The report into Reza Barati’s death on Manus Island only serves to highlight the reckless endorsement by both sides of politics of a grossly unsuitable processing centre. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Cornall report into the death of Reza Barati on Manus Island

An asylum seeker in Delta compound holds aloft a picture of Reza Barati at the Manus Island detention centre.
An asylum seeker in Delta compound holds aloft a picture of Reza Barati at the Manus Island detention centre.
Reza Barati died on Los Negros Island, a remote crossroad for a desperate and improvised form of globalisation. An Iranian asylum seeker, Barati was living in a processing centre administered by Papua New Guinea, and conceived and paid for by Australia. Separate paths of geopolitical flux, an ill-formed country’s quest for development, and our domestic politics meet here on a tiny parcel of the Admiralty Islands. 

As various global forces coalesced on Los Negros, separated from the larger island of Manus by a narrow stream, so too did various factors conspire in the killing of Barati. This week an Australian report on the death, and the surrounding melee, was released. Titled simply “Review into the Events of 16-18 February 2014 at the Manus Regional Processing Centre”, the report and investigation was undertaken by Robert Cornall, AO, a former head of the Attorney-General’s Department.

It is a bleak document, not just for the killing it describes and structural dysfunction that encouraged it, but for how obvious and inexorable the violence was. Asylum seekers, staff and PNG police have been locked in a murderous antagonism for months now, the toxic result of some detainees’ racial hatred of locals, the frustration of indeterminate processing times, and the inadequate training and professionalism of staff. 

But first there is the centre itself, which Cornall reports was a contributing factor to the violence. The complex is made up of four compounds: the large Oscar and Foxtrot compounds, Delta compound, and the recently built Mike compound. The centre has existed, under former governments and policies, as a “temporary, low-security offshore processing centre” and was used as such when reopened in 2012. This part is crucial: it was low security because, as Cornall writes, “Before August 2013, the transferees at the Manus Centre were largely compliant as they knew it was only a matter of time before they were brought to Australia.”

The nature of the place changed dramatically when, in July 2013, prime minister Kevin Rudd announced a policy turn: asylum seekers dispatched to Manus would be resettled in PNG. It demanded a serious security upgrade for the centre, which to this day has not been completed. Cornall writes “the level of physical security in the centre was considerably less than in an onshore processing detention centre. The difference is apparent as soon as one arrives. The fences are single, chain-link fences less than two metres high that can be pushed over easily. There are no CCTV cameras. There are limited separation facilities for transferees who have been behaving badly.” 

Meanwhile, the population of the centre grew quickly, with detainees held in inadequate compounds, the insecurity of which “contributed to the loss of control during the incidents”. These improvements weren’t first noted by Cornall, either – he’s drawing from the advice of the security firm G4S and the Australian military who assessed the compound last year. A caretaker period, change of government and the switching of the contracted security company – from G4S to Transfield – no doubt helped delay the improvements to infrastructure, which Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said this week were under way. 

But this elides the major point: the centre should never have been used under the new policy until it was structurally suited. The political calculation, made by both major parties last year, was to demonstrate their muscularity to voters by not only announcing (Rudd) or supporting (Tony Abbott) the policy, but enacting it immediately. It stands as a damning bit of irresponsibility practised by both sides. 

1 . Cornall's report

The report’s title includes just three days, but it examines the latent elements of the violence that preceded it. There were many locals working within the centre. The contract with service provider G4S – which was responsible not only for security, but catering, cleaning and maintenance – stipulated a quota for local employment. For security, it was mandated that at least 50 per cent of guards be locals; for all other services the quota was 75 per cent. 

Among this, the report details a Petri dish of mutual resentment. Cornall detected a malignant racial contempt some detainees had for locals. He noted that “according to a senior G4S officer, they demonstrated their views by treating the PNG nationals with disrespect, for example by: niggling them … threatening to blackmail them … and spreading rubbish on the floor while it was being cleaned”. Another staff member told Cornall that: “The locals took the view that while transferees did not want to be in PNG, PNG did not want them here either.” 

The atmosphere of the camp was poisoned further by uncertainty – detainees were agonised by the inability of authorities to tell them how long it would take to process them. Hope was swollen, then dashed, at Christmas last year when a rumour circulated that the Australian government would soon be offering them amnesty and immediate and permanent repatriation to Australia. The rumour was false. Not long after, they began demanding answers. Tension was building, a recurring theme of monthly G4S intelligence reports. 

