Humanitarian emergency at ‘Australia’s Guantanamo’

Protests and criticism drive up pressure on conservative government as 600 refugees hold out on Manus Island.

Manus Island
Protesters in Sydney press the government to end the refugee crisis on Manus Island on Saturday [Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images]

Perth, Australia – “Australia’s Guantanamo” detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) officially closed a week ago, but nearly 600 desperate refugees are refusing to leave.

The facility once formed the cornerstone of Australia’s controversial refugee resettlement policy, but had been ruled illegal by PNG’s Supreme Court in 2016.

A year later, the Australian government complied with the decision to shutter it.

It turned off the power, cut the water supply, and pulled its people out – leaving behind 587 men who have barricaded themselves inside the camp, saying they fear attacks from locals if they are relocated.

Of them, 447 are confirmed refugees while the other 140 have had their applications rejected and are waiting on the Australian government to return them.

Ever since the group has been in a standoff with PNG officials, triggering a political crisis around what to do with the men who won’t leave, but can’t stay.

“[The Australian government] left us here in this jungle. It is a jungle. A jungle and an ocean,” Behrouz Boochani, a refugee held on Manus Island, told Al Jazeera over the phone from the detention centre.

“There are no medical services, no food, no water. Nothing here. And yet they left us here.”

Boochani is an Iranian journalist who founded the Kurdish newspaper Werya, but was forced to flee in 2013 when its offices were raided by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

He was picked up by the Australian government while attempting a boat crossing from Indonesia and held on Manus Island as a refugee.


Since then, he has become a spokesman for the men who have spent the last four years in limbo while they waited on the Australian government to make a decision about their fate.

Having been left to fend for themselves, Boochani says the situation is growing desperate.

On Saturday night, one man collapsed with chest pains but did not receive medical treatment, and starvation is starting to set in as police and navy personnel stopped all deliveries of food and medicine.

“We are prepared to stay here and die in this prison camp,” says Boochani.

In response to the crisis, the Australian government has defended itself by pointing out it has offered alternative accommodation for the men, though two of the facilities on offer are currently still under construction.

The only operational facility is in Lorengau, which the detainees say is not equipped to handle 600 men, lacks proper medical services, and is located in a community that is hostile towards them.

Inside Australia, the series of events have triggered rallies calling on the Australian government to end the crisis by resettling the men.

Jonno Revanche attended a rally in Sydney and was involved in an earlier sit-in at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection offices. He told Al Jazeera that supporters fear the government will leave the men to die.


“[This government] doesn’t represent what even a lot of ‘traditional’ Australians would even deem acceptable,” Revanche said.

“I think if the majority of Australians listened to the people on Manus, and clearly saw how they were treated up close, they’d be outraged and deeply in opposition to what is happening.”

The situation has not gone unnoticed by international bodies.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) warned of an “unfolding humanitarian emergency” in a press conference last Friday, where it repeated its criticism of Australia’s current policy of offshore detention as “unsustainable, inhumane and contrary to its human rights obligations”.

“We have serious concerns about the welfare, safety and well-being of the roughly 600 men who remain in the accommodation compound, who are too frightened to leave,” UNHCR spokesperson Rupert Colville said.

This was echoed by Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch who visited the island in October and said the situation on Manus Island had grown “increasingly desperate” over the weekend.

“In the immediate term, there’s an emergency for food, for water and medical assistance for the men who are in that centre, whether it’s provided by the UN or the PNG government in the long run,” Pearson said.

“This is an Australian-made humanitarian catastrophe because Australia is walking away from its obligation. It’s basically paying off the PNG government and trying to shirk off its international obligations onto a poor country.”


All of this has placed mounting pressure on the ruling conservative government, which has steadily implemented a deterrence-based refugee policy since taking office in 2013.

For a moment, a limited solution appeared to be possible on Sunday when New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrived in Australia to meet with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and renewed an offer to resettle 150 refugees in New Zealand.

The offer had been first been made to Australia in 2013 by former New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, but was turned down out of concern it might restart people-smuggling operations in the region.

Turnbull, however, rejected Ardern’s proposal citing an existing deal with the US that would accept 1,250 people, subject to vetting by local authorities.

That deal was originally struck with the US at the end of Barrack Obama’s presidency, and was originally seen by members of the Australian government as a convenient way out of an intractable problem.

However, the election of Donald Trump complicated matters.

A leaked transcript of a phone conversation between Turnbull and the US president showed Trump was deeply hostile to the idea, even as he praised Australia’s hard-line refugee policy.

“That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am,” Trump said when it was explained to him.

How likely the resettlement programme is to proceed remains in question, and so with no political solution in sight, those on Manus Island continue to live under a state of siege.

“I want the people around the world to understand, we have been forgotten people for four years,” Boochani said.

“I want people to hear our voice.”

Manus Island closure

Source: Al Jazeera