The death of Reza Barati last week had its beginnings on the Labor backbenches, where Kevin Rudd was plotting his return as leader.

By Sophie Morris.

Rudd’s backbench role in the Manus Island crisis

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison fronts the press after Barati’s death.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison fronts the press after Barati’s death.
Credit: AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Reza Barati was probably on Java, waiting for a boat, when Kevin Rudd made his dash to PNG. Rudd’s aim was a deal that would send asylum seekers to Manus Island and prevent them ever reaching Australia. It was delivered days later in a two-page agreement.

Barati’s death by head injury and the conflicting accounts of how it occurred at a detention centre on Manus Island have exposed the inability of the Australian government to guarantee the safety of asylum seekers.

The riots are a reminder that Australia is paying to keep 1300 people locked up there. Many have refused to go home; but for others, there is no clear alternative.

The Rudd deal was a political strategy devised on the eve of the 2013 federal election, with a view to neutralising one of the Coalition’s most devastating lines of attack. In this, it succeeded.

Supporters of offshore detention from both Labor and the Coalition say the Manus arrangement has stopped the boats. It has broken the people smugglers’ business model, they say, and saved the lives of many who would otherwise have risked death at sea.

Labor’s immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, who accompanied Rudd to PNG when the deal was struck, is proud of it. “I cannot emphasise strongly enough how important the PNG arrangement is in the Australian strategy of seeing a reduction in the boats coming and a reduction in the drownings at sea,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “Unquestionably, it is saving lives and therefore has a very strong humanitarian aspect to it.”

Marles believes the arrangement must be extended when the initial 12-month period expires in July. He also believes it is important PNG locals are still employed within the centre, despite reports local guards and police meted out violence against detainees. He worries that Manus Islanders will be demonised.

But for the thousands of Australians who attended candlelight vigils to pay tribute to Barati, who was described by detention centre staff as a “gentle giant”, there is a sense of shock that it has come to this.

Azita Bokan, an Australian who worked as an interpreter at the Manus detention centre in the lead-up to the riots on Monday, February 17, expresses this sentiment: “Under our flag do not kill and do not waste life.”

Bokan was not in the detention centre the night Barati was killed, but she looked on from the staff accommodation vessel that floats beside it. She heard shots and watched as a doctor struggled to force a tube into the neck of an asylum seeker whose throat had been slashed. Another, she saw, had horrific head injuries. “He had no brain. He had nothing on his neck. His skull was crushed.”

1 . Rudd's agreement

While Labor set up the deal during its final weeks in government, the Coalition has been responsible for its implementation. It has cloaked its border protection policies in secrecy, and the violence on Manus Island has shown information released by the government cannot always be relied on.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison initially claimed Barati’s fatal injury occurred outside the centre, where he said his safety could not be guaranteed. He has since admitted this statement was wrong and “the majority of the riotous behaviour that occurred, and the response to that behaviour to restore order to the centre, took place within the perimeter of the centre”.

Morrison issued this clarification late Saturday night, when it would attract minimal media coverage. He insists the government will not be “intimidated” into changing its policy.

“On this occasion the centre has not been destroyed, the centre will be able to resume operations as it has this morning,” he said the morning after Barati’s death. “Breakfast has been served.”

As the government flags cuts to other spending, the cost of offshore processing continues to rise. It has just signed a $1.2 billion deal with Transfield Services to run detention centres on Manus Island – which was being run by G4S – for 20 months. The company will continue to run facilities on Nauru. The contract represents just a portion of the cost of the scheme, which also included an extra $400 million in aid.

Rudd is not necessarily the beginning of this story. We could go back to the eve of the 2001 election, when the Howard government refused to allow the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, to land asylum seekers it had rescued. Howard hastily devised the “Pacific Solution”, but 9 out of ten of the asylum seekers sent to Manus Island and Nauru under that scheme were eventually settled in Australia.

Or we could start in June 2010, when Rudd implied one of the reasons he had been rolled as prime minister was that he refused to “lurch to the Right” on the issue of asylum seekers, laying claim to the moral high ground over Julia Gillard.

But the straightest course back is seven months ago, to last July, when Barati was still alive and hopeful of reaching Australia. Rudd, after two failed attempts, had finally on June 26 engineered his return to power.

During his protracted comeback, Rudd had much time to consider his first days back in office. He hit the ground running.

Stopping the boats was one of the issues – along with the carbon tax and party reform – that he need to deal with before calling an election.

