Manus Island Refugees

November 1, 2017

While Americans wait in anticipation for October 31st, a time of gaudy Halloween decorations, costumes, and candy, the refugees inhabiting Manus Island wait in dread for the spookiest day of the year. On October 31st, the Australian government will be shutting down the Manus Regional Processing Centre, one of Australia’s off-center immigration centers for more than 600 refugees and asylum seekers. Originally established in 2001, this center also acts as a detention center for maritime immigrants who arrived on Australia’s shores without visas. It holds these refugees away from the main island until they can be deported to either Papua New Guinea (PNG) or Nauru, two island nations North of the mainland. The Manus Island Centre in question, actually part of PNG, is under Australia’s jurisdiction. As part of relinquishing its hold on the nation, however, the Australian government will be axing all public services for the refugees including food and medical services, access to clean water, education programs, electricity, and sewage if only to encourage refugees to abandon the place and seek asylum in other places on the island.


The Australian authorities have claimed to provide alternative accommodations in other immigration centers closer to Manus Island’s main city, Lorengau, while refugees continue to seek resettlement in another country. Of course, when the Australian authorities say ‘another country’, they effectively mean any place that isn’t Australia-- apparently refugees, actual human lives, are too expensive for Australia to look after in the midst of multiple worldwide humanitarian crises. That being said, although the Manus Regional Processing Center has been moving its inhabitants out little by little, at least 600 refugees, all male, refuse to leave the center. Despite hostile reception from the natives of Manus and conditions that resemble those of a prison more than anything else, the center is the closest thing these people seeking refuge have to a home. Who is to say there will be stability wherever they are transferred to? All inhabitants are required to vacate the center by October 30th, but according to sources, it will be up to the PNG’s government to forcibly remove the refugees. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has criticized Australia for failing to provide proper security for the refugees who choose to stay at the center. Australia is also being criticized for lack of proper planning for the closure of existing public facilities.


Let’s say that Australia did at least provide security, those organizations would still criticize the quality of it, given that current security provided to the refugees is not reliable nor effective. Within the center, refugees not only suffer abuse from the Australian security guards assigned to the base, but also PNG soldiers. There have been multiple cases of PNG soldiers attacking these asylum seekers including a report of a riot within the center, during which one asylum seeker was killed and at least 70 were severely injured.


Another 156 refugees on Manus have also been refused sanctuary at the center. Although Australian authorities are moving them to another facility, the refugees are encouraged to return to their home countries... But doesn’t that defeat the entire purpose of a migration? A person seeking refuge doesn’t have a say whether they get to leave their home country or not. It’s a necessity for them to migrate in order to escape persecution and war in a place that they could once call home. The alternative, at the moment, offered by Australian government is to move to Nauru and wait for possible resettlement in the United States.


For government officials back in Australia, like Immigration Department Secretary Michael Pezzullo, the decision is really a matter of politics. One of the reasons behind Australia’s immigrant center closing down is that, in July 2016, PNG’s Supreme Court ruled the detainment of refugees and asylum seekers as illegal and unconstitutional. To maintain good relations with PNG, Australia is not only closing down the immigration center on Manus Center and the services provided there, but removing all personnel by the last day in October as well; the fact that the center was also once a PNG military base and PNG plans reoccupy the center as a naval base again is simply a straw heavy enough to break the proverbial camel’s back.


Part of the illegality of Australia detaining illegal immigrants stems from PNG government officials thinking the refugees have no right to be trespassing on a military base. But it’s all in good business right? With Australia spending $150-250 million on transferring and supporting the refugees on Manus Island in the year following the center’s closure, all’s well and done in the eyes of government officials. The priority for the Australian government lies more with funds and, for PNG, military equipment, rather than the human lives at stake. These people seeking asylum have been abused by security and law enforcement officers, from both nations, and have survived in camps akin to prisons. The tragedy is that the only alternative to these offenses on human life is to return to an even worse fate in their home countries.


Despite encouragement to return home from many Australian officials, for them, being forced to return home is perhaps the greatest danger and fear of all.


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