The politicised push to eliminate asylum seeker deaths at sea has tragically failed to calculate greater humanitarian costs and the deaths of 11 people. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The human toll of Manus

Refugees sleep in the open air to escape oppressive conditions inside the Manus Island detention centre before it was evacuated.
Refugees sleep in the open air to escape oppressive conditions inside the Manus Island detention centre before it was evacuated.

After the partisan euphoria of Kevin 07, things began to unfurl quickly for the Mandarin priest. Rudd became the first Labor prime minister to fail to fulfil a first term. A decade later, we’re still experiencing the political ramifications of that fact.

By the evening of June 23, 2010, a majority of Labor’s caucus had assembled around Julia Gillard. His removal was now inevitable, but late that night a bitterly defiant Rudd gave a press conference in which he listed his achievements, invoked the trust of the people, and stated his intention to contest a leadership ballot the next morning.

“If I am returned as the leader of the party and the government and as prime minister, then I will be very clear about one thing – this party and government will not be lurching to the right on the question of asylum seekers, as some have counselled us to do,” Rudd said.

Later in the media conference, taking questions from stunned reporters, Rudd reaffirmed this position: “I’ve been very plain about what I said before and you’ve heard me say things about asylum seeker policy recently. I believe it is absolutely wrong for this country to, and absolutely wrong in terms of the values which we hold dear, to get engaged in some sort of race to the right in this country on the question of asylum seekers. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. That’s the direction the Liberal Party would like to take us. Under my leadership, we will not be going in that direction.”

The numbers were unassailable. By morning Rudd was resigned to them – there would be no ballot. But while he was wrong about his prospects, he was right to anticipate a “lurch to the right” on asylum seeker policy. Under Gillard, it happened almost immediately. Rudd’s immigration minister, Chris Evans, once acknowledged that the issue of “boat people” was “killing the government”. Gillard’s immigration minister, Chris Bowen, was similarly concerned that a failure to mitigate Tony Abbott’s “stop the boat” mantra – and repeated accusations of Labor’s weakness on national security – was bludgeoning their electoral prospects in Western Australia, Queensland and western Sydney.

In one of her first speeches as prime minister, Gillard declared her desire to establish a processing centre in East Timor. By March, the country’s chief diplomat dismissed the idea, citing reasons that might have reasonably applied to eventual clients Nauru and Papua New Guinea. “Timor-Leste is a new country,” Dr Alberto Carlos told The Age. “We have lots of problems to deal with. Our priority is to find the best way to solve our problems. We have to improve the living conditions here. At this stage, we don’t see any urgency to discuss this matter.”

After Gillard’s so-called Malaysia Solution – a proposal to exchange 800 people in Australian immigration detention with 4000 refugees in Malaysia – was ruled illegal by the Australian High Court in 2011, the government had moved closer to a harsher revival of Howard’s Pacific Solution. In August 2012 – buoyed by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers’ report – Gillard introduced legislation that would resuscitate mandatory offshore detention for those arriving by boat. The panel’s recommendations were always intended as a short-term response, but this policy was not.

By this time, about 1000 men, women and children had died at sea since Rudd was sworn in as prime minister in 2007. A precise figure is difficult to attain. The expert panel made clear that a priority of its recommendations was to reduce – or eliminate – these deaths. Gillard’s and Rudd’s policies, while undoubtedly politically motivated, also sought to address this.

By the time Rudd returned to The Lodge in 2013, he had shifted 180 degrees from his warning three years earlier. Within a fortnight, he had signed memorandums of understanding with both the Papua New Guinean and Nauruan governments. “I understand this is a very hardline decision. I understand the different groups in Australia and around the world will see this decision in different ways,” Rudd said.

“But our responsibility as a government is to ensure we have a robust system of border security and orderly migration on the one hand, as well as fulfilling our legal and compassionate obligations under the Refugees’ Convention on the other hand.”

As I have written many times before, it’s my belief that opponents of offshore detention have rarely grappled with those deaths at sea – nor accepted their presumed elimination in our waters. Because this humanitarian problem was inextricably linked to a political one, opponents often emphasised one at the expense of the other.

