What happened on Manus Island
The Manus camp, which the Australian government conceived, funds and staffs – yet for which it claims to have little responsibility – came under automatic weapons fire from drunk soldiers on Good Friday. Cowering detainees lay flat on their stomachs while bullets pierced their rooms, as Australian lawyers fled into the jungle. Some Wilson Security staff confronted the armed men as they demanded access to the camp. It seems the soldiers’ intentions were not murderous, but their actions were, naturally, dangerous and traumatising. Arguably, it was also predictable: the camp is deplored by many locals, the feeling seemingly mutual, and the site has been fatally breached before.
About this extraordinary situation, Australia’s immigration minister said nothing publicly for six days. Nothing. Now imagine if Australian aid workers had come under fire in Timor-Leste, say. It is inconceivable that the foreign minister would not provide immediate briefings about the situation and the wellbeing of the Australians. But not in this portfolio.
Peter Dutton’s long silence was broken not with a detailed briefing on the situation, but with the insinuation that some of the camp’s refugees were child molesters. It was this fact, Dutton suggested, referring to a recent incident when a local boy was escorted into the camp by male detainees, that fomented the angst of the soldiers. “I think there was concern about why the boy was being led, or for what purpose he was being led, away back into the regional processing centre,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that the mood had elevated quite quickly. I think some of the local residents were quite angry about this particular incident and another alleged sexual assault.”
There is much to be said about Dutton’s comments. When he first made them, almost a week after the shootings, I assumed persuasive intelligence had been received by the minister. He still says this is the case. Despite official contradictions, Dutton argues he has confidential information that the media – and apparently the Papua New Guinean police – do not possess.
Dutton has offered no evidence for his claims, and scepticism of them might be better understood in the context of his government’s history of slanderous accusations. Dutton represents the government that summarily removed 10 Save the Children staff from Nauru, having publicly accused them of coaching asylum seekers into self-harm. The then immigration minister, Scott Morrison, said of the staff that they were “employed to do a job, not to be political activists. Making false claims, and worse, allegedly coaching self-harm and using children in protests is unacceptable, whatever their political views or agendas.”
The government was later sued, an action that was settled out of court and resulted not only in compensation to the removed staff but a tepid public statement: “The department … regrets any hurt and embarrassment caused to the SCA employees.” Naturally, when Dutton now makes appeals to the accuracy of his briefings, no mention is made of previous distortions.
Then there is the question of reckless provocation. To examine this, let’s assume Dutton has received persuasive intelligence regarding alleged child sexual assault by three of the camp’s detainees. The Manus camp, which contains about 900 asylum seekers and refugees, plus Australian guards, immigration staff, medics, lawyers and other employees, has just come under fire from the local military. In 2014, a detainee was murdered and one of his killers is currently an escaped prisoner, having previously vowed retribution against the men who testified against him. Dutton tells us that two detainees have been charged with the sexual assault of Manus locals, and this has inflamed hostilities. The camp is vulnerable, tensions high.
In this context, the Australian minister broke his silence by suggesting that the camps’ detainees are paedophiles. Even if the secret intelligence Dutton invokes is accurate, it is hard to believe that justice or child safety is served by splashing petrol on this fire and encouraging more indiscriminate attacks. It is unthinkable that a comparable act of vigilantism in Australia would be responded to similarly by police – that is, with comments likely to encourage a repetition of the violence. A duty to discretion does not exclude a duty to protect children. “I think Dutton is elevating the situation,” a Manus detainee told me. “If footage would be released, I am sure locals would appreciate my friends for being so kind to the child. But the things he says is igniting the new problems … It’s so bad that I can’t take my mind off it. He is making [us] the enemy. Dutton is trying to say things to make locals hate us more. He is igniting the fire.”
Not only has Dutton had nothing to say about the Australians his policy has employed, he has, in the few comments he has made, further jeopardised their safety. He has also contradicted the statements of local law enforcement. Yet, with a straight face, Dutton asks: “Why don’t we let the police investigation run its course and allow them some independent analysis?”
Interestingly, while the Australian government tells me that this is all a matter for “the PNG government”, my questions to Wilson Security regarding their guards’ rules of engagement, their armament, and whether staff have resigned following the shooting, were all referred to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Asked to confirm the heroism of their staff, Wilson’s publicity team still handballed the inquiry to the Australian government that, apparently, has no responsibility.
Which brings us, at last, to the challenges to Dutton’s comments. There are many. Four days after the shooting, the local police commander, David Yapu, blamed the “nasty” incident on drunk naval officers who were retaliating after a brawl with asylum seekers on a nearby soccer oval. There was no mention of the boy, nor any allegations of sexual abuse. When Dutton made his comments two days later, Yapu said unambiguously that Dutton had got it wrong. “It’s a total separate incident altogether,” Yapu told Guardian Australia. “The incident that transpired on Friday was because a duty soldier was being assaulted by one of the asylum seekers or refugees.”
