Skip to content

Ex Manus Capere

November 5, 2017

Literally to take from the hand, this Latin phrase is where we get the English word ‘emancipation’ from. I must confess I didn’t know that until earlier this year. When I saw a graphic featuring the phrase, I had to look it up. When I did I realised how darkly ironic it truly is that we have turned Manus Island into a horrific, tropical, modern day, Château d’If hellhole. As some may be aware, I am a Scottish Australian. I was born and brought up in Scotland, but I have also been an Australian citizen for over 30 years, many of which I’ve spent living here. In fact the process that led me here started 34 years ago today, when I fell in love for the first time. Her name was Gayle and she was, as you may have deduced, an Australian. I’ve written about her, and my decision to come here, before in a post entitled The Moment When You Know. I won’t get into that here in too much depth, but let me just say for now that I was 18, and she had just turned 23. She seemed like such a sophisticated ‘older woman’ to me at the time. Today I have a daughter, Zoe, who is exactly that age, and that seems like such a strange thing to think, but from an 18 year old’s perspective that’s how it seemed.

They never met, Gayle and Zoe, because breast cancer took Gayle from us far too young, before Zoe was born. That’s sad, yes, as much for the world as for me, even though most of the world may never know what a remarkable person, a remarkable mind, we lost with her. But I’m not looking for sympathy here, it was a long time ago and I’ve dealt with it. As much as you ever deal with the loss of someone who played such a large part in your life. But every year, on this day, I still think of her. One of the things I think about is what she’d have thought about the world we now find ourselves in. Now as it happens the night before last I was having a twitter rant about what is happening right now on Manus Island. I was furious. I still am. Two years after I fell in love with Gayle I became an Australian citizen, in November of 1985. As a Thatcher refugee, at that time I was quite proud of that. I saw then PM Bob Hawke and former PM Malcolm Fraser take Thatcher on in the Commonwealth over her unconscionable support for apartheid South Africa. I was proud of that, and of Australia’s positions on human rights issues in general.

So it gives me no pleasure to say what I now have to say. It is with a heavy heart that I write this. It is going to be very difficult and emotional for me. The reason I mentioned the twitter rant was because an old friend responded to me, and we discussed it. Not as old as me, I hasten to add, but I’ve known her a long time. Her name is Carmel, and she and Gayle have a couple of relevant things in common. They both come from old, Victorian, Western District families, Gayle’s mostly Scottish and Carmel’s Irish. And they are both hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool Labor supporting families. So I heard an echo of Gayle when Carmel said to me, “And this is why, breaking my heart in the process, I can no longer vote for Labor.” Because they too are complicit in what is happening today. Both major parties have defiled the legacy of Whitlam and Fraser and Hawke. And more, in Labor’s case, because Doc Evatt’s fingerprints are all over the UN Convention on Refugees. The Convention which today we are refusing to honour is written, in large part, in his voice. An Australian voice.

This was when the UN was new of course, in the aftermath of WWII, when Europe lay in ruins and millions of people had been displaced. There was a desperate need to resettle them, and it was done, under the terms of that Convention. Many arrived in Australia at that time, and it is particularly disturbing that many of their sons and daughters are amongst our present day politicians. Because what we have done to those on Manus Island and Nauru is the antithesis of how those European refugees were treated, and it is despicable! I can shy away from it no longer. This has been a long time coming, many years, but I am incandescent with rage. What is wrong with us? Australia, what has been done, is still being done, in our name shames and disgraces every last one of us! It is unforgivable. It is immoral, unjust, illegal, contrary to every principle of our legal system and to at least four separate UN Conventions to which we are signatories, as found by their respective High Commissions. After the original sin of the dispossession and destruction of the indigenous nations of this continent, this is the worst thing we have ever done! And I can’t bear it any more.

