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Closing Manus Island's detention centre: the search for alternative cruelties

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Monday, 22 August 2016

It all goes back to April, when the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court found the Manus Island detention facility, ostensibly directed and run by the Australian government, in breach of the PNG Constitution.

By the order of the court, "Both the Australian and Papua New Guinea governments shall forthwith take all steps necessary to cease and prevent the continued unconstitutional and illegal detention of the asylum seekers or transferees at the relocation centre on Manus Island and the continued breach of the asylum seekers or transferees constitutional and human rights."

PNG's Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, did not wait long before announcing that the machinery would be put in place to close the centre. He had already been making utterances in March that "we cannot hold the refugees here forever."


The Australian response to this grim affair had always been crude yet consistent: the asylum seekers housed at the detention centre were not the responsibility of Canberra, despite being there precisely because of its draconian non-settlement policy. Dark, and deeply unsuccessful outcomes, have greeted those few who have resettled in PNG itself.

It all constituted the grand deflection of state obligation, an outsourcing of duties characteristic in its approach to the UN Convention on Refugees. The persistent, gruesome alibi in this awful mess has been the good Samaritan nonsense of preventing asylum seekers and refugees from drowning on route to Australia.

Even as the offshore detention system crumbles, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton insists rather mechanically on that broken theme. "The Labor legacy of the failed border protection policy, not only did it result in 1,200 people drowning at sea, but it resulted in billions of dollars being spent on this program." Keep them in indefinite detention, in other words, for their own, deeply misunderstood good.

Within Australia, unprecedented moves are being suggested. The West Australian Premier, Colin Barnett, has broken ranks with the Fortress Australia mentality, expressing his willingness to accommodate asylum seekers from Australia's other place of detention pain, Nauru. With regards "families, as long as they don't present a security risk or safety risk, I do welcome them being in Australia."

Of particular concern to Barnett has been the persistent problem of child detention, something which remains in clear violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. "The one thing I find unacceptable is children in detention."

Unfortunately, Australian officials and law enforcement authorities across various states have shown a certain enthusiasm, even hunger, for youth detention. In the Northern Territory and Queensland, instances of brutality against juveniles in detention centres have been common and publicised of late. The zeitgeist is very much against the child in such instances.


In the puzzle of outsourced responsibilities, the Australian approach is bound to entail finding a third country for resettlement. In Dutton's words, "We're talking to third countries at the moment, to look at settlement options."

The dogma of never accepting asylum seekers accept via the official humanitarian channels means identifying a state with the appropriate developing status. Poor countries, in other words, are always going to be more attractive in the game of passing the refugee than wealthier ones, despite the standing invitation by New Zealand to accept more of Australia's forsaken cargo. Suffering, in short, must be emphasised.

For all that, Dutton is not brimming with ideas. True to form in his portfolio, he has refused to clarify when the closure of the detention centre in PNG will take place. There are no schedules, not time tables in the offing. "I'm hoping it can happen as soon as possible but it's an issue for the PNG Government to work through and we'll support them in that decision."

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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