Manus Island: Inside the brutal end game
Initially, the messages came in an anxiously rapid stream – local police and a paramilitary squad had entered the former camp on Manus Island, finally enforcing the long-passed eviction deadline and dismantling what was, by now, a predominately makeshift infrastructure. One photo showed a local man with a large knife, seemingly preparing to slash an asylum seeker’s painting. “One of them is holding knife and telling us in worst behaviour to leave or you will regret.”
Other photos showed Papua New Guinean authorities tearing apart furniture and emptying plastic crates containing personal possessions. The almost month-long standoff was ending. One asylum seeker, Samad Abdul, wrote: “They are having hard sticks on their hands, and making us scared with loud and unacceptable voices.”
Journalist and refugee Behrouz Boochani wrote: “They are destroying everything. Shelters, tanks, beds and all our belongings. They are very aggressive and put our belongings in the rubbish bins. The refugees still are silent are watching them so scared.”
The men didn’t remain silent. Soon, streams of video arrived depicting agitated crowds chanting: “They want to kill us! Human rights, help us please!”
Boochani has served as something of a leader in the camp for years, and has written prolifically about life there. Last month, he received an Amnesty International media award for articles written for this paper and Guardian Australia. A film he secretly made with his phone – and edited with a documentarian in the Netherlands – has been shown at international film festivals.
About 12.30pm on Thursday, Boochani was arrested by local police. Footage shows him being led away from the camp by two men in grey fatigues. At time of writing, I could not ascertain the charge – if any. There were unconfirmed reports that other refugee leadership members were also arrested.
Later in the afternoon, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance issued this statement on his arrest: “MEAA, the union for Australian media workers, stands in solidarity with Iranian-Kurdish journalist and regular contributor to Australian publications, Behrouz Boochani, who has reportedly been arrested today on Manus Island.
“… MEAA Chief Executive Paul Murphy said Boochani appeared to have been deliberately targeted by Papua New Guinea police in today’s crackdown because of his high-profile as a journalist reporting from inside the detention centre.”
The Papua New Guinean government gave assurances that no violence would be used against the men in effecting their transfer to the new accommodation. But there were scenes of panic and chaos. One disturbing photo purportedly showed an epileptic man who had collapsed, and another man worriedly bent over him, offering water. It was alleged that police had struck him on the head or chest, but this could not be corroborated.
The human rights director of GetUp!, Shen Narayanasamy, was smuggled into the camp almost a fortnight ago. She told me that three men were in need of urgent medical attention. “It’s an incredibly volatile situation,” she said. “There are no medical facilities here. Some men have been without medication for days, or even weeks. PNG officials are left with a mess not of their own making, but there’s a history of violence from them against their own people. It’s desperate. It’s a situation in which death, even inadvertent, is possible.”
For years, men on Manus have become desperate documentarians, sending journalists photos, footage, written accounts – even poetry and illustrations. But by lunchtime Thursday, contact began slowing. Phones were being confiscated. Sources fell offline. “The noose is being tightened,” Tim Costello, chief advocate of World Vision Australia, told me.
Costello arrived on Manus on Wednesday – the same day the “mobile squad” were given orders to end the standoff the following morning. When I spoke with Costello, he was near the perimeter of the camp, where a police cordon was assembled. “Every time I get close, they push me back,” he said. “The mobile squad are there, but I’m not sure of their terms of engagement. There has been a promise of no force, but that’s not what I’ve been hearing – but I cannot confirm that. I think there are two things to consider. The first is that authorities are showing them that they are serious by roughing up the property … The well the men dug has been destroyed, and water supplies are now a crisis point.
“The second thing to consider is that the PNG government believes the world is watching. It’s concerned about its reputation. It doesn’t want to confirm suspicions, sometimes unfair, that it’s lawless. And we must remember that we contracted out our problem to one of the world’s poorest countries.”
I’m hearing the word “volatile” a lot. Among the tropical heat, there are impatient police, paramilitary squads, unsettled locals and seriously ill asylum seekers – men whom psychiatrists have examined and reported upon their alarmingly deteriorated health. On radio, as the camp was being smashed apart by soldiers, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton spoke of the asylum seekers’ ingratitude – new accommodation had been built for them but they had chosen instead to live in filth. “I think it’s outrageous that people are still there,” the minister told Radio 2GB. “They’ve trashed the facility, they’re living in squalor … The Australian taxpayers have paid about $10 million for a new facility and we want people to move.”
A transfer was necessary after Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court found the indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers to be unconstitutional. But as a former executive of the Department of Immigration told me on Thursday, such a transfer was not a solution – it was another act of short termism. Given that the former camp, which more than 400 men have refused to leave, does not have safe water supplies, electricity or basic amenities, it is easily argued that the new accommodation is much safer. But it does not solve the problem of what will happen to these men.
Dutton’s indignation elides the fact that the accommodation is incomplete and inadequately staffed, and that the men’s fears of local reprisal are neither illusory nor confected.