Almost 17,000 asylum seekers had arrived in Australia by boat in the first six months of 2013, the same number as had arrived in the previous 12 months. There is no precise record of how many have died at sea but estimates put it at more than 1000 in the past six years.

These deaths weighed heavily on the conscience of politicians as they struggled in 2012 to find a policy that would stop people undertaking the journey.

Julia Gillard’s two attempts to stop the boats had failed. Her overtures to East Timor in 2010 were rebuffed and her so-called Malaysia Solution, to send 800 asylum seekers to the back of the queue in Malaysia and accept 4000 refugees from there, was defeated by the High Court in 2011 and then rejected by the Coalition and the Greens.

In 2012 the government reopened the camps on Manus Island and Nauru. But still the boats came. Rudd watched Gillard’s failures and realised he had to square away a deal with PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill before making it public.

Former staff suspect Rudd had begun working on the plan while on the backbench, possibly canvassing it informally with O’Neill in preparation for his comeback. Some in the leadership group recognised it as a “game-changer” on an issue that had dogged the government. Other Labor MPs were shocked by its severity.

Within his first week as PM, Rudd was contemplating a trip to PNG to pursue an agreement that would stem the flow of boats. He discussed this at a meeting in Brisbane with O’Neill.

Rudd confidant and strategist Bruce Hawker writes in his election diaries, The Rudd Rebellion, about the trip to PNG on July 14. “Kevin is now in PNG, looking to do the deal on asylum seekers. My only concern is that people on the left will see it as harsh measure. Having said that, it will almost certainly go down well with most people – particularly in Western Sydney, where the problem is felt most acutely,” he wrote.

“We have had to go to elaborate lengths to disguise the real purpose of this visit – it’s about visa simplification, etc. We have had to take [Richard] Marles as trade minister, so having Immigration Minister [Tony] Burke there doesn’t cause too much commentary in the media.”

Marles says there was enthusiasm for the deal from the PNG government: normally, it was Australia doling out aid to PNG, but this was PNG helping Australia.

Hawker’s book describes the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG as “the beginning of the end of asylum seekers in boats as a huge political negative for Labor”.

Another Labor source says Rudd was acutely aware that the deal would be seen in Australia as an about-face and of the need for “careful messaging” to explain it. In a sign of who Rudd was targeting, the story was dropped to Sydney tabloid, The Daily Telegraph. Hawker was delighted with the headline: “Ship them out of here. Rudd’s secret plan to send boat people to the Third World.”

Not only was Rudd sending them there. He was also making it clear that, unlike  the Howard government’s “Pacific Solution”, asylum seekers would never come to Australia. They faced a return home or life in PNG, or in other unspecified countries.

While waiting for O’Neill, Hawker briefed Rudd on some details, including that homosexuality was a crime in PNG. There was a panic in the Labor camp when O’Neill delayed his flight to Brisbane, where he and Rudd were to announce the policy together. He made it just in time for a brief press conference before the television news.

On the day that Rudd announced the deal, riots broke out among the 543 asylum seekers detained on Nauru, causing $60 million of damage. A report to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship on that incident, released in the past week, observes that the detainees were frustrated at the slow processing of their asylum claims and the uncertainty over their future. The warning is stark: The centres were built too quickly; it was luck that something like what happened last week on Manus did not happen sooner.

“The speed involved to get the Nauru RPC operational within a short period of time [in 2012] compromised the proper assessment and planning required for the safety and security of the facility,” says the report by consultant Keith Hamburger.

“The fact that the incident was contained and stabilised without loss of life or even serious injury, in the experience of the reviewer in similar incidents of this scale, was a remarkable outcome and a credit to all the staff involved.”

Just five days after Rudd unveiled his plan, Reza Barati’s boat arrived on Christmas Island. On August 27, he was transferred to Manus Island. His long wait began.

As Rudd announced the deal with PNG and the dramatic expansion of the existing detention centre on Manus Island, a whistleblower emerged with startling claims.  Department of Immigration staff reportedly turned a blind eye to rapes and assaults at the centre. At that time, it housed about 145 people. Rudd wanted it to house 6000.

Rod St George, who had resigned as a G4S guard in April, told SBS TV’s Dateline that the facilities would not serve as a dog kennel in Australia. Detainees had been stockpiling arms and were “quite open that there will come a time where they will break out and people will be killed”.