        Château d’If, the island prison of Edmond Dantès in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’                               Image by Jan Drewes ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Why what we are doing is so wrong:

I have long struggled to understand what it is that so many of us are failing to grasp about the complete and utter wrongness of this situation. But clearly there is something, so let me explain it as simply as I can. We have deliberately taken a group of people who have committed no crime and imprisoned them, without trial, indefinitely, as a gruesome example to other people so that they don’t not commit the same non-crime. That’s it in a nutshell. And you can’t do that! That is not a thing! It is not the behaviour of a civilised country, a democratic country, or a country that respects the rule of law! The specifics are these:

1. We seized their vessels at sea, in international waters, and took them prisoner. Thus breaching the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It’s called piracy. The Convention brings together a body of international maritime law that goes back centuries, and is held to be of vital national security interest to every maritime nation. One of the first times we did it, way back in 2001 with the Tampa, people don’t understand how close we came to getting into serious trouble over that. Norway could have taken us to the cleaners at the UN Security Council and in the ICJ. Anyway, we did that to this particular group of people because the government had decided to change the rules about the non-crime they weren’t committing and they hadn’t heard about it yet, so essentially we just grabbed them at random.

2. We illegally imprisoned them in Guantanamo Bay-style offshore detention centres, specifically because we knew, well the government knew, and I did too, that what they were going to do was illegal, so they wanted to put them beyond the reach of the Australian courts. One of the most fundamental cornerstones of the Australian legal system, as it is in most English-speaking countries, is habeas corpus. It is the fundamental right of every person to have their day in court. The government determined to remove that right from a group of fleeing, persecuted people, and enough of us either looked the other way, or cheered them on, that they got away with it. Almost. Not all of us are complicit. There have always been people who couldn’t accept it, activists who campaigned, lawyers who brought cases pro bono, and the High Court was snapping at the government’s heels. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

           Australia’s latter day Château d’If, the Manus Island Detention Centre, PNG.

3. In doing the above we also breached three more UN Conventions: The Convention on Refugees, obviously, the Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It was this last one the lawyers came after first, and they slowly and painfully forced the government into getting the children brought out of there. They also got the High Court to assert its own authority over the camps. But the government had a plan for that. They bullied the governments of Papua New Guinea and Nauru into taking over the camps. On paper anyway. In reality they were operated by private contractors, like G4S, Broadspectrum and Serco, with no effective oversight. No media allowed to visit either. And the High Court was effectively cut out of the deal. The whole time they seemed to go out of their way to make life in the camps as unpleasant as possible. Just a few days ago a former head of medical services there broke his non-disclosure agreement (they made everyone who worked there sign one of those) and told his story, of his battles with authorities as they constantly undermined him and refused to accept his clinical decisions.

4. We’re not through with the legalities yet. A case was brought in the PNG High Court, which decided about 18 months ago that these people were being illegally detained, in breach of the Human Rights provisions in their constitution, and ordered the government to close it. So the PNG  government looked to Australia to help, and once again we looked the other way. Told them it was their problem now. They had agreed, under pressure, to accept those detainees who were found to be genuine asylum seekers, and that turned out to be over 90%, according to all available sources,* so they had little option, in order to comply with the High Court order, but to say it was no longer detaining them, that they could come and go as they pleased. Oh, so that’s all right then, is it? No, it’s not remotely all right, for a number of reasons.

*The Australian government publishes no figures, but other sources report this, and also that of those who have been had an adverse finding, the majority had not actually submitted an application, because they did not want to settle in PNG.

Firstly, these people are our responsibility. We have no business offloading them onto PNG. One of the poorest countries in the world, PNG is a place where the rule of law does not hold in much of its territory. Australians visiting, even just to travel round the capital Port Moresby, are advised to take private security. Yes, bodyguards. Levels of violent crime are such that it is not safe to live there, especially if you are a woman. It’s only surprising we haven’t had a wave of refugees from there yet. That is not a place of safety for anyone. That is not a place that is in any way equipped to accept refugees.

Secondly, they are stuck on this little island, Manus, where the locals hate them. The camp was imposed on them, contained within a naval base. They couldn’t understand why these people were being held here, it’s a remote island, they’re not across the complexities of hanging onto marginal seats in Western Sydney. They thought these must be bad people. But remember those contractors? They employed local staff as guards, because it was far cheaper than bringing them in from Australia. Straight away relations began to deteriorate, culminating in the so-called riot, which would be better described as an attack on the refugees by the staff, and other local people allowed into the centre by them, on the 17th of February, 2014, which resulted in the murder of  Reza Barati, a 23 year old Kurdish man from Iran (pictured at top of page) by local and, allegedly (they were never prosecuted), Australian staff.

