Asylum seekers in Australia have been involved in a week-long protest to mark 100 days since the killing of Reza Berati, the Iranian asylum seeker who died on February 17 during extreme rioting in Australia’s most controversial offshore processing centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
The small and peaceful protest on Christmas Island was reported this Sunday to include as many as 400 detainees, many of whom had resorted to hunger strike with some having sewn their lips together. But this morning, news arrived that despite the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s claim that the situation on the island was "under control and under management”, riot squads had been called in to put an end to the protest, which resulted in four asylum seekers being hospitalised from their injuries.
These protesters, like many before them, had been demanding a resolution to their claims for asylum. Some want to be released from their indefinite detention in order to seek asylum elsewhere for fear that they were to be transferred to off-shore centres on Manus Island and Nauru where they feel their safety could not be guaranteed.
Scott Morrison has failed to comment on whether asylum seekers had sewn their lips together as part of the protest because “the purpose of engaging in such activity is to gain media attention and where there are those sorts of allegations of people's behaviour I am not about to encourage others to engage in it either by giving it publicity.” But there is another very good reason for not wanting to attract further media attention at the end of what has been a very difficult week.
A very difficult week
Australia often manages to avoid the media spotlight which should scrutinise the only country in the world to mandate the strict enforcement of the detention of asylum-seekers. However, last night’s events have come hot on the heels of the publication of an official report put together by public servant Robert Cornall. The report sought to clarify events leading up to the death of Berati, but has instead been exposed as a feeble attempt to calm public animosity and was immediately shot down by the PNG police as "stink(ing) of a major cover-up".
As if this wasn’t enough for one week, an independent inquiry, conducted by five clinical experts on the desperate state of healthcare offered to asylum-seeker families, children, babies and pregnant women inside detention in Nauru was also published by the Guardian. This only adds to the now growing pile of evidence of the appalling conditions, treatment and consequential human rights of people held in detention facilities in Australia.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has a current approval rating of just 30% and is an object of international ridicule since a popular US satirical programme featured him in a show reel of some of his most notorious slip ups and cringeworthy moments to date, including his justification for the government’s hard stance on asylum seekers: "Jesus didn't say yes to everyone. Jesus knew there was a place for everything. It is not necessarily everyone's place to come to Australia.”
100 days of truth-telling
The last 100 days have revealed the shockingly loose grip that the Australian Government has on conditions and activities in their offshore processing facilities. Ideally, what happens offshore on Manus should stay on Manus Island, and perhaps once did. This may have originally given political kudos to the overarching ‘Pacific Solution’ and the outsourcing of these facilities to firms like G4S, but in the communications age, effective censorship around activities in these facilities is proving to be a particularly difficult task.
After initially rejecting reports of the extreme use of force on the night of February 17, the government declared that nobody had been harmed ‘within the perimeters of the facility’. However, it was only a matter of days before the publication of transcripts from graphic firsthand accounts came to light. Phone calls made to advocacy and campaigning organisations on the night of the riots themselves told a very different story.
Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition reported to the UNHCR at the time that "one person was actually thrown off the first floor of one of the buildings”. If anyone was outside the perimeter fence that night, “it’s because they fled for their lives”, he said, adding that Manus was “an inherently dangerous place” and that the asylum-seekers should be brought to Australia.
The eyewitness accounts were later corroborated by video footage which showed G4S security staff attacking asylum seekers more than 24 hours before Reza Berati’s death. More recently, footage has emerged of a meeting hours before the incident in which the asylum seekers on Manus, already angry about the uncertainty they faced, were repeatedly told by G4S staff, who are not trained in conflict resolution, that they would remain in Manus Island's overcrowded detention centre indefinitely. It is this truly desperate situation (from what can be gleaned from Cornall’s report) that led to the sadly preventable death.
The report reveals that both G4S and the government’s own border protection had warned the government in the months prior to the riot of potential security failings around the facility. It concludes that when the rioting broke out on the evening of 17 February, Berati was killed by being struck from behind, repeatedly kicked and finally having a large rock dropped on his head in an assault led by a Salvation Army worker at the centre.
