After three weeks of refugees’ fearless defiance, the 23-day government siege on Manus Island was brutally ended on Friday 24 November.
Police and armed immigration officers used fists, iron bars, boots, batons and knives to smash their way through the detention centre, dragging refugees and asylum seekers onto buses to take them away.
In a particularly sadistic act, police threw one man’s pet dog from the moving bus as the men were being driven away.
The full story of the resistance to the siege is yet to be told. But for three weeks, the refugees collected rain water, dug wells and smuggled food and medicine into the detention centre—even as fences were being dismantled around them.
Heroically, local Manusians ran the gauntlet of police and navy guards to get supplies into the detention centre. Some local boat owners were briefly jailed for defying the police.
In Australia, refugee supporters marched, blocked intersections, blockaded Liberal fundraisers, disrupted transport to the Melbourne Cup and occupied offices. Church leaders chained themselves to the gate of Kirribilli House—all to renew the call to bring the refugees and asylum seekers to Australia.
The Manus siege has horrified the world. Doctors from Mèdecins Sans Frontiers were dispatched to provide assistance but they have been prevented from providing medical help. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton flatly turned down the offer from the Australian doctors’ peak body, the AMA, to send a medical team to provide independent health assessments for the Manus asylum seekers and refugees.
The forced transfer has confirmed everything that the refugees have been saying.
More that a week after they were moved, two of the three areas (Hillside and West Lorengau) are still construction sites and for hours every day have no water, and for even longer no power, living in containers in the baking sun. And there is no security.
In East Lorengau, almost 400 are crammed into accommodation meant for around 280. After 6pm, IHMS is closed and the only available medical service is the impoverished hospital in the Lorengau settlement.
But the fantastic resistance to the siege, and the protests in Australia, have shifted politics. Jacinda Ardern, the recently elected New Zealand Prime Minister, used the APEC meeting in Vietnam to politely press Turnbull on New Zealand’s offer to accept 150 refugees a year.
After consistently rejecting the New Zealand offer as a back door to Australia, the government’s opposition to New Zealand resettlement has cracked. Turnbull now says that the Liberal government will consider the New Zealand offer—but only after resettlements to the US are completed.
Throughout the siege, the Labor Party disgracefully called for the refugees to accept the relocation being forced on them.
Labor has positioned itself as a critic of the Liberal government’s inaction in finding “safe, third countries”, but has insisted that, “Australia is not and must not be a resettlement option.”
As the community outrage over Manus grew, Labor’s rejection of NZ resettlement also cracked. Shorten began to call for Turnbull to accept the New Zealand offer.
Demonstrators in New Zealand blockaded the Australian embassy. They have also demanded that Ardern both take many more than 150, and that New Zealand ignore Australia’s veto on resettlement and negotiate directly with PNG.
Labor’s shift at least means that an Australian Labor government would now be committed to allowing 150 refugees to go to New Zealand. But New Zealand cannot be considered an alternative to resettlement in Australia.
The refugee movement will continue to demand that the Australian government evacuate Manus and Nauru and “bring them here.” Increasingly the pressure will be focussed on the Labor Party who re-started the Pacific Solution in 2012 and began the current phase of offshore detention in 2013, decreeing that any asylum seekers sent to Manus or Nauru would never be resettled in Australia.
Labor handed its offshore detention policy to the Liberals in 2013, and under Abbott and Morrison the Liberals began turning back boats under Operation Sovereign Borders. After Morrison, Dutton has added his peculiarly twisted ignorance to running the hell-holes of Manus and Nauru.
But the Turnbull government’s days are numbered. Labor is about to re-inherit the horror that it created in 2013. Hundreds will be still stranded on Manus and Nauru, even if the US deal reaches its full quota of 1250. Labor will again be faced with the fact that there are no “third countries” that are going to take refugees that are Australia’s responsibility.
The tremendous courage of the Manus refugees must inspire the movement to step up the demand to “Bring Them Here”, as Turnbull and Dutton are pushed out of office, and we prepare to take the fight to a Labor government.
By Ian Rintoul