Since then four more refugees have died, from illness or suicide. Relations have not improved, and although the detainees are allowed to leave the camp now, they are afraid to do so. When they do they are often beaten, robbed, and in some cases stabbed. Only a very small number of refugees have taken up the formal system for resettlement, and some of those have sought to return to the detention centre! The very first one has said it is not a safe place to send anyone else.

Over the years the numbers on Manus have gradually decreased. Remember, this has been going on for four long years. Women and children have gone, some people have been transferred to Nauru, some have chosen, a devil’s bargain, to return to the countries they fled in fear of their lives rather than remain in this place without hope, with no idea how long they might be held captive. There are about 600 left now, all of them men, mostly young. Those remaining are not in a good way. They were refugees to start with. Many of them were already heavily traumatised. Four years of arbitrary and indefinite detention, with no appeal, and no release date, exacerbated by the hostility of the environment, both climatic and social, has traumatised them all over again. Many have PTSD, depression, anxiety and other psychological issues, and many are on medication for these problems. Remember that, it will be important in a minute, because this desperate situation has become an extreme crisis in the last week.

The PNG government has now officially closed the centre. Those living there have been told to move to a new resettlement centre, outside of the naval base, but those who have seen it report that it is still a building site, nowhere ready to receive them. It’s construction is strongly opposed by locals, who have blocked the road. The refugees have understandably refused to move there, and continue to occupy the detention centre despite power and water being cut, and no food supplies being allowed in. They are effectively under siege and fear they may be attacked by the PNG military at any time. Those who are on medication are running out, and even that is not being allowed into the camp. This is an unfolding humanitarian disaster. And what has Australia done? Again, nothing!

Behrouz Boochani is a journalist and an Iranian refugee held on Manus Island since August 2014. The Guardian invited Boochani to keep a diary of the closure of the Australian-run detention camp. This is his most recent entry.

Now, I have to apologise for the time it has taken to write this article, because time is of the essence, I know. I did say at the start (when it was Thurs 2) that it was going to be extremely difficult for me. It has been. It’s now Sunday, and I have just watched Malcolm Turnbull once again decline an offer from New Zealand, restated today by newly minted NZ PM Jacinda Ardern, who is visiting, to take some of the refugees. He prefers to cling to a deal he made with the Obama administration in its dying days to take most of them in exchange for Australia accepting a group of politically inconvenient Central  American refugees the US is currently holding. But Trump hates the deal, and although he reluctantly agreed to honour it, the Americans seem in no hurry to get on with it. They’ve taken twelve people so far, last I heard. That’s not going to stop this crisis turning into a disaster. It is hard to escape the creeping feeling that we, in the richest, most fortunate country in this region, are the worst people. New Zealand has offered, and there’s been no objection raised there. Maybe they are just a little bit better than us. Even Timor Leste, one of the poorest countries in the world, far poorer even than PNG, even they offered to accept refugees. And this was after they found out that Australia had bugged their delegation’s hotel rooms and essentially cheated them in the Timor Gap Oil Treaty negotiations! They are definitely better people than us!

So what happened to us? How have we come to this? Where did we go so far wrong? These are questions I’ll be addressing in the next section, as I look at the recent history of refugee policy in Australia. And I will be naming names. But that will take a while, and six hundred desperate people on Manus Island cannot wait, so I will wrap this section up and publish it. However there are two people I must name now. The two people most directly responsible for the situation today. The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. It is they who must now act, who must be shamed and forced into acting, before this whole farce takes a more deadly turn. Let’s take a look at Peter Dutton first.

