As PNG rules detention on Manus Island illegal, the situation on Nauru worsens daily, with self-harm and child suicide attempts rife. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Manus, Nauru detention: this is not our Australia

Children detained on Nauru, photographed by an adult asylum seeker.
Children detained on Nauru, photographed by an adult asylum seeker.

It is difficult to write with restraint now. In fact, it is simply difficult to write. The pleasures of my craft are unavailable to me, and they seem hardly to matter anyway. I’ve been told, by those in Nauru’s camps, that seven people have attempted suicide or serious self-harm in the past 24 hours. Razor blades have been swallowed; washing powder consumed by children. One man soaked himself in petrol and set himself alight before his wife and a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees inspector. As I write, photos are being sent to me of the Iranian man’s scorched body. A wicked percentage of it is melted. On Friday, he died. 

All this is made more difficult by the fact one of the suicide attempts was made by a source of mine, a young woman. I had inquired about her wellbeing, assuming she might have known someone affected. In fact, she told me, she was one of those who had tried to take her life. “Last night I swallowed washing powder. A lady did the same. Ambulance took both of us to medical. An hour later two boys, they also did the same and were taken to medical. Their ages are 16 and 13.”

The conditions in Nauru’s camps have been deteriorating since their inception, as has been repeatedly reported in these, and other, pages. It is tempting to view these past 24 hours as a horrific and inevitable climax, but that supposes a subsequent resolution. This is not that kind of story. There is no catharsis here for asylum seekers – the camps were conceived bleakly and they remain bleak. Time is experienced as agonising stasis. The conditions that are described as deteriorating are largely psychological, and they have devolved rapidly. If children aren’t self-harming, they are witnessing such acts, or being abused in circumstances ill-prepared to prevent it. Desperation and nihilism reign. 

Half an hour after I learnt of Ruby’s suicide attempt, Labor’s shadow immigration minister Richard Marles was on television declaring that “offshore processing has been the single most important policy that any Australian government has made”. The insensitivity is jarring, but no more than the hyperbole. The policy is not without its brutal effectiveness, but one struggles to compare either its influence or benefits with the Statute of Westminster, the abolition of White Australia, or the deregulation undertaken in the 1980s. His words were a calamity of moral and historical misjudgement, but evidently there is no appetite for Labor to qualify this policy. Richard Marles was doubling down. 

1 . ‘Unconstitutional and illegal’

The angst experienced by those on Nauru was stirred by this week’s decision by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court, which asserted, in a 5-0 ruling, the illegality of the Manus Island detention centre. The court found that it unconstitutionally deprived the liberty of its occupants. “In the present case,” the court wrote, “the undisputed facts clearly reveal that the asylum seekers had no intention of entering and remaining in PNG. Their destination was and continues to be Australia. They did not enter PNG and do not remain in PNG on their own accord. This is confirmed by the very fact of their forceful transfer and continued detention on MIPC by the PNG and Australian governments. It was the joint efforts of the Australian and PNG governments that has seen the asylum seekers brought into PNG and kept at the MIPC against their will. This [sic] arrangements were outside the Constitutional and legal framework in PNG.” 

The court then ordered “both the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments shall forthwith take all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees at the relocation centre on Manus Island and the continued breach of the asylum seekers or transferees Constitutional and human rights”. 

The judgement was a long time coming, but the Australian government was shambolically unprepared for it. What has been strong about the offshore policy is the government’s unwavering commitment to it; but its legal, moral and logistical substance has always been weak. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the government had “anticipated” the ruling, but could offer no evidence for it. Dutton’s comment also had the consequence of undermining his prime minister, who contradicted his immigration minister when he lamented that his government did not have a “road map” for what happens next. Rather, we were all asked to find comfort in earnest negotiations. The two men, however, sang in unison when both declared that none of the 900 men on Manus would ever be relocated to Australia. “We cannot be misty-eyed about this,” said the prime minister. 

One option might be to transform the detention centre into an “open” camp – as happened in Nauru – by essentially opening the front gate so that asylum seekers might come and go. This would presumably erase the issue of detention. But while this might satisfy the constitution, it is far from satisfactory. Manus is a small island, and the centre itself is a long way from the main town. Local hostility here is arguably even greater than on Nauru, so much so that only eight of more than 400 men determined to be refugees have chosen settlement outside the centre. 

This isn’t a flippant choice. In February 2014, PNG police and locals breached the centre and began beating asylum seekers. Reza Barati, a 23-year-old Iranian man, was bludgeoned repeatedly with a large piece of wood topped with a nail. While Barati lay bleeding, a large stone was dropped on his head. An autopsy revealed “severe brain trauma”. In Scott Morrison’s press conference at the time, as immigration minister, the riot was described as a “disturbance” that resulted in “minor damage”. Barati was blamed for leaving the safety of the camp, which he never did and which asylum seekers will now likely be encouraged to do.