The Government continually maintains that the violence would not have happened had there been no protest by asylum seekers and that government policies will remain the same. But these events took place in conditions which have been described by Amnesty International as contributing to a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, lack of sleep and trauma, especially for people from war zones. The decision to attempt to escape detention to try to find sanctuary at a nearby church - the act till now unfairly at the centre of blame for having “provoked” PNG nationals to attack - is beginning to become much more comprehensible.
Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young summed up the government’s approach bluntly following today’s latest reported hostility by declaring “Operation Blame the Victims was in full swing again today as Scott Morrison insisted that it was the unarmed men who received the beating that are to blame”.
Turning the tide
The death of Berati was not in vain. A week after his death over 15,000 Australians gathered across the country, in silent, candlelit vigil. Participants ranged far and wide from a solitary cattle rancher in the west to a crowd of 5,000 at Melbourne's Federation Square, but the message was clear: Australians have compassion.
“The truth is we just don’t know what’s happening in these places, the government’s shut off the lights, taking censorship to an unprecedented level.” said Sam Mclean, National Director of GetUp Australia, organisers of the event. When speaking to the 4,000 strong crowd in Sydney he called for a "truly independent inquiry into this tragedy and proper public scrutiny of these places."
The rapid mobilisation of this first event and the civil activism that has snowballed as a consequence reflects the rising moral conscience of an increasingly appalled Australian public. From the Palm Sunday Rallies against the government treatment of refugees in the name of the nation to the volunteer and community run refugee centres such as Home of Hope in Footscray, a world first as an asylum seeker one-stop-shop shop that focuses entirely on freeing asylum seekers from poverty, unlocking their potential and enabling them to work.
Religious leaders have also spoken out in an unusually visible way. The Gosford Anglican Church is one of the most well known advocates of the rights of refugees from the faith community and shows ongoing support through with a selection of no-nonsense public notices which regularly trend on social media. Whilst Reverand John Tansey attracted attention by constructingy three life-size sculptures on the grounds of St Kilda Parish Mission Uniting Church in a work which he titled ‘Deterrence’ that depicted a father, pregnant mother and a child each hanging from their own crucifix labelled with the site of an asylum seeker detention centre. "I have depicted the child and the woman to highlight how far our moral deprivation has gone," he said. "If anyone finds it offensive I would want to ask them: what exactly is it about it? Is it that innocent children are placed in the most terrible of conditions such as I have represented?”
And throughout all of this, these 100 days of progress for the nation, zero refugee claims for asylum have been assessed. The boats (statistically speaking) may have been stopped but countless people have been turned back to sea and into danger. Babies born in Australia to refugee women who came by boat are now deemed "Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals" by the Abbott Government - apparently a woman's uterus is now a people smuggling vessel.
And as if to add insult to injury, refugee, Arif Kahn received a national award for his work with young asylum seekers whilst the government continues to blitz his home country, Afghanistan with cruel propaganda to deter anybody thinking of seeking refuge to Australia from coming. The list of blunders goes on.
These many vigils, demonstrations and campaigns repeatedly reference the Australian national anthem, "To those who come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share". This is surely at the heart of what it means to be Australian: mateship. When an innocent man comes to the shores of Australia seeking a better life, perhaps the most un-Australian outcome is that he should come to harm at Australian hands. Yet this is what Abbott’s government, the elected representatives are doing.
Abbot arrived by boat to Australia. Boat number 5265617 to be precise (asylum seekers who arrive by boat are often referred to by the degrading number of their boat as opposed to their name). Thereby he should know better than most that refugees seeking asylum are not illegals, they are not a threat, they are not queue jumpers but human beings exercising their right to seek asylum since the Australian Law passed in 1954.
Whilst civil action groups are busy compiling messages of support and letter writing campaigns to detainees in order to share their compassion (an act of pure Aussie mateship) the Government do nothing. Many are calling for Scott Morrison to resign, but Tony Abbot will not budge in his defence of his long-term buddy, memorably stating, “You don’t want a wimp running border protection, you want someone strong and decent. And Scott Morrison is both strong and decent.”
Orwell once said that “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf”. But the Australian public are no longer asleep and they are uneasy. It’s increasingly likely that Australians are watching - and that they care.