Divide and Control, Listen and Respond

Silence builds tension. We need information to make decisions, to feel confident in a situation. Evidence is crucial to justice.

After weeks of protests at Australia’s immigration detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, on February 17 tensions boiled over. From the sources available, it appears information about the progress of asylum claims was denied to detainees.

Despite the best efforts of Australian immigration officials, reports have trickled out that at around 9PM police with dogs, the PNG Mobile Squad and other local staff entered the centre.

Dozens of asylum seekers were badly injured, there are reports of cut throats, bullet wounds, brutal head injuries and people being dragged from their beds to be beaten. 23 year old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati was killed.

We were in our compound and many of us were in our room and stayed there till they came and took us out of the rooms and hit us with thick, woody stick, water pipe, shoot fire and also kicked us with the gun

The Australian Government obstructs journalists from reporting and its own vague explanation is unreliable. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has had to backtrack and amend statements as contradictory evidence is published.

Most of what we know comes from people inside these institutions, asylum seekers and staff, passing out evidence: documents, photographs, video, phone calls and letters.

Liz Thompsonn, a migration agent at the Manus Island facilities until last week, has come forward with an account of why the asylum seekers were protesting:

We are told to tell people, to keep them focused on resettlement in PNG … But they know that’s not the case … They watch the news, they read the newspapers … They know there’s no decision from the Papua New Guinean Government on resettlement. So what that means is, you are never getting out of this camp, it is indefinite detention.

Interpreter Azita Bokan confirmed this account. She witnessed the assault of an asylum seeker by G4S staff and bloody scenes at the makeshift medical centre.

my decision was made the moment that I was telling them that the confidentiality is out the door. If you hurt one more person, if another death happens there’s no confidentiality … They will come after me. They already have. I lost my job … But you know there are more important things than income. And I really encourage people - who getting massive pay from Department of Immigration. Think about it … it is not right.

The Government’s approach to refugees and to the Australian public is one in the same: divide and control by withholding information.

On February 23 Light The Dark vigils for Reza Barati were held around Australia. Thousands of flames called for an end to the secrecy. There were around 750 reported events, from huge rallies to backyard gathering.

Since then a push to post apologies online, and a boycott of the Sydney Biennale (sponsored by the new offshore detention contract holder) is growing momentum.

Where will these detention policies policy lead and how people respond? How will detainees respond? How can those inside and outside detention be connected?

When asked by a journalist, “What is the government going to do to prevent this happening in the future?” Scott Morrison replied “Well what we’ve been doing over the last few months. I mean the risk of these things occurring in these centres is always present and what you do is you take steps to ensure the security is in place to ensure that you can deal with any threat that may present.”

Whistleblower Liz Thompson explains:

It’s not designed as a processing facility. It’s designed as an experiment in the active creation of horror to secure the deterrence. That’s why I say again that Reza Barati’s death is not a crisis for the department. It’s actually an opportunity – it’s an opportunity to extend that logic one step further to say, “This happens.” But deterrence continues, Operation Sovereign Borders continue.

Every time I think this situation cannot get worse, it does. Even crueller policies and conditions are revealed. The Australian Government is pleased with this trajectory.

People detained are not passive victims. The Detention Logs archive contains 98 on-site demonstrations recorded by detention centre staff between Oct 2009 and May 2011. There are hundreds of reports of hunger strikes.

In January 2013 a letter from a group of asylum seekers detained on Manus Island, describing their transfer between detention facilities, was published in New Matilda:

We have decided to use our intellect and our humanity to appeal to all people who care for justice and fairness to hear our stories and support our cause … This experience was more traumatic for us than the boat trip we undertook to reach Australia. Then, our life was in the hands of nature. But here in Australia, where we expected just treatment, our lives were in the hands of people who made a choice to treat us in this cruel and demeaning way.

We can’t predict what will force Australia’s major political parties to end abusive detention of asylum seekers. But we can believe that something will. We can be sure it will take all kinds of actions, tiny and enormous, from millions of people. There are many roles to play, all essential.

Foremost there are the asylum seekers who will protest their treatment and demand their human rights be upheld. There are people inside institutions who will pass out evidence and connect suppressed voices with the public. There are others who will turn that information into reports, stories, songs connecting the dots and demanding accountability. There are the millions of concerned individuals who will state their objection and discuss events in small connecting circles, passing information on through the network.

The movement for humane treatment of refugees in Australian should not expect mainstream media support. Australia has some of the most concentrated media ownership in the world, with a history of backing vulture corporations and authoritarian policies over the rights and welfare of individuals. The actions of connected individuals on both sides of detention fences must collect and build into something undeniable.

There are good people working inside these institutions. To reveal evidence, to take action that could spark change, these people will come under the full pressure of states and corporations. The support we can show helps open up a little bit more room and provide a little more cover for them to make ethical decisions. There are more people like Azita Bokan, Liz Thompson, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning inside.

The asylum seekers locked up by Australia have never stopped demanding change. The silence enforced by the Australian Government may provoke more people on the outside to listen for their stories and join their cause.