Deliberate injustice

It is not a surprise. That is part of the problem.

Internal documents show that for the past year the government has conspired to make the situation on Manus Island so unbearable that the refugees held there would agree to be settled in Papua New Guinea or accept refoulement to the countries from which they had fled.

A punitive scheme was hatched, revealed in reports published by Guardian Australia, to cycle refugees and asylum seekers through different levels of discomfort. Some were forced into accommodation where the temperatures were knowingly oppressive and there was no airconditioning. A ban on cigarettes was considered. Models were encouraged for quarters with “less amenity”.

These documents make concrete what has long seemed likely: that the human rights abuses suffered by refugees on Manus Island are deliberate. The horror of these camps is no accident. This is calculated, cynical, cruel.

A report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, was released this week and makes much the same point.

“The strong focus on securitisation and punishment blemishes the country’s good human rights record,” it said. “The special rapporteur observed that some of the country’s migration policies have increasingly eroded the human rights of migrants, in contravention of its international human rights and humanitarian obligations.”

The use of detention as a deterrent was, Crépeau found, unlawful. “It is a fundamental principle of human rights law that one person cannot be punished only for the reason of deterring another.”

There is a plan now for Manus. As with all else, it is arbitrary: a date, chosen at random, by which the camp will be demolished. Already, we know the camp to be illegal. This seems only a footnote in the decision. Lawfulness is not a hallmark of our immigration system.

But while there is a plan for the camp, there is no real plan for the people held in it. The government hopes the United States will take most of these men, brutalised for years in the prison we built for them. Others may be forcibly resettled. The logical option, to settle these people in Australia, is not being considered.

Crépeau’s report recommends Australia adopts a bill of rights – “or at least a legislative guarantee of human rights – a human rights act – with a clause of precedence over all other legislation”.

This is a sound suggestion. If anything in recent history shows how clearly this country needs an overriding protection for human rights – a law that better protects people from the politicians who seek to abuse them – it is our system of offshore detention.

We have long known that offshore processing is brutal and unjust, that it has ruined lives and taken others. We have long known of the women and children molested in these camps and the men made wretched by them. What we learnt this week is that much of this is deliberate, that it is done not simply with the full knowledge of government but with its callous intent.

On October 31 the last prison building on Manus will be knocked down. Men will be scattered to unknown places. The lives we ruined for political gain will end in distant countries, our feckless politicians unrepentant of what they have done.

There is no way to heal this. Too much damage has been done. But a bill of rights may help the hope that such brutality is never repeated.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "Deliberate injustice ".

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