This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald
The PNG government has conceded that the Manus facility must close. But while tearing down the fences would be a significant step, the real issue is not the future of the facility itself but of the 854 men trapped inside it.
I was on Manus Island last week. I saw firsthand what is – and what always has been – a dead-end arrangement destined to produce nothing but human suffering. These are innocent people in our care. They are our responsibility, and successive governments have forced them down an unsafe and painful road to nowhere for more than three years.
Whatever the policy challenge, continuing to harm these men is not the solution. The only viable and humane way forward is to bring them here.
And frankly, we would be lucky to have them. There are some truly incredible people in that group.
I met one man who speaks seven languages, two of which he taught himself while locked up on Manus. His friends call him Mandela – they say he is a man of kindness and principle and a born leader.
I met another man who didn't speak a word of English when we first locked him up but who has now written a book – an autobiography of his life. He taught himself English by writing a page every day since the day he was first detained. "My first page had only eight lines and 26 mistakes!" he told me. "Page 1100 is much better. But it's still not perfect – you can never stop learning."
I also met a stand-up comic, an artist, a journalist and a man who built a small business that employed 19 staff.
In addition to the inspiring and entrepreneurial, there was also the tragic. I met a man who worked as an interpreter and program assistant with Australian, US and British troops in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. His wife and two sons – aged two and three – were executed by the Taliban. He still can't talk about his boys without crying.
These are men of different ages, from different parts of the world and with different stories to tell. But what they all have in common is they are tired. After three years of fear, violence and limbo, they are completely exhausted.
While on the island I also got a frightening, and very sad, glimpse of their daily reality. I witnessed the aftermath of a shocking attack in which two refugees – Afghan Hazaras who had also fled the Taliban – were violently attacked by a group of seven locals. They were beaten with an iron bar, robbed and insulted. One of them collapsed and was taken to hospital unconscious.
The refugees who saw these events unfold were scared and deeply concerned for their friend. But they were not surprised. They'd seen it all before.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has, predictably, nailed his colours to the mast by saying they will never come here. But he is out of options. The arrangement to resettle refugees in PNG was announced three years ago. Since then we've seen three deaths, countless serious injuries and untold human suffering. If settlement in PNG was realistic and safe, it would have happened years ago.
Similarly, it's not good enough to leave these men languishing in limbo while Dutton prowls around the region looking for some other impoverished country he can pay to take these men off his hands. The government has had three years and found no way forward.
Dutton's stance is becoming more untenable by the day. The legal framework is crumbling. The company operating the centres has said it plans to walk away. Public opinion is shifting. Innocent people are suffering.
Enough is enough. We're at three deaths, three years and counting. The only viable and humane way forward is to bring them here.
Daniel Webb is director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.