Almost since it opened in November last year, the Manus Island detention camp has been in a state of chaos, with hunger strikes and letters of protest.

On Saturday 12 January, the Australian government transferred another 40 single male asylum seekers (Iranians, Iraqis and Afghans) to Manus Island, taking the numbers to around 220 including 30 children between the ages of 7 and 18 years-old.

The chaos has reached a new level since the most recent transfer, with most of the new arrivals maintaining a hunger strike since they arrived.

In the two days following their arrival, there were also at least four attempts at suicide—two attempted hangings and three attempted drownings when Iraqi asylum seekers jumped the fence and ran into the sea. The Immigration Department has passed this off as an escape attempt, when almost 400 kilometres of ocean separates Manus from PNG’s main island!

At least five asylum seekers self-harmed, including serious injuries when one put his hand into an industrial fan.

Hunger strikes and protests have already thrown Manus Island into chaos

Two days later, another ten also jumped the fence and ran to the sea. “This place is a mess. You can’t believe it at all,” an Iranian asylum seeker wrote from inside the camp.

Fuelling the protests and despair is the stark reality of detention on Manus Island. Like Nauru, Manus Island was meant to be a deterrent to asylum seekers travelling by boat to Australia. But since the beginning of the Pacific Solution 2.0 on 13 August 2012, around 9000 asylum seekers have come seeking protection.

Of those, the government has selected 220 to imprison on Manus Island and 400 on Nauru. Meanwhile, asylum seekers in Australia are being released into the community to live while their claims are being processed. There are problems with the bridging visa release arrangements, not least that there is no right to work, but this is nothing compared to the misery inflicted on those sent to the island detention camps.

One 19 year-old recently transferred to Manus Island wrote, “This is the end of my life. I had lots of dreams but now all hope is gone. I am suffering from this situation and I have become crazy. There is no justice and fairness. If there is a law it should be for all, not only 220 unlucky people.”

At 19, a five-year sentence is a life-time. More than a week later, as Solidarity goes to press, they are living in tents (just like on Nauru) and have not been allowed to use the internet or to call home.

Repression and censorship

Indeed internet access has been a particularly sore point with the Department of Immigration since early January, when asylum seekers used computer tablets to take pictures of life in detention on Manus Island in early January and send them to refugee advocates in Australia. (You can see the photos at http://x.co/sI6t)

Internet and phone access was cut off. The tablets were seized and the cameras disabled.

Phone and internet access was restored a few days later, but now with technology to allow monitoring of internet use and phone calls. Access to the internet for each asylum seeker was cut by from one hour a day to one hour three times a week.

Challenging Labor’s Pacific Solution will be central to the refugee campaign in 2013. It is clear that Abbott is going to try to use refugee bashing and stopping the boats to win the election. But every bit of struggle to force the Gillard government to back down on asylum seekers will be a step towards welcoming the boats and stopping Tony Abbott ever setting foot in the Lodge.

Ian Rintoul

UPDATE: PNG opposition mounts legal challenge

On Friday January 18, the PNG Opposition leader, Belden Namah, launched a constitutional challenge to the Manus Island detention centre with documents lodged in the National Court of Justice in Port Moresby.

The challenge asks the court to declare that the Memorandum of Understanding between Australian and Papua New Guinea is unlawful as it allows Australia to force asylum seekers to enter Papuan New Guinea and allows the PNG government to deprive those asylum seekers of their liberty as soon as they enter Papua New Guinea.

The challenge also asks the court to immediately prevent any further transfers from Australia to Manus Island until the constitutional challenge is resolved.

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