Six years after Manus Island decision, we must end the suffering

Six years after Manus Island decision, we must end the suffering

This article first appeared in the Herald Sun

By Hugh de Krester

Today marks an awful milestone. It is six years since then prime minister Kevin Rudd announced that anyone arriving in Australia by boat seeking safety would be deported to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

A similar deal with the tiny island nation of Nauru was announced a few days later.

Those deals were sold to the public as “resettlement” arrangements. But it was always clear that trying to settle refugees in poor Pacific nations was bound to fail.

Instead, the new policy condemned thousands of people to the misery of prolonged, indefinite detention.

Scott Morrison — as minister for immigration and border protection — inherited Rudd’s policy just a few months later when the Coalition won office in September 2013. Instead of dismantling it, he made it worse. Today, there are about 800 men and women still detained on Manus and Nauru. After six long years, Morrison must end their suffering.

We speak on a daily basis to men and women still held on Manus and Nauru and their stories are distressing.

No one chooses to be a refugee.

Fleeing persecution and violence, they were forced to leave their homes and headed to Australia seeking a chance to rebuild their lives in freedom and safety.

Instead, they were sent to camps on remote islands thousands of kilometres away. As refugees, it’s not safe for them to return home. Our government has said they won’t be allowed to settle here.

The United Nations has described the conditions of their detention as cruel and inhumane. These people have endured violence, even murder, at the hands of people paid to protect them.

Some have died from lack of medical care. Women have been sexually assaulted.

For most of the people though, it is not the physical harm that is the worst. It is the agonising uncertainty. Not knowing when you will finally be free. Not knowing when you will finally be safe. Not knowing when you will see your family and loved ones again or when you can finally rebuild your life.

The federal government has always known that when the Australian public heard these stories, people would demand action. So the government shrouded the offshore camps in secrecy.

It refused to give access to journalists and blocked communication. It held people behind razor wire.

Slowly, we chipped away at the secrecy and the public responded. People were appalled when the government threatened to deport babies born in Australian hospitals to potential harm on Nauru. People demanded action to get all children and their families off Nauru and they forced our politicians to act.

Now we need the public to demand freedom and safety for the remaining men and women held in these offshore camps.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said just last month he wants people off Nauru and Manus as quickly as possible.

If he is serious about that, his goal could be swiftly achieved in three steps.

In 2016, Malcolm Turnbull struck a deal to resettle up to 1250 people in the United States. Yet almost three years on, only about 600 have been resettled. So firstly, the Morrison Government needs to urgently accelerate that process.

New Zealand has offered to take 150 people each year but bizarrely the Morrison government keeps stubbornly refusing that offer.

It makes no sense to say it’s fine for people to resettle in the US but not New Zealand. So secondly, the Prime Minister must accept New Zealand’s offer to help.

And finally the government should bring the remaining people here while the US and New Zealand processes play out.

There is no doubt that protecting people who are forced to leave their homes fleeing danger is a complex global problem. It can only be solved by countries working together to shoulder their responsibility. Australia promised to do that when we signed up to the international refugee treaty.

We helped to resettle large numbers of refugees after World War II and the Vietnam War. But now we have lost our way and no more so than with Manus and Nauru.

The government is spending obscene amounts of money inflicting tremendous cruelty on innocent people to deter others from trying to ask us for protection. No matter how difficult the problem, deliberate cruelty to innocent people is never the answer.

Six years. 2191 days. three million minutes and counting. Enough is enough. These men and women deserve a future. It is time for Scott Morrison and his government to end the suffering.

Hugh de Kretser is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre.