Boston Protest Vigil Against Australia’s Refugee Processing Facility on Manus Island
On 26 January activists braved the beginnings of a ‘crippling and potentially historic’ blizzard to hold a candle-lit vigil outside the ‘Australia Day Boston Dinner’ at the W Hotel in downtown Boston to protest what the United Nations Committee on Torture calls “the unlawful and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers” at an Australian Government-managed detention center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Approximately 15 people gathered to stand in solidarity with the detainees on Manus Island, who at the time were on hunger-strike. They held signs reading ‘Justice for Refugees’, ‘Australia: Stop Racist Refugee Policies’, ‘Seeking asylum is a human right’, ‘No to Off-shore Detention’, ‘#ShutDownManus’ and ‘Australia’s Shame’ in the chilling cold as snow started to fall. One of the vigil organisers, Julia Dehm explained: ‘This vigil is in solidarity with the Manus Island detainees. We support their protest against their ongoing, indefinite detention, their inhumane treatment and their proposed resettlement on Manus Island. We call for all off-shore detentions centers to be closed.’
Boston Protest Against Manus Island Processing Facility (PHOTOS: Julia Dehm)
The detention center houses over 1,000 people who travelled by boat to request asylum in Australia, including Iraqis, Somalis, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Afghan, Iranians, Sri Lankans, Burmese, stateless Faili Kurds and stateless Rohingya, Egyptians, Lebanese and Syrians.
The keynote speaker at the ‘Australia Day Boston Dinner’ former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd played a central role creating the conditions for the humanitarian disaster unfolding on Manus Island. When he won the 2007 election a key election promise was the closure of the Regional Processing system that had been running since 2001. However, in 2012 his party re-opened off-shore processing centres for asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru and in 2013 Rudd signed a Regional Processing Agreement with Papua New Guinea that asylum seekers would be processed and resettled in PNG, promising that no one who arrives by boat seeking asylum would ever be settled in Australia.
Since the center reopened in 2012, there have been significant tensions between guards, the local community and detainees. These tensions, combined with ongoing issues with detention center management and detainee mistreatment, precipitated large protests and center unrest. On 17 February 2014, 70 asylum seekers were injured, some severely, and Reza Berati, a 23 year old Iranian asylum seekers was killed in violent clashes at the Centre. An Australian Parliament Senate Committee Report found that this violence was ‘eminently foreseeable’ and that the Australian government had ‘failed in its duty’ to protect asylum seekers under its control. It also recommended that the Australian government acknowledge and accept responsibility for human rights violations arising from the incident. The Committee also recommended that the Australian Government facilitate appropriate access to the detention center for UN representatives, lawyers, journalists, and the Australian Human Rights Commission. There is an ongoing media blackout at the detention center. In October 2014 another Iranian asylum seeker, 24 year old Hamid Kehazaei died from severe septicemia after cutting his foot.
The UN Committee Against Torture has described the detentions of asylum seekers on Manus Island as ‘unlawful and inhumane’. Amnesty International has documented numerous human rights violations at Manus Island. They found that ‘The combined effect of the conditions of detention on Manus Island, the open-ended nature of that detention, and the uncertainty about their fates to which detainees are subjected amounts to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment. Moreover, some conditions of detention, particularly the housing of detainees in P Dorm, on their own violate the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment.’
On 13 January the detainees on Manus Island began a hunger strike. There were numerous reported incidents of self-harm as part of the protests, with asylum seekers sewing their lips together, swallowing razor blades and ingesting detergent. On the 19th January guards in riot gear entered two of the compounds and attempted to break up the protest by force, 58 have reportedly been taken to the prison in the regional capital, Lorengau, with some detainees allegedly taken to an isolation unit know as ‘Chauka’. There are reports that another compound, Foxtrot, was raised on 26 January morning and a further 11 arrests made of detainees. Those arrested reportedly include Iranians, Afghans, Sri Lankans and Sudanese.
In a letter addressed to President Obama the detainees write: ‘We expect you to rescue us from the cruel and racist government of Australia as Abraham Lincoln, one of the ex-Presidents of America liberated many slaves. We all appreciate the support of the American citizens that supported us in New York. We still need your help.’
The Boston vigil was one of several international protests in solidarity with the detainees on Manus Island. A vigil was held outside Australian Consulate in New York City on 21 January, in Cambridge (UK) on 26 January and in Berlin (Germany) and Brussels (Belgium) on 27 January.
Julia Dehm is a visiting scholar from Melbourne, Australia