But because the humanitarian solution – preventing deaths at sea – was so often invoked as justification, it is only right to examine the humanitarian cost of it. It is immense. Some may favour a calculation of utility – that the suicides and prolific mental deterioration is better than myriad drownings. But this would apply a fatuous limitation to policy options. As immigration minister, Chris Bowen promised a mature conversation about offshore processing. We’ve seen little of it in the past few years. What was preferred was haste, not contemplation.

If the designers of our current policy are to cite humanitarian concerns – though this occurs less frequently – we should not permit this to be conveniently limited to the alleged successes of the policy. It should apply also to the damage it has wrought.

Since Rudd’s deposition in 2010, 11 men have died in offshore detention, though not all as a direct result of the policy. Last month, an unnamed Bangladeshi man was fatally struck by a car while riding a motorcycle on Nauru. Last year, Kamil Hussain drowned while swimming at a waterfall on Manus Island. Two other deaths occurred on Christmas Island.

But in the past three months, two men on Manus have killed themselves. In August, the body of Hamed Shamshiripour was found hanging in a forest. The images were horrifying. Friends of his told me of his worsening mental health in the year preceding his death. He was prone to psychotic episodes. A year before the suicide, the Australian Border Force’s chief medical officer was personally told about Hamed’s health crisis. It seems little was done. At the time of his death, Hamed was homeless. His volatile, sometimes violent behaviour was not treated adequately and he was shuffled between camps, jail and the streets. When I spoke with a friend of Hamed’s, his response was darkly paranoid – he wondered if Hamed was murdered. That paranoia is a function of mental illness, but it is not entirely ungrounded. “Man, I don’t know if I’ll walk out of here alive,” he said. “I think they are working for a mass elimination plan. To get rid of all of us at once. I mean to kill us all here. We have already lost five men just on Manus, and a handful on Nauru. Don’t you think it’s a sign?”

Less than two months later, a 32-year-old Tamil refugee was found dead near the Lorengau hospital. Another suicide. On the day he was found, the man was due to face a committal hearing for an alleged sexual assault. Friends told media that he had not received proper treatment for mental health issues – that none was available.

On Christmas Eve last year, Faysal Ishak Ahmed, a 27-year-old Sudanese man, died in a Brisbane hospital after an emergency flight from Manus. He had collapsed in the detention centre, following months of seizures and chest pains. In the months before his death, Ahmed had written at least two letters of complaint to International Health and Medical Services – the health provider the Australian government contracted to staff its offshore detention centres – alleging their inattention. His death was referred to the Queensland coroner.

It is not the only one. The Queensland coroner is also investigating the death of Hamid Khazaei, who died of septicaemia in a Brisbane hospital in 2014. His death occurred 13 days after he presented at the Manus Island medical facility, described by an Australian doctor at inquest hearings last year as “extremely basic”. Khazaei was eventually transferred to Port Moresby hospital, and, after delays, to Brisbane. The inquest – which has not yet released its findings – heard that despite the medical urgency, Khazaei’s air evacuation was delayed by multiple layers of Australian bureaucracy, comprising people without medical qualifications and averse to granting transfers.

Then there was Omid Masoumali, the 23-year-old Iranian man who immolated himself before UNHCR inspectors on Nauru last year. Like the others, he died in a Brisbane hospital – transfer to which, his wife alleges, was delayed. Footage showed the moment he splashed himself with petrol and set himself alight. A forensic psychiatrist, Nina Zimmerman, on Nauru to examine the health of the asylum seekers, was metres away. “There was a terrible scream,” Zimmerman told me last year. “I looked up as he went up in flames. There was a terrible smell. My translator ran to him to try and remove his clothes, another poured a bucket of water on him. His body was white, which indicates a full thickness burn.”

This list is not exhaustive. Nor have the descriptions of their deaths done justice to their lives. This small account has also excluded the prolific self-harm, most disturbingly of children. For years now, I have spoken with doctors, security guards and teachers who have witnessed children cut themselves or swallow nails and washing powder.

So this week, as news arrives from PNG that refugee management staff in the new compounds have been evacuated after concerns for their safety – as was long predicted – we might recall Chris Bowen’s promise for a more mature conversation about offshore processing. It never came, but people have died waiting for it.


Malcolm Turnbull

(02) 6277 7700

(02) 9327 3988


Bill Shorten

(02) 6277 4022

(03) 9326 1300


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2017 as "Counting the toll".

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

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