Looking like Mr Potato Head with the cold, dead eyes of a shark, this is the man presently responsible for Australia’s immigration and refugee policies. And what is he thinking? Well he reminds this babel fish, perhaps more than any human being I have ever seen, of a Vogon. And as Douglas Adams tells us of the Vogons, “They are simple-minded, thick-willed, slug-brained creatures, and thinking is not really something they are cut out for.” That sounds exactly like Peter Dutton. He also tells us, “The frightening thing about the Vogons was their absolute mindless determination to do whatever mindless thing it was they were determined to do. There was never any point in trying to appeal to their reason because they didn’t have any.” Yep, still right on target with Dutton. So not much point in wasting our breath there then. Except…he did go on to say, “However, if you kept your nerve you could sometimes exploit their blinkered, bludgeoning insistence on being bludgeoning and blinkered.” Something to bear in mind.

Poor, hapless Malcolm. That’s what people are starting to think. A man with a great future behind him. He seemed to show so much promise as the young barrister in the ‘Spycatcher’ case, humiliating Thatcher’s Cabinet Secretary in court (eliciting the immortal expression ‘being economical with the truth’). He first showed his knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when he led the Republican campaign to an unlikely defeat in 1999. When he entered parliament he probably joined the wrong party. Well, that’s what most people seem to think, including most of his own MPs! They dumped him in favour of the demented Tony Abbott in 2009, when he tried to persuade them to have an actual policy on climate change, although he continued to be quite popular with the electorate. His Liberal Party colleagues only turned to him as Abbott’s behaviour in office was becoming increasingly erratic, and their poll numbers were dreadful. A catastrophic defeat was on the cards. They knew he was far more acceptable to the people than Abbott, but that did not mean they had changed their minds. It didn’t mean they liked him, or agreed with him about much, so he was returned to the leadership, becoming with it the Prime Minister, on the understanding that he would not change any policies until at least after he won them the next election. So great was his desire for the job that he accepted those conditions.

When he took over, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief, but then…nothing changed. The devil’s bargain Malcolm had made to get the job became apparent as he failed to act on a number of things the nation thought he really believed in, such as climate change action and marriage equality. So his popularity rapidly declined. In the end he went to an early election at the last possible moment, which sounds like an oxymoron, but he held on to office by the barest of majorities, one seat. Any longer and he would have lost. What this meant of course is that his authority within his party was not enhanced by the win, but weakened. He still can’t change anything, because now every single backbencher can hold the balance of power. And they are a deeply weird and conservative bunch, those backbenchers.

So let me speak to him directly, attempt to reason with him. Malcolm, you can see how this is going to end unless you can change the script. Your poll numbers are heading the same way as Abbott’s and it is a long term trend now. You don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of re-election unless you show some spine, some leadership! And there has never been a time when a bit of real leadership was more desperately needed than it is right now. Malcolm, if there is a shred of human decency left in you, if you are capable of feeling shame, or responsibility, or empathy, for goodness’ sake man, if you value your political life, listen to me! Enough! Act now. Stop this madness, before something horrific happens. It’s time to end this nation’s shame. You have two options – either bring them here, or let them go!!!


Part 2 – How Did It All Go Wrong? [Under Construction]

When did the rot set in? Well, the last time we had substantial numbers of refugees arriving by boat was in the 70s and 80s. They were coming from Vietnam, because of the end of the war there. And it was dealt with. Recent governments have been all too keen to point to the Howard years as their model for a successful policy, but they don’t like to talk about policy in the Fraser years, which really did work, and did so without locking people up for years and traumatising them. Fraser’s Immigration Minister Ian MacPhee, a member of the liberal wing of the Liberal Party (an endangered species these days), went privately to the Labor opposition, they agreed on a bipartisan approach, and got on with it with a minimum of fuss. It involved setting up regional processing centres that people could go to, without having to get on leaky boats, and be resettled. Those refugees have been integrated and if, god forbid, you end up in hospital tonight, 50:50 chance one or more of their grandchildren will treat you in A&E. So why was this able to work then, but not now? Because nobody politicised it!