I have written – as many others have – about the night of February 17, 2014. It bears repeating. On that night, contrary to the Australian government’s initial statements, locals stormed the camp and murdered 23-year-old Reza Barati. Beaten to the ground, Barati’s head was crushed with a rock. This caused “catastrophic injury” and he died of a heart attack. It was a wicked death, and one that has caused profound suffering to his friends who witnessed it.
Dutton may be frustrated, but his indignation resembles that of a disappointed landlord and not a man who bears grave responsibility for these extremely ill men. Ideally, they would have all voluntarily transferred to the new accommodation. Just as ideally, they would not have witnessed the gruesome murder of their friend, nor had their camp shot at by drunken sailors. Dutton may be frustrated that the men have chosen squalor over freshly built accommodation, but his indignation is grossly selective. He fingers a perplexing ingratitude as the culprit, but for a population of men who have witnessed murder, had friends suicide, who present with horrifying levels of mental disorder, he doesn’t appear to have considered any other cause.
Mid-afternoon, and I’ve been sent a photo of the men’s few water supplies – a barrel that is now a rubbish bin. The men say police dumped garbage here, to contaminate it. The noose is tightening. But contact with the men is getting harder. On a messaging app, Walid writes: “We can’t take pictures or video. Whole area is surrounded by them. When they see anyone filming, they catch him, beat him and take him. They are beating guys, and putting them by force on buses and trucks. They have big, big rods and sticks in hands. Police and [local] immigration both are doing it.”
Minutes later came this: “They destroyed medication of sick guys as well. This is Peter Dutton’s ordered operation. The authorities trashed and destroyed our property. They have big rods and big sticks in hands, yelling us, abusing us and use disrespectful words. We don’t know if we have a future. These might be our last days of our lives.”
So turbulent have been the past 10 years of federal governance that the public could be forgiven for forgetting the myriad, often cynical developments in Australia’s offshore processing policy. But for four consecutive prime ministers now, the singular goal has been to “stop the boats” – not problematic in itself, but so narrow and politicised a goal that the broader policy of resettlement has suffered.
On Thursday afternoon I spoke with a source who worked at high levels in the government on immigration policy. Themes I have heard from immigration bureaucrats for years were reaffirmed. That policy was made with obscene haste, was often improvised, was damaged by serial leadership changes, and suffered from senior public servants who were overly deferential to their impatient political masters. That policy suffered again when there was a mass departure of executive talent when the Department of Immigration merged with customs, and assumed a more militaristic outlook. Reaffirmed was the fact that for years many within the department held fears that elements of the offshore policy were legally dubious. Having arrived at that conclusion, some left and some stayed.
Late on Thursday, Boochani was released from custody. He tweeted the following: “I’ve just been released. They handcuffed me for more than two hours in a place behind the prison camp. The police commander yelled at me ‘you are reporting against us.’ They pushed me several times and broke my belongings. Will write more about it later.”
Earlier, he tweeted: “We are blockading right now. So many police and immigration officers are around us at this moment. They destroyed everything and our belongings and right now are shouting at us to leave the prison camp. I am tweeting from a toilet right now.”
And: “The situation is critical. Two of the refugees fell down and are in high risk. So many people are around the sick guys. The refugees are chanting this slogan ‘Freedom, Freedom’.”
And: “The police, special forces, police squad are now in their hundreds, spreading through the prison camp and around the prison. Navy soldiers are outside the prison camp. We are on high alert right now. We are under attack.”
And: “Peter Dutton stop propaganda against us. You have created this situation and you are responsible. You are lying to people that you built a new accommodation. Those places are real prison, stop using people for your political benefit. You can not force us to live in another prison.”
This isn’t an end point. Personally, I believe the new accommodation to be safer – it must be, given the water and hygiene crisis of the dismantled camp. But we must understand that already traumatised men have been further traumatised by their time in these camps. This week’s evacuation, arrests, threats, panic and medical concerns were inevitable, but only because of the situation our government created.
A possible, partial solution is to resettle 150 refugees a year in New Zealand – an offer made by former prime minister John Key and continued by Jacinda Ardern. But fearing their eventual citizenship there, and subsequent uncomplicated immigration to Australia, our government has effectively threatened our neighbours with unspecified diplomatic punishment should they make an agreement with Papua New Guinea. This is the dreaded “backdoor” route to Australia, but our government might be flattering itself if it thinks these men, having arrived in New Zealand, would be eager to come here.
I watch again a video of the men resisting in the camp. A man appears to be unconscious, his shirt unbuttoned, his friends attempting to revive him. His head lolls back and forth. Another man also collapses. There is an appalling cry, over and over. It sounds like the mewling of a cat, but louder and more terrible. It is the sound of desperation.
“This is Peter Dutton,” one of the refugees says. “Peter Dutton has confirmed this police operation. The killing operation is under way, and you can see. It’s a killing operation, it’s not moving operation. It’s just the starting.”
The screaming continues. It gets louder and more obscene. “Water,” the voice says. “Water, water. Please.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 25, 2017 as "Malcolm Turnbull (02) 6277 7700". Subscribe here.