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What will it take to shock us?

Saturday 24 January 2015 | Published in Regional


What will it take to shock us?
An Australian barrister and refugee advocate Julian Burnside says asylum seekers locked up on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island detention complex are being held illegally having committed no offences under Australian law.

Reports coming out of Manus Island right now should be enough to shock us, but they aren’t. What will it take? Australian barrister Julian Burnside and an advocate for human rights and fair treatment of refugees has some ideas.

Reports about what is happening on Manus Island are mixed.

According to inside sources, hundreds of asylum seekers are on a hunger strike, many have sewn their lips together, and tensions are high.

According to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, security levels have been high, as a precaution, and the hunger strike and lip sewing are the result of urging by refugee advocates.

There has been little apparent public concern.

Some of the hunger strikers have said they are willing to die, and want to donate their organs to Australians.

The public, in its post-Christmas torpor, was unmoved.

Letters sent from Manus have been published, but this has provoked outrage only in that minority of Australians who are concerned about refugees. The public remain unmoved.

In February 2014, Reza Berati was murdered inside the Manus detention facility, allegedly by members of the staff who were supposedly keeping the detainees safe.

I have been informed that eyewitnesses to the murder are still being held in solitary confinement. No one has yet been brought to trial for the murder.

In September 2014, Hamid Kehazaei died of septicaemia after an infected foot was inadequately treated. Nobody has been held to account for his death in what looks like significant medical negligence.

Public reaction to these things has been minimal.

There are a few facts we all know, or should know.

First (and arguably the most significant fact) – the asylum seekers held on Manus and in other detention centres are not “illegal”. They have committed no offence by coming to Australia seeking protection.

They are held in captivity without charge and without trial, because their conduct in seeking asylum is not an offence under Australian law.

The government of Australia, and parts of the media, refer to them as “illegals” because it makes locking them up look faintly respectable.

When they arrive in Australia asking to be protected from persecution, Australia takes them forcibly, against their will, to Manus Island.

There they are held in uncomfortable, unhygienic conditions in tropical heat. They wait until their claims for refugee status are determined. Some of them have been there for about two years.

It should shock us to know how comprehensively the government has lied to us about Manus.

It lies to us by calling asylum seekers “illegal”. It lies to us about the conditions in which they are held.

Maybe it would shock us to know that the people who are being mistreated by our government (and at vast expense to the taxpayer) are just ordinary people – human beings who have the same hopes and desires, the same frailties and fears as most of us.

Second – it is very clear that, if you lock up an innocent person in circumstances where they do not know how long it will be before they are released, they fall into hopelessness and despair after about 12 or 18 months.

One very well-documented response to this despair is self-harm. Typically, they will cut themselves, or sew their lips together, or try to starve themselves to death.

Third – conditions at Manus are very harsh. In October 2013, the UNHCR reported on conditions on Manus.

It noted: “Overall, UNHCR was deeply troubled to observe that the current policies, operational approaches and harsh physical conditions at the detention centre do not comply with international standards and in particular constitute arbitrary and mandatory detention under international law; and do not provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention.”

There is not much doubt that our treatment of asylum seekers in Manus constitutes a crime against humanity.

This is a matter of legal analysis, not political rhetoric.

The hard facts about the horrific conditions on Manus Island that I’ve outlined above may not be enough to shock us, but the one thing that really might shock us is to see Abbott, Morrison and Dutton prosecuted in the International Criminal Court for those crimes.

That’s a pro bono case I would gladly prosecute.

Julian Burnside is an Australian barrister and an advocate for human rights and fair treatment of refugees.