One of Barati’s killers – who was convicted this month – was on the run for five months before his arrest. He later escaped prison while awaiting sentencing. Before the trial, witnesses to the killing spoke to this paper about receiving death threats. This is what these men consider when the prospect of open camps is raised. “For those that have been deemed to be legitimate refugees,” PNG’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill, said this week, “we invite them to live in Papua New Guinea only if they want to be a part of our society and make a contribution to our community. It is clear that several of these refugees do not want to settle in Papua New Guinea and that is their decision.”

But only last month, speaking at the National Press Club, O’Neill admitted his country struggled to settle refugees. In what appeared to be a plea for more aid money, O’Neill said: “We have issues about cost of the resettlement, who is going to pay for it? Certainly [the] Papua New Guinea government does not have the resources to resettle the refugees as required.”

There is another hurdle to the legislative solution, and that’s the growing distaste the PNG government has for it. O’Neill, once a keen advocate for the arrangement with Australia, now describes the centre as a sore on his country’s reputation. In the same Canberra speech, O’Neill characterised the centre as a “problem” he had inherited from his predecessors. We may wait and see if there is a sufficient price that might restore his previous enthusiasm. 

It seems Marles is wondering the same thing. This week, he urged Dutton to find solutions. The Australian government could offer PNG more money, Marles proposed, or be encouraged to change its laws. Bizarrely, he offered these as two discrete tactics, but the provision of money itself does not suddenly make the centre legal. Marles was offering one solution, not two – that PNG might pass laws legalising the centre in exchange for more cash. It would be difficult to find a balder description of how cravenly we sell off our responsibilities. 

There’s another possibility – the transfer of these 900 men, most established as refugees, to Nauru. It’s dubious whether the country could practically withstand such a transfer, but regardless Dutton assured us it was an option. “There is capacity [on Nauru] but we’re talking with the PNG government about what options are available in PNG and we’ll continue those discussions with them,” he said on Thursday. 

These men would be entering a country that has struggled to either accept or integrate the refugees it already has, and would be placed with people now attempting suicide at dramatic rates. Before the notional influx of 900 men, this is a place that has been disturbingly – some might say deliberately – inadequate in its care for asylum seekers. A similar option is the transfer of these men to detention centres on Christmas Island. Dutton has remained as reticent on this, though, as he has on Nauru. 

2 . Despair accelerates

Following the decision this week, Dutton said: “This is a matter for PNG.” It is a bit of rhetorical idiocy, directly contradicted by the Supreme Court’s orders and Dutton’s own admission of negotiations, hilariously suggesting a narrowness of Australia’s responsibility. It very clearly is not just a matter for PNG, however much Dutton must wish it were. 

Meanwhile, on Nauru, there exists a rapidly accelerating despair. Self-harming and suicidal children are commonplace now. In a 2013 report of Australia’s immigration network, Dr Nicholas Procter found: “All available evidence points to the conclusion that suicide is the leading cause of premature death for detainees across the network.”

Before setting himself alight this week, the Iranian yelled: “This is how tired we are, this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore.” He is 23 and an established refugee. Apparently oblivious to what that status suggests of the detainees’ homes, Peter Dutton has suggested yet another option – for them to return there. A day passed before a helicopter arrived to transfer the Iranian to an Australian hospital.

Our government’s intransigence has survived international censure, murder and a plague of suicide attempts, and it will also survive PNG’s constitutional ruling. That’s where we are, and where it seems we’re destined to remain. Though not all of the Labor Party agree. Late in the week, Fairfax Media was reporting that at least four Labor MPs were deviating from script and suggesting that those on Manus be transferred to Australia. 

“It’s inevitable that the government will need to have another plan for what is going to happen, and the most logical thing to do is to bring those people to Australia,” said Melissa Parke, a former UN lawyer. “We have caused them enough suffering already. This is a sick game and it needs to end.” 

Senator Lisa Singh, from Tasmania, suggested using a rehabilitated facility in Pontville. Not everyone was doubling down, and no doubt Dutton enjoyed the distraction. 

But it’s all the same on Nauru. There’s no catharsis, only that agonising stasis. On Friday, Ruby was waiting to be released from the medical tent. She had witnessed many suicide attempts before making her own. She had seen her young brother desperately pummel a wall with his fists, and tried to intervene when an irritated guard tried to pummel him in turn. I have spoken with Ruby a number of times. She’s articulate. But there’s the same precocious solemnity to her voice as there is to the other young people I have spoken to on Nauru. It’s a profound, inflicted weariness.

Lifeline 13 11 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2016 as "This is not our Australia".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

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

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.