Right now at the former Manus Island Detention Centre in Papua New Guinea, local police and immigration officials are smashing up the stores of food, clean water, shelter and personal possessions of the 400-odd men still refusing to leave on the grounds that a) there's nowhere for them to go, and b) that they're not safe to leave in any case.
As something of an indication of just how not-safe these men are, the police - the people who will supposedly keep them safe once they move out of the centre - have been videoed hitting detainees with long metal poles today.
Our government, who run the centre, have chosen to respond by cutting water and power, refusing food or medication to be delivered to the centre (although some has been successfully smuggled in) and demanding that the detainees move to accomodation elsewhere on the island.
The reason for this is that as soon as they're not in the centre Australia can insist that these people are no longer its responsibility and it's all down to the PNG government - which, for reasons we will get to, is clearly bullshit.
If you're not already following the Iranian Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani on your social medias, you really should do so. He's one of the men that Australia has locked up on Manus Island, and also one of the men found to be a "legitimate" refugee (ie: has a perfectly valid fear of persecution in his own country, where he is effectively not considered a citizen.
And, like his fellow detainees, he's also being tortured by being left without food or water - and yesterday he was also handcuffed and taken away by police on vague charges which amounted to "reporting on what's going on". His phone was confiscated and broken, as were those of others, and for several hours no-one knew his fate.
The narrative from the Australian government is as follows: there are new facilities that can accomodate the detainees, to which they must move as the detention centre is being returned to the PNG military, and the men refusing to go are trashing the place because they're ungrateful monsters.
Peter Dutton - Immigration Minister and future defendant at the International Court in The Hague - told his old mate Ray Hadley that the detainees “had basically their own personal butlers and cleaning maids up there for years”, and “have trashed the facility”. Which doesn't really jibe with the photos and videos sent by Boochani and others showing large, tattooed men wearing shirts emblazoned with IMMIGRATION across the back doing the trashing.
The word from people on the ground, including Greens senator Nick McKim who, unlike Dutton, actually went there to see what was going on, report that the new accomodation isn't complete - there's no water, power or sewerage in at least one of the facilities, and more importantly there's no security (or case management: originally a woefully inadequate four people were going to handle the 600-plus refugees and asylum seekers; now that number looks more like a shrug).
And you need to do something about this. So do I. So do we all.
Just a little reminder on terminology: an asylum seeker is someone who has left their country of origin and asked to be protected by another country due to fears of persecution. A refugee is one who has been assessed and determined to be correct in their assessment. An illegal arrival is a lie invented by the Abbott government since it's in no way illegal to seek asylum.
The way that the government pulled this little switcharoo, by the way, is to not make seeking asylum illegal per se, but to make it illegal to arrive by boat. It's a neat solution because if someone is fleeing a repressive regime they're unlikely to get the necessary paperwork from their government to get a visa to travel to Australia by plane, and burrowing is prohibitively time consuming.
And if someone does somehow arrive by plane and then attempt to claim asylum, the government has thought of that too: again, it's not illegal to claim asylum as such, but it's no longer legally possible to arrive on one visa (as a tourist, or a student) and then attempt to switch it for another (such as a temporary protection visa). Bingo!
So you can't do that - but you're welcome to pop back to the government you're fleeing and apply for a TPV from there, of course, because repressive regimes are usually pretty cool about that sort of stuff. Oh, except that you can't actually apply for a TPV, because asking for asylum is only possible if you're physically in the country from which you're begging for help. What a zany mix up, eh? Oh well!
So in a nutshell, you can absolutely claim asylum once you're in Australia - provided that you don't arrive by either boat, plane or any other method.
Oh, also the following bits of Australia are excluded from the Australian migration zone, so don't try landing on any of the following: the Cocos Islands, Christmas Island, Ashmore Island, the Cartier Islands, and Australia. Good luck!
Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees - a United Nations convention which Australia was not merely a signatory to but a co-author of - refugees have a right to legal protection and support by the nation that is hosting them, who are obliged to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in resettling them in safety. One of the absolute no-nos is sending a refugee back to their country of origin - a process called "refoulement" - since part of being found to be a refugee is a well-founded fear of official reprisals.
And again, Australia is not technically forcing anyone to go back to their country of origin: they're just making clear that staying in PNG isn't really an option, and that there's no third country on the table. So they have a choice of returning to persecution or staying in [file not found].
There's also a neat bit of doublethink where these men (and the men, women and children on Nauru) are not the responsibility of Australia but of the governments of the countries in which they're currently trapped, except if those countries wanted to send them to New Zealand or something in which case Australia totally has the power to veto that little scheme. Which would be weird if Australia was just an uninvolved bystander, wouldn't you say?
The only positive in all of this is that it appears that Boochani was released from custody at least in part because he was such a high profile figure and people were specifically paying attention to his plight. So that pressure needs to remain.
Ring the PM's office on (02) 6277 7700. Ring Bill Shorten's office on (02) 6277 4022. Ring your local MP's office. Follow these up with emails (they all get logged, they're all required to be acknowledged). It's working, however slightly and however slowly.
And while it's long been assumed that Australians are fine with terrible things happening to people in detention, polling over the last year suggests that attitude has changed strongly with even those who applaud strong border protection thinking that a swift solution is required for those in offshore detention. And the more that the government see this as being a PR nightmare, the more likely they are to decide that this is a problem that needs to be solved.
And let's be clear: for all the government's bullshit on the matter, the boats haven't stopped. Like, at all.
We're no longer told about them, but Labor senator Kim Carr specifically asked the Acting Commissioner for Border Force about this matter mere weeks ago and was told that not only were we not hearing about classified on-water matters but the definition of "boats" and "arrivals" had been… um, finessed. The transcript is here, but this is the pertinent bit:
KIM CARR: Did a boat arrive on Sabo Island on the 20th of August?
MICHAEL OUTRAM, ACTING COMMISSIONER, BORDER FORCE: Yes.
KIM CARR: It was. And did it involve six Chinese nationals?
MICHAEL OUTRAM: Yes.
KIM CARR: And was there a New Guinean people smuggler involved?
MICHAEL OUTRAM: There was a New Guinean person on there, yes.
KIM CARR: And why is that not arrival in Australia?
MICHAEL OUTRAM: It's not an arrival under the scope of Operation Sovereign Borders. Is that what you mean?
KIM CARR: Oh, I see. So, I wanted to be clear. So, just so long as we understand what 1,000 days means. It doesn't mean Chinese? It doesn't mean east coast?
MICHAEL OUTRAM: No, no. Senator, no. We get illegal arrivals in Australia at the border all the time and have done for many years, as you know.
The question of people coming to Australia by boat is a problem, and it's one that we're currently not solving - but what to do with the people on Manus Island and Nauru is wonderfully simple.
Bring them here.
And let's wrap it there!
Sorry this wasn't a very funny column, but this is an issue which there's very little about which to not be incredibly sad, angry and deeply ashamed.
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