Australia is covered with the blood of Reza Barati and Faysal Ishak Ahmed

Manus mother washing

On Wednesday, June 14, 2017, the Australian government decided it was time to close the books on what has happened in its offshore immigration detention center on Manus Island: “The government on Wednesday settled a class action … on behalf of 1,905 refugees and asylum seekers detained on the island, rather than proceed with a six-month trial that would have involved evidence before the court from detainees of murder inside the detention centre, systemic sexual and physical abuse, and inadequate medical treatment leading to injury and death.” The government and its offshore detention contractors agreed to pay $70 million plus costs, which will amount to over $100 million. While this single largest class action settlement in Australian history is welcome news for the current detainees on Manus Island, this episode is yet another demonstration of the vicious commodification of justice and mercy. Australia’s money won’t bring back Faysal Ishak Ahmed, or Reza Barati, or so many others whose names and life and death stories remain unwritten. Australia’s money won’t compensate for the trauma and otherwise abbreviated lives of the women, children and men who have passed through its gates. Australia’s money will never pay for the damage done to justice, decency, or mercy, and it will never pay for the damage done to asylum seekers and refugees, nor to the concepts of asylum and refugee. Australia turned asylum seekers and refugees into cargo. No amount of money will compensate or erase that disgrace.

In 2013, New Matilda published three sets of letters by women asylum seekers imprisoned on Manus Island. The women are from IranPakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan. They described terrible hardships in their homelands, terrific struggles to get to Australia, and then debilitating, crushing conditions on Christmas Island and then on Manus Island. They described the dire mental health crisis that sweeps through the camps, especially among the younger men who are increasingly suicidal. They wrote about their struggle for safety for themselves and their children. They described the life draining out of their children within the universe of trauma that constitutes the detention camp. They described cultures and policies of violence against women in their homelands that compelled them to leave, to seek personal safety and dignity.

In 2013, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, issued a report on Manus Island. The agency confirmed the reports of the women asylum seekers. The physical conditions were “harsh”. The living quarters had no privacy, which was a particular concern to parents of girls; were unbearably hot; and had grossly inadequate sanitary facilities. And that was the family compound. The conditions in the compound for single male adults were far worse.

In 2014, Reza Barati, 24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker, was killed in an `encounter’ on Manus Island. Prisoners protested the lies they were being fed, the conditions they were forced to endure, the ongoing abuse. Guards rushed in, rushed out, rushed in again, and then the protest turned into `a riot’. According to eyewitness reports and an initial police report, when the guards, employees of G4S, rushed in, violence erupted.

In 2015, Australia announced plans to move some or all of the asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island to the Philippines.  None of the refugees or asylum seekers ever heard a word about this from the State. The State does not negotiate or consult with cargo.

In 2016, Faysal Ishak Ahmed, 27-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker, collapsed inside the detention center on Manus Island. For at least six months Faysal Ishak Ahmed complained of chest pains, swollen arms and fingers, high blood pressure and a pain at the back of his head, seizures, blackouts and breathing difficulties. He begged and pleaded for medical care. Fellow prisoners begged and pleaded on his behalf. He wrote letters; fellow prisoners wrote letters. He deteriorated; he received no medical care. When he finally died, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection stated a refugee “has sadly died today from injuries suffered after a fall and seizure at the Manus Regional Processing Centre”.

Eight months prior to Faysal Ishak Ahmed’s death, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea declared the detention center illegal. Papua New Guinea and Australia “agreed” to close the center … someday. The detention center is open to this day. Faysal Ishak Ahmed was killed by the Australian government, as was Reza Barati; their blood flows everywhere.

While today’s settlement is welcome news, the shame, cruelty, and inhumanity remain. The brutal truth is not for sale, a brutal truth that remains as long as deterrence is the center of national, and global, asylum and refugee policy. Shut the detention camps, welcome not only the asylum seekers and refugees, welcome all the strangers, treat them and love them as you love yourself, for you were once, and perhaps still are, strangers in the land.

Drawing by a child detained in Manus Island


(Photo Credit 1: Independent Australia) (Child’s drawing: The Conversation)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.