Image: Cairns IndyWatch Feed

Image: Cairns IndyWatch Feed

An unfolding humanitarian emergency

10 November 2017

The Australian government formally closed the Manus Regional Processing Centre on 31 October. The MRPC was an offshore immigration detention facility at a naval base on Manus Island in northern Papua New Guinea, which held around 750 people at its last official count. Refugee solidarity groups across Australia have long called for it to close, along with camps in Nauru and elsewhere. But last week’s developments are no cause for celebration.

About 600 male refugees are left on the decommissioned site, which had its water and electricity supplies cut off ten days ago. There have been reports of missionaries with food and other necessities being prevented from accessing the camp, and as many as 20 per cent of the men are thought to require medication for mental health conditions. The UNHCR has described the situation as an ‘unfolding humanitarian emergency’.

According to the Australian government, the refugees have been offered accommodation in the town of Lorengau, ten miles away. UN observers have said the housing in question is unfinished and unfit for habitation. This isn’t the only reason so many detainees have remained in the camp: many fear for their physical safety. The Australian and Papua New Guinean authorities are laying responsibility for the refugees’ well-being at each other’s door. The Papua New Guinean police chief, Gari Baki, has blamed the refugees for creating ‘uncertainty’ among the Manusian population, and warned that their safety cannot be ‘taken for granted’. After Australian staff had left last week, locals broke through the naval base and looted electrical goods and furniture from the camp. Contract workers have begun dismantling its fences. Refugees say they are in a ‘state of terror’.

The Australian government has doubled down on its decision to close Manus, accusing the refugees of ‘subterfuge’ and insisting that none will be allowed to settle in Australia. Offers from New Zealand to resettle some of the men have been rebuffed. Peter Dutton, the Liberal Party immigration minister, has accused the Greens senator Nick McKim – the only Australian politician on the ground in Manus – of exaggerating the situation in an attempt to further his own political career. McKim told ABC’s Lateline that it was a ‘badge of honour to be personally attacked’ by a ‘monster’ like Dutton.

Last Friday, I went to Garema Place in Canberra to join a demonstration organised by the local Refugee Action Committee. About six or seven hundred people were there, including local Labor and Greens politicians. Messages were read out from detainees on the island. A photograph was taken of us in the pose the detainees have adopted in protest against their treatment – hands raised above the head, wrists crossed – and sent to Manus in solidarity, along with those from other events across the country.

Meanwhile, party politics rolls on. The dual-citizenship controversy that has already claimed the jobs of five MPs has now enveloped a sixth. Josh Frydenberg is a Liberal whose Jewish mother fled Hungary as a child, arriving in Australia shortly after the end of the Second World War. Malcolm Turnbull, whose coalition faces losing its wafer-thin majority in the House of Representatives should Frydenberg be forced to relinquish his seat, complained of a ‘witch-hunt’. ‘I wish’, he said, ‘that those who make these allegations … could think a little deeper.’

Alister Wedderburn is John Vincent Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University. This article originally appeared on LRB blog, 10 November 2017.

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