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The Situation on Manus Island Keeps Getting Worse

700 asylum seekers detained by Australia on Manus Island are refusing to eat. That's 67 percent of the centre's whole population.

by Charlie Braithwaite
19 January 2015, 4:05am


Leaked images of the hunger strike via the Refugee Action Collective

It's been seven days since the first reports of endemic hunger strikes on Manus Island. Now 700 detainees are reportedly refusing to eat, with as many as 14 sewing their lips shut. As of December 31 there were 1035 detainees on Manus, so 700 people on hunger strike means approximately 67 pecent of the centre's population. It was also reported by the ABC that a Pakistani man had eaten washing powder and collapsed, while another had swallowed a razor blade. With so many people making themselves ill, the island's medical capabilities are being pushed dangerously to the edge.

A widely reported letter written by an asylum seeker states that detainees are prepared to die. And in the case of death they want their organs donated to Australians so that "a part of us may one day feel the sweet taste of freedom."

There's no doubt that this is the direst situation for Manus since Asylum seeker Reza Berati was shot by local security contractors last April. So why has everything gone wrong again?

Lucy Morgan is the information and policy coordinator at the Refugee Council of Australia. She says she's hardly surprised by the current situation. "We've seen over many years a very clear correlation between people being detained indefinitely and an increase in mental health issues, which end in cases of unrest, serious depression, hunger strikes, and in self-harm. Although it's obviously worrying and shocking, I think it was something that was eminently foreseeable."

Another issue, according to Morgan, is the abysmal conditions on the island. She explains that even detainees in centres with decent living conditions, such as Villawood, show signs of mental health issues. So the poor infrastructure and conditions on Manus add an environmental factor to the unrest. Indeed, running water has been cut off on the island, leaving detainees only bottled water for drinking, washing, and flushing toilets.

Finally, Morgan attributes uncertainty as the linchpin. "I think the real problem we are seeing here, and it was a problem under the previous government as well, is that we really aren't providing any kind of certainty about their future. If anything we seem to be maximising uncertainty about what's going to happen." She points to the fact that in some cases, detainees have been on Manus for over a year and still don't know how long they'll be held, where they'll live, or whether they can have a sustainable and safe life in Papua New Guinea.

Then pair all this insecurity and anger with the fact that many detainees have been through unnerving trauma before PNG, and the Manus situation makes clear sense.

Despite all this pressure on the government's collective sense of ethics, the new Immigration Minister Peter Dutton continues to take a hard-line. He told media last week that detainees will never arrive in Australia, and that asylum seekers are being "encouraged" to protest by people outside the centre.

As Morgan concludes "Again, here's why it's such a bad idea to establish these detention centres in remote locations where the infrastructure isn't deigned for a group of highly vulnerable people. This just isn't working."

Follow Charlie on Twitter: @clbraith