The three men in question vehemently deny the imputation that they tried to molest the boy, saying they were simply offering the child fruit after he asked them for food. Their version of events has been repeated to me by other detainees. The men in question have since lodged a formal complaint about the accusation, which The Saturday Paper has seen. It reads, in full: “[We] have complaint about false accusations which is made upon us by minister for immigration Peter Dutton. We helped a hungry and poor child who was requesting food and money. He was fluent in English and begging for food. We had no money with us. We told him we have fruits inside the centre and he requested to come and get fruit. He walked with us through gate 18 toward Oscar 1. While passing Oscar main gate, local security in the gate asked us What is he doing here? We are responded, we are going to give fruit to him and we entered Oscar compound. Local security said it’s okay. I asked the boy to sit on a chair outside Oscar 1 and I went inside to get fruits for him, couple others also gave him fruits, biscuits, etc. It was couple plastic bags of fruit, then security came and escorted the boy outside the centre. All these incidents is recorded by your CCTV cameras. We are requesting for the immediate release of the footage of this incident. We didn’t do any wrong except help a poor boy. We need investigation ASAP.”
It is this footage that columnist Andrew Bolt has been shown – by unnamed government sources – and of which he says “the boy, who looks five, was indeed walked deep into the centre by three male boat people, one keeping his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He was not taken to where residents were packing fruit, but to accommodation tents. He was sat down outside, and one man gave him food before guards intervened. It could all be innocent, but the Australian Border Force report that night said the boy’s parents ‘wish the matter to be referred to the police’, who on Wednesday asked the ABF for CCTV footage and witness statements.”
Dutton says he does not “resile” from his comments, and in fact has gone so far as to demand an apology from the ABC after it sought comment from disgraced former PNG parliamentarian Ronny Knight. “The ABC has lost the plot,” Dutton said. “What I said is factual, I stand by it 100 per cent, and I’m not going to be cowed into a different position when I know what I said to be the truth. I’ll stand by those comments and I expect the ABC and Fairfax and others to be making an apology in the next 24 hours or so given the revelations that have been released tonight in relation to their discredited witness.”
It sounds a lot like children overboard, but if Dutton’s comments are proved false, it’s much worse than that – his comments could have inspired slaughter. This isn’t written lightly. Too much of this debate is spuriously inflamed. But this is a camp that had just been shot up by the local navy, and the responsible Australian minister added nothing to this but unsubtly coded accusations of its occupants’ pederasty. Even if there is a genuine accusation – and this paper cannot say that there isn’t – Dutton’s comments remain recklessly provocative. The false claims of children overboard were egregious, but they didn’t directly endanger the lives of asylum seekers and Australian staff.
There is no evidence that Dutton has lied, but detainees on Manus believe he did. “I can’t believe a minister for any portfolio in any government, let alone a minister for immigration who is responsible for our very lives, can blatantly lie to the public,” one told me. “It’s very weird. He is doing it intentionally. It was like when Scott Morrison said Reza Barati was murdered outside the centre.”
The detainee is referring to the time when, as immigration minister, Morrison said, incorrectly, that Barati was murdered outside the camp after detainees had torn down its fences. “Last night on Manus Island was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the operations of our offshore processing centre,” Morrison said. “Transferees had pushed down fences and moved outside the detention centre … If people are going to seek to disrupt the centres and knock fences over and engage in disorderly and indeed violent behaviour, then they will put themselves at risk if they go beyond that perimeter fence, and I don’t think that is behaviour that should be encouraged.”
Reza Barati was murdered inside the detention centre. Scott Morrison corrected the record four days later.
Last week, the senate’s standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs released its report on offshore processing. “First and foremost, the Australian Government must acknowledge that it controls Australia’s RPCs [refugee processing centres],” it read. “Through the department, the Australian Government pays for all associated costs, engages all major contractors, owns all the major assets, and (to date) has been responsible for negotiating all third country resettlement options. Additionally, the department is the final decision-maker for approving the provision of specialist health services and medical transfers (including medical evacuations) and the development of policies and procedures which relate to the operation of the RPCs. Incident reports are also provided to the department so it cannot claim that it was not aware of incidents that occurred in RPCs outside of Australia. The Australian Government clearly has a duty of care in relation to the asylum seekers who have been transferred to Nauru or Papua New Guinea. To suggest otherwise is fiction.”
It is a fiction. Drownings at sea have stopped. Boats have slowed. But if the government is to claim credit for it, it must also accept responsibility for the policy of offshore detention that helped militate it. And it’s a policy that has induced suicide, endangered children, violently provoked locals and traumatised Australian staff. This much is true.
Dutton may have sincerely – or wishfully – believed his briefings on the sinister motives of some of the asylum seekers. In which case, Dutton should have privately discussed the matter with Papua New Guinean police and had the matter earnestly investigated. As it is, police say Dutton had not contacted them.
Dutton is adamant that he spoke factually. But many questions remain about the long silence, managing volatility, the safety of Australian staff and the various discrepancies between his account and those of PNG authorities. Meanwhile, detainees wonder, “What next?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 29, 2017 as "What happened on Manus Island". Subscribe here.