a tragic success. That is, if you define success as inhumanity in the name of xenophobic deterrence – deterrence that historically hasn’t worked. Tony Abbott is continuing Australia’s 20-year national tradition of punishing some of the world’s most desperate, mostly because no one is stopping him.
Today if you arrive by boat to Australia to legally ask for asylum according to United Nations conventions that Australia has promised to uphold, not only will you never be settled in Australia, you will be forcibly sent offshore to Papua New Guinea.
Sadly, Australia’s experiment in outsourcing its responsibility to human rights is breaking untested ground. Other countries are watching carefully too. Australia is telling the world: to hell with a refugee convention that has served millions of lives in 147 countries for more than 60 years.
We don’t have to play by international norms of decency, or even honour the treaties we’ve signed. Our humanitarian responsibility can be sold to poorer nations in our region. We have the cash to pay someone else to care.
Across the pond on our own untested shores, New Zealand’s silence is deafening. That is, except when we want something. Then we’re happy to appear magnanimous, turning what should be a humanitarian issue into human commerce.
Our Prime Minister, in homage to his trading roots, felt perfectly comfortable trading 150 human lives for political concessions last year. It was easy enough for him to offer to take in 150 Australian refugees at a Queenstown conference with Julia Gillard when we wanted $600 million in expat student loans chased down, a deal that Abbott later nixed. Abbott didn’t want New Zealand to aggravate their arrival numbers by seeing us become what he called a “consolation prize”.
Maybe our Prime Minister’s offer to help refugees was sincere. Though we never heard him offer to raise our United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees quota instead, a number that has remained stagnant for 27 years.
Perhaps because our neighbour is now spending a staggering $3 billion on asylum seeker imprisonment, the Australians have also graciously offered us the opportunity to share. Last year Gillard suggested any future boat arrivals to our shores could also be sent to Nauru or Manus Island. At the time, our Prime Minister said this was a winning deal for New Zealand.
Indeed, even the UN noted in a recent report that our international human rights reputation as a fair player has been bruised. Suddenly last year, we decided to institute group mandatory detention for the first time in this country. That is, if we ever do receive a boatload of more than 30 asylum arrivals.
No matter if our own internationally lauded community-based policies are anywhere from 69 to 93 per cent cheaper, tremendously more humane and produce better adjusted citizens in the end. We have a good neighbour with a 20-year bad idea and they want our attention.
Australia wants to see that we get on their same dirtied page. The frightening thing is, no one in this country seems to notice that’s where we’re already headed.
Interestingly, the electricity was switched off just before the attacks began at the Manus Island Detention Centre that would injure 77, killing one.
Terrified, one frantic Manus Island detainee made this phone call as PNG police, security and locals allegedly stormed the compound with rocks, machetes and guns:
“They switched off the electricity and then they attacked us with stones and with [inaudible] … they are armed and are maybe like 200 or above. They broke down everything and they injured many, many of the transferees in this compound … we locked the doors inside, you cannot open to anyone and they are still killing. I do not know until now if they killed many of us or they injured one of us. But it [inaudible] … everyone is bleeding.”
He pleaded to the outside world: “Please we are human beings, we are not animals. We are put in a cage and we are forgotten. I wish that when you receive this message there will be something to be done, something.”
John Key, make it clear. Publicly state that New Zealand wants no part of Australia’s dirty chapter of trading human tragedy. Show the world we are better than that.
Tracey Barnett is the author of The Quiet War on Asylum and the We Are Better Than That campaign for asylum rights.