SERIOUS QUESTIONS have been raised about Australia’s responsibility to protect asylum seekers held in offshore detention centres after news broke that one person has been killed and 77 injured in a riot in Australia’s controversial offshore refugee processing centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG).
The rationale for Australia’s offshore detention and resettlement policy – and, in particular, the use of PNG as both a temporary and permanent destination for asylum seekers arriving by boat – is that it deters people from undertaking the risky maritime journey to Australia, which regularly results in drownings.
Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, is using the location of Manus Island – on PNG soil – to deflect responsibility away from Australia. This is an intended consequence of offshoring: the diffusion of responsibility when things go wrong, making accountability and investigation that much more difficult. In what seemed like an Orwellian inspired speech, Morrison stated that “if you behave in an unruly way and in a disorderly way then you subject yourself to the response of law enforcement.” In a candid haze he carried on, saying that “the extent and nature of the subsequent events and perimeter breaches is still being verified.”
The Australian government has referred to the violence as a ‘tragedy,’ ultimately placing accusation on the refugees themselves who “decided to protest in a very violent way, to take themselves outside of the centre and place themselves at great risk.”
Organisations and NGOs’ reports from the ground render a very different perspective, stating that the detainees did not spark the violence but have been facing an onslaught of attacks by PNG locals and police from over the fences.
Australia has a duty of care toward those it detains. Once people begin dying and being seriously injured while in their custody, that undermines the bipartisan policy rationale of seeking to prevent deaths. A transparent inquiry into the circumstances in which these violations occurred is critical for providing accountability. It seems “out of sight, out of mind” has become a morally acceptable position to take on this shared, international catastrophe of asylum seekers needing protection.