2 . Tensions boil over on Manus

There was a rush in the coming days to pitch tents and erect marquees. The then immigration minister Tony Burke was anxious to show people smugglers that the government was serious. But he held off on transferring people to the camp, arguing they needed medical checks and that if things were rushed, staff and management would not cope.

Azita Bokan, the interpreter, supported the policy. “I was passionate about stopping this business of people smugglers getting rich … and people putting their lives in jeopardy and children without their own wish coming through the ocean and getting drowned in the ocean,” she told ABC Radio.

Working on Manus Island would change her mind. She paints a picture of dismal physical conditions and mental despair, of people who are known in immigration parlance as “transferees”. She talks of a man who calls himself “dentist” and pulls teeth from the mouths of malnourished asylum seekers.

Bokan said unrest at the centre, which houses more than 1300 “transferees”, began on Sunday, February 16, after asylum seekers were told that they would never see Australia, that no third country had stepped forward to take them and that PNG was also not an option.

This account was confirmed by Liz Thompson, a migration agent who was on Manus Island to talk to detainees about their options but has since resigned this role.

Nothing could induce her to return to work on Manus. “It’s not designed as a processing facility. It’s designed as an experiment in the active creation of horror to secure the deterrence,” she told SBS.

She said she was instructed by Department of Immigration and Citizenship officials that she must not discuss Australia as an option for detainees but must instead emphasise that, if they did not return home, they would never leave PNG.

On the Sunday, Thompson said, the last hope of detainees leaving the centre faded when a PNG official told them his government would not resettle them.

Tensions rose that afternoon in the Oscar compound. Detainees chanted in protest. Some staff say they were warned by asylum seekers that mounting frustrations would soon boil over, that those who favoured peaceful protest may not be able to rein it in. Manus Island MP Ron Knight has said local guards were taunted and insulted.

On Monday, February 17, Morrison released a statement that all staff were safe and the centre was reported to be calm. Suggestions “that transferees had been informed they would not be settled in Papua New Guinea are false”.

That night, the violence escalated, this time in the Mike compound.

The riot began as the PNG police dog squad was invited into the centre about 9.44pm, according to a guard’s statement reported by Guardian Australia.

According to the statement, detainees started throwing rocks at two officers. The asylum seekers reportedly armed themselves with pipes and covered their faces with T-shirts, becoming increasingly aggressive.

Police turned on detainees, according to the incident report. At 11.30pm, the officer in charge of the centre’s riot team, made up of Papua New Guineans, “lost control” and the team’s members “dispersed into the immediate area of Mike compound”.

Asylum seekers in this compound were described as being “frightened and distracted”. Other reports had them being dragged from their beds and beaten in the darkness. By morning, 77 people were injured. Somewhere, and by someone, Barati was killed.

A PNG police report on the incident, leaked to the media, says guards who were trying to stop asylum seekers rioting were “overpowered” and “seriously assaulted” and that police fired warning shots in the air. The situation would have been worse but for their intervention.

Bokan had lost her job earlier in the day. She was escorted from  the centre on the Monday morning, after an altercation during which she intervened on behalf of an injured detainee who had been set upon by G4S guards. “It was barbaric, the things that happened there were barbaric.”

3 . Looming problems with resttlement

The Abbott government has dispatched extra guards following the violence on Manus Island. It has ordered a review by former bureaucrat Rob Cornall. PNG police are conducting a separate investigation.

In the debate on the “Malaysia Solution”, Morrison expressed horror that asylum seekers may be caned in Kuala Lumpur. Now, as minister, he is determined to see through the Manus deal.

Even if the centre remains calm, a very real problem looms: what to do with asylum seekers who are found to be refugees. Conflicting signals have emerged from PNG about whether refugees will be allowed to stay and live there longterm. No other country has offered to take them and such offers are unlikely as Australia’s policy attracts increasing global criticism.

Marles says resettlement is the key to making the Manus arrangement work. He says Morrison and other ministers should be making regular trips to PNG and find a way to settle asylum seekers there.

Labor’s agreement with PNG had little detail on how this would work. Marles maintains this was appropriate, as it should be up to PNG to come up with the options, supported by Australia. Much hangs now on whether this is possible.

Australia’s government and opposition remain committed to their solution. As Barati’s corpse is flown to his family in Iran, Manus Island looks to be among Rudd’s most lasting legacies as prime minister. There are 1300 people in a detention centre off PNG, outside our borders but inside our responsibility, and it may not be just once that their apparent hopelessness boils over.


This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 28, 2014 as "“It was barbaric”: How we got to Manus Island".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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