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Liquidating the Manus Island refugee camp

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Vigil for Hamed Shamshiripour at Federation Square, Melbourne (image via @BabethConil / @racvictoria).

The untimely death of refugee Hamed Shamshiripour is a tragic reminder of the cruelty and inhumanity that continues on Manus Island and Nauru, writes Lyn Bender.

WE WALKED to the river bank and threw flowers into the slow-flowing night river.

Behind us, the city revellers in Melbourne laughed, drinking beer and mulled wine.

Our lonely vigil of a few hundred was a sad farewell to Hamed Shamshiripour. On this chilly evening, the Melbourne revellers provided a fitting illustration of Australia’s indifference.   

It may be due to my family's Holocaust background, but the forcible closure of the Manus Detention Centre puts me in mind of the increasingly depriving lethal conditions of a Nazi constructed ghetto prison and the final liquidation. There are no bombs or tanks; but a designated group of innocent victims of persecution, have been forcibly deported to an isolated camp, imprisoned indefinitely without trial and slowly the screws have been tightened and turned.

These prisoners are dying slow deaths — from despair, poor conditions, untreated medical emergencies and projected hate. We must name and claim this hatred because these refugees – as most have been assessed to be – carry our nation’s worst fears and our preparedness to let others suffer to maintain our illusions of protection. They are a measure of how cruel and ruthless our nation is prepared to be.  

The people on Manus Island (and Nauru) are scapegoats. They are the random choice sacrifice of the few for the supposed greater advantage of the many. It has been argued, disingenuously, that their suffering protects many others from drowning. We know in our hearts this is a false argument. As Parliamentarians wept onion tears and passed increasingly vicious laws, refugees were still drowning on other shores or hiding from our bombs in ruined nations, or suffering war and massacres.

We legislated to push the boats back, adding the unconvincing, undocumented footnote “when safe to do so”. How would this safety be determined? How many were pushed back? Were the boats unsafe and low on food, water or fuel? How many babies and children were on those boats?

After June 2013, all boat arrivals were stamped as never to be settled in Australia.

Journalists are excluded and secrets classified as “on water matters” or operational concerns. In 2015, the Australian Government made it illegal for staff to disclose events at Manus and Nauru.

We were at war with people smugglers and could not tip our hand to them. Meanwhile, successive ministers of both parties asserted that we were saving the refugees by smashing the unscrupulous smugglers “business model”.

Such silly corporate terminology for this desperate exchange of money for lives. Did the Indonesian owners of unseaworthy boats have a five-year plan that was mapped out on a whiteboard at their team meetings?

Many absurdities have been claimed to justify the unjustifiable.In the face of what is now happening at Manus; none of the justifications, regarding smugglers and prevention of drowning, hold water.

Common to all drives to suppress and deny human rights, the people held in detention are the ones that are to be deprived of rights are demonised and slandered.

We are also witnessing this process in the absurd plebiscite regarding same-sex marriage.

Our Indigenous Peoples have been demonised to allow their annihilation.

Muslims have increasingly been targeted and vilified.

Meanwhile, Australia moves closer to liquidating the Manus camp and pushing the refugees into a hostile environment. They have nowhere to go. The open living centre at Lorengau is just a get-out-of-jail-free card for the current Turnbull Government that is now hoisted on the petard of the refugee policy. There is hostility towards the refugees from the native Papua New Guineans, who suffer poverty, poor living standards, and scarce health and education resources.

Who are these people from afar thrust upon their country by the old Australian colonial masters? Sure, Papua New Guineans needed jobs and the money from the detention centre, but they do not want these prisoners to settle permanently in their land. They must wonder why rich Australia wants them to shoulder the burden in their small, climate change affected, resource challenged nation.

Manus is being closed in response to the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruling in July 2016 declaring the Detention Centre as illegal. In a bid to appear to comply with this ruling, Peter Dutton is tearing down fences and trying to force the refugees to move to the town of Lorengau on Manus Island. Water and power are being cut off, making the prison uninhabitable.

A hidden agenda is to encourage the refugees to “voluntarily” return to their country of origin.

It's just déjà vu. I witnessed this process in Woomera during my six-week contract as a psychologist in early 2002. The carrot and stick approach was as follows: Here is $2,000 to resettle in war torn Afghanistan or stay in this desert camp forever and never see your family again.

It sounded as though it had come from the playbook of the mafia in The Godfather: We are making you an offer you can't refuse.

With its prohibition of refoulment or return to danger, it contravenes the United Nations Refugee Convention 1951 — to which Australia is a signatory.

Following exposure to the self-harming, toxic and mentally destructive conditions at the Woomera Detention Centre, it was “mothballed”. But its conditions sprang to life in other centres, like an evil resurrection. The basic model has been retained. Even the ridiculously mocking compound names such as “Foxtrot” and “Charlie” have been recycled at Manus. The Foxtrot was a smooth ballroom dance from between the First and Second World Wars.

But the compounds and the camps were conducted in strict punitive military style; as though these people were criminals or interned as enemies.

More than 15 years later, I find myself at yet another candle light vigil for a refugee who is presumed to have taken his life. I listen to the speeches I have heard before so many times. The tears come. I recognise veteran advocates and new faces, who may not know how systemic and relentlessly repetitive this persecution of boat refugees has been.

Turnbull’s attempts to trade off refugees to the unsympathetic, anti-Muslim Trump regime just exposes Australia as an unjust global citizen. But in case you think you may live in a weirdly parallel universe, amid the horror of Manus revelations, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has announced that 200 Syrian and Iraqi refugees will be settled in Armidale early next year.

But these are not the Manus boat refugees who have been sent to the offshore "naughty corner" and who will never call Australia home. No, these are the "well-behaved" refugees, who have waited patiently in those invisible queues. 

The Guardian August 11th reports Barnaby Joyce saying:

“Many of those settling (in Armidale) had endured “unimaginable circumstances which have torn families apart.”

NSW Coordinator-General for Refugee Resettlement Peter Shergold welcomed the announcement, saying:

“Refugees as a whole bring very significant economic skills ... they are risk-takers … they are entrepreneurs. When the ABS does its census it finds the group of Australians most likely to set up a family business are people who arrived as refugees.”

The announcement of this "humanitarian" intake comes four days after the death of Hamed.

RIP Hamed Shamshiripour, a beloved son, a dear friend, courageous asylum seeker and gifted musician.

Lyn Bender is a professional psychologist. You can follow Lyn on Twitter @Lynestel.

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