News of the impending closure of the Manus Island detention centre comes as a relief to many Australians who have been worried about the horrendous living conditions of asylum seekers on the island. But that relief may be short lived, as there is only a vague blueprint of what is going to happen next to those who are detained there now. And it isn’t looking good for them.
The government’s treatment of those seeking refuge in Australia has drawn sharp criticism both from within the country, and from the international community. Back in 2015, a United Nations report found that the detention centres on Manus Island and Naru breached an international torture convention. The UN also noted “intimidation and ill-treatment” of asylum seekers detained in both facilities. Tony Abbott, who was still Prime Minister at the time hit back at the international orginisation, claiming that the report was a “transparent stitch up” and that “I really think Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations.”
The conditions on Manus Island have been heavily hidden from most Australians. Journalists on Manus were not allowed to approach the centre, or photograph asylum seekers’ injuries. Simultaneously, detainees on Manus were denied basic liberties like cellphone and internet access. This came in violation of the Australian Human Rights Commission‘s own standard that communication with the outside world cannot be denied to an asylum seeker in detention.
The timeline of the impending closure of the detention centre on June 30th has been a long, harrowing road. In April of 2016, the supreme court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the centre on Manus Island was unconstitutional, and that the detention of the asylum seekers there was illegal. The ruling came with an instruction – the centre had to be closed. Since then, very little happened. Then, in February, a government offical said that the centres would be closed by the end of 2017. Since the ruling, more freedoms have been granted to the detainees, such as being able to travel into the nearby town at will – but they have remained living inside the same inhumane compounds.
In April 2017, renewed attention was drawn towards the centre after staff members and detainees were forced to hide from gunfire and flee into the jungle in the wake of Navy soldiers recklessly opening fire on the compounds, severely injuring two people. The reports were vague, but the understanding of the event is that it resulted from a conflict on a football field between detainees and soldiers. Perhaps the fact that the country’s eyes turned once again to the detention centre which the government has tried so hard to push under the rug led to the decision to finally close it.
Announcing the closure, a Papua New Guinean immigration offical told detainees to “consider your options,” enforcing that “no one will go to Australia.” He also advised that migration and police officers had already commenced the process of shutting the compound down, and that the demolition of structures would soon begin. Rather than offering any concrete options or solutions for these human beings, it seems that the governments of both Australia and Papua New Guinea have shrugged their shoulders. Simply put, they don’t seem to know what to do with the hundreds of lives that hang in the balance. And that is hugely problematic.
The announcement came with some small relief for those who had received refugee status – these people were free to move into the Papua New Guinea community. For those who had not been granted refugee status, the outcome was far darker – they were to return to their country of origin immediately, with up to a $20,000 incentive from the Australian government to do so. For some, returning home is impossible. For others, it could be a death sentence. Some may be taken in by the US as part of a refugee trade deal, though when and how this would happen has not been confirmed – there are no guarantees. Asylum seekers were told “once (the centre is) closed the electricity will be turned off and your buildings will be relocated. The area will be locked and nobody will be permitted to enter. Everyone will need to move out of RPC (regional processing centre) before it shuts down. Do not leave it too late to make a decision.”
The lack of concrete options offered is worrying. Despite being told that they have “an opportunity to get on with your lives,” there is still so much uncertainty for these people – what do the lives they are supposed to be getting on with look like? Leaked documents from the Australian government revealed that they were actively worsening conditions on Manus to drive people out. An Iranian asylum seeker named Benham Satah, who still remains at the centre, told SBS World News that the detainees faced an impossible decision, which he described as “the worst dilemma ever in our lives.” He continued, “we really don’t know what to do. The mood is not very stable for a couple of days, since PNG officials announced the movement, the mood is not very well inside the compound.” He and other refugees are fearful of PNG locals, whom they believe will enact violence toward the asylum seekers if they attempt to integrate.
A dark page in our country’s history is finally being turned – but is the next chapter even more harrowing than the last?