Protests had already begun, and G4S was raising the threat rating. On Australia Day, some detainees unfurled banners made from bedsheets. A meeting was organised for February 5 between compound community leaders, and centre managers, in an attempt to quell tension. As a result of this meeting, a formal list of 11 questions was handed to the managers. The list included the burning questions of the detainees, largely about how long they would be confined there. Staff knew the questions would need to be answered promptly. They told Canberra to expedite the answers, and promised the detainees answers within 12 days. A follow-up meeting was organised for February 16. 

But the answers weren’t pretty: yes, it takes a long time to process you. No, we don’t know how long it will take – maybe up to four years. No, you will not be resettled in Australia. Never. Yes, you can go back home whenever you like. 

Unsurprisingly, the meeting descended into chaos. An earlier G4S intelligence report, from February 12, noted “information was also reported … from staff in Oscar compound that suggests transferees will target expat staff with violence on 16, 17 and 18 February”. On February 14, a detainee slapped a PNG staff member. The staff member took a swing back at his opponent’s jaw. Things were at tipping point. Violence was in the air. 

There were rolling protests and melees for three days from February 16 – the day of the meeting – and on this day, 30 to 35 detainees escaped the compound when the gates opened for a delivery van. They were quickly captured and beaten by G4S guards. One guard, a PNG local, moved up behind a detainee and slashed him from ear to ear, possibly with a piece of corrugated iron. Cornall notes the man’s scar, which runs along his neck, and his fortune at having survived. In all of this, PNG police arrested eight detainees. 

The next day, many staff didn’t want to go into the compounds. The place was explosive. G4S staff conducted searches for weapons, and cleared areas of large stones and sticks. They also frequently emptied wheelie bins, to prevent their contents being torched. That evening, another violent protest erupted: detainees began tearing down fences and smashing property. It is important to note here that, for all of these violent protests, Cornall emphasises that not all detainees participated – and that some who did may have been coerced by compound bullies. 

The G4S Incident Response Team tried to control the riot but they were without weapons, using only shields to hold a line between them and the rest of the compound. It’s at this point that what Cornall writes contradicts Morrison’s early statements: “Without any warning to or arrangement with G4S, the mobile squad [of the PNG police] pushed over the fence and entered Mike compound. The review was told that PNG nationals and a few expatriates, some identified as service-provider employees, followed the mobile squad into Mike compound and started bashing transferees. Some transferees reported that they bought immunity from bashing with cigarettes, the centre’s currency.” 

One detainee was beaten so badly he lost his right eye. Another was shot in the buttocks. Cornall describes how police shot into buildings. Then there was Reza Barati, Boat number FRT067. Barati’s friend, whose name is redacted in the report, told Cornall what he saw: “When he fall, all of the guards who were passing, they kick him in his head, and the last one, one of the PNG locals, he put a very big stone at his head”.

Barati suffered a “catastrophic cranial injury”, according to the medical report. His friend and witness to the killing told Cornall that Barati was not involved in the protest.

Releasing the report, Morrison was still blaming these protests for Barati’s death. It was with something resembling relief that he announced a Salvation Army employee was allegedly responsible. 

“Mr Barati was struck from behind by a service provider staff member – not G4S, it was actually Salvation Army … There would have been no incident that night had there been no protests, I think that’s clear to say. But the protests in no way could ever justify what happened to Mr Barati or the other serious violent acts perpetrated on that night.”

2 . Secret success

Already, Papua New Guinea has been critical of the report. The country’s deputy police commissioner called it inconclusive and insufficient grounds on which to prosecute. He said his country’s investigation into Barati’s death was being hampered by a lack of co-operation from key witnesses. “This whole matter stinks of a major cover-up.”

Cornall is meek about whether Manus should have opened before it was ready. The report’s obliging tone of neutrality is infrequently broken by astonishment at the cynicism and shortcuts of the policy. And if it’s meek on that fact, it’s silent on the moral turpitude of the whole venture. The terms of reference consign it to an examination of the violence and its antecedents – not the very existence of the centre itself. While 13 recommendations are made to mitigate against future violence, neither virtue nor vanity have compelled Cornall to call for its abolishment. And while Cornall recognises flaws, he refuses the larger, horrific picture: these aren’t failures. It’s success. 

The intention was to banish asylum seekers to Devil’s Island. The whole thing is a warning: don’t try it, or you’ll end up here. Cornall’s report can’t say it, but I will: this is what success looks like.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Deadly oversight".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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