This was the key. Nobody tried to use it as a wedge, nobody used it to send a racist dogwhistle to those sections of the electorate that respond to such signals. And the world turned, and the geopolitical situation moved on, and eventually the flow of refugees dried up, and everyone forgot. Or almost everyone. Life in Australia went on, the ethnic make-up of the population slowly changing, as it had been ever since the abolition of the ‘White Australia’ policy. But not because of refugees. You see refugees are, in the context of Australian domestic politics, a distraction. They always have been. There have never been enough of them to make a noticeable impact on the population. You see the record number of asylum seeker arrivals by boat, which was back during those Fraser years by the way, was a bit over 25,000. But Australia has been accepting 150,000-300,000 migrants every year, from other sources, pretty much since the war. Our economic model is based on it, so we can’t stop. Creating a moral panic about boat people has proved an excellent way of distracting racists from that.

But when it comes to the perception of Australia’s changing ethnic mix, there’s another figure which dwarves even that of regular, skilled and sponsored migration, family reunion, etc. Over 650,000 overseas students arrived in the first seven months of this year. And two thirds of them went to Melbourne and Sydney. Now it might be that a similar number left, having completed their studies, except it’s a growth industry isn’t it, so there was probably a higher number in than out. And that’s not even for a whole year. Then on top of that there’s another growth industry, Chinese tourism, which has become a nice little earner in recent years. So if you’re a redneck, visiting the city from the bush, or the outer suburbs, yes, Melbourne and Sydney do look a bit like they might be Asian cities. It’s all the tourists, and the students, and the regular migrants. It has never been the refugees. The chances that you’ve ever seen one are remote. I just had to clear that up. There will probably be a few more things I’ll have to clear up as I go along.

So, back to the story. Nobody was arriving by boat for a while, until the 90s, then a few started arriving again. There’s been a lot of talk about push factors and pull factors. The truth is when the push factors aren’t there, nor are the refugees. The Taliban were the new push factor in the 90s. When they took power in Afghanistan a lot of people felt they had to leave, and some of them started to make their way here. Now some people would ask why they would come all the way to Australia? Surely they must have passed through numerous other safe countries first. These are, for many people, telling questions. Because they don’t bother to find out the answers. Now the first one used to puzzle me too, until I had a sudden realisation. I was watching a news report about the “Jungle,’ the infamous refugee camp in Calais. I was thinking, “Why do you want to go to England? It’s shit there. You’re already in France. They have better welfare, better wages, shorter hours. You’ve been misinformed if you think England’s better.” But then I listened, and they told us why – because almost every one of them had family there already!

So those Afghanis making their way to Australia in the 90s were probably the same. They had family here, or friends, or at least somebody from their village had once come here and written back to say they were doing alright. Because that’s how real life works.
“Where will we go?”
“I don’t know. My uncles friend went to Australia in 1981.”
“What was it like?”
“I don’t know, but he never came back. Let’s go there.”
And these are real people, try to bear that in mind. On the question of passing through safe countries, well that’s not really going to sway you if you’re determined to make it to where your brother is, but is it even true? In between here and Afghanistan there actually aren’t very many countries that are signatories to the Refugee Convention. And if they’re not, that usually means they have no provisions in place for refugees. They might let you stay, on a sink or swim basis, with no support, or they might not. They are unlikely to regularise your status and give you a legal right to stay, or work, or send your kids to school, or get healthcare. Need I go on?

So it started back in the 90s as a trickle. But for some reason Paul Keating responded to it by introducing mandatory detention. It wasn’t offshore yet, but it was happening, in remote locations in the desert. At that time I was working in the public service, and was a union activist. We had already begun to notice the development of a toxic culture in the Department of Immigration. It was thought at the time that a particular Secretary of the department may have had a disproportionate influence in that regard. Anyway, the fact is Paul Keating, and his two Immigration Ministers, Gerry Hand and Nick Bolkus, have earned the right to be the first names on my roll of dishonour. But little did we know what was to come. We were about to get the guy who wrote the book on ‘othering’ and demonising vulnerable and voiceless people for political purposes. The man with the charisma bypass himself, John Winston Howard.


One Comment
  1. Janet Mundie permalink

    Thank you for such a succinct and well-balanced article. Now I am trying to help it reach a wider audience.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: