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Will the death of Reza Berati mark a turning point for Australia?

Human Rights
Manus Island

Australia's 'processing' facility on Manus Island, and where Reza Berati was killed. DIBP images under a Creative Commons Licence

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

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. A 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati, was killed.

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 – who pass out evidence in the form of documents, photographs, video, phone calls and letters.

Liz Thompson, 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...keep [detainees] focused on resettlement in PNG … But they know that’s not the case…They watch the news, they read the newspapers…’ she told Australian broadcaster SBS. ‘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,’ she told ABC. ‘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.’

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

On 23 February, 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?’ Immigration Minister 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.’

‘It [Manus Island] is not designed as a processing facility,’ explains whistleblower Liz Thompson.  ‘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 it seems this situation cannot get worse, it does. 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. Reports of hunger strikes run into the hundreds.

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. First and foremost there are the people inside: asylum seekers who protest their treatment, and employees who pass out evidence. Then are others who turn that information into reports and stories, which demand justice. Finally there are the many concerned individuals who state their objection and discuss events in small connecting circles, passing information on through the network.

The movement for humane treatment of refugees in Australia should not expect mainstream media support – our country has some of the most concentrated media ownership in the world, with a history of backing authoritarian policies over the rights and welfare of individuals. The challenge is even greater for individuals on both sides of detention fences to connect, collect and build the definitive case against abusive detention.

There are good people working inside these institutions. The people who blow the whistle, take action that could spark change, 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 silence enforced by the Australian Government may provoke more people on the outside to listen for asylum-seekers’ stories and join their cause.

Luke Bacon is the Editor of Detention Logs, which publishes data, documents and investigations into Australia’s detention estate.


Read the speeches from the Adelaide #LightTheDark rally, reproduced on our Australian office’s website.

Read our Jan/Feb magazine on Detention, which asks ‘why are we locking up migrants?’

PLUS In April’s New Internationalist we tackle the subject of Whistleblowing, and ask ‘Would you? Could you?’. Subscribe to get your copy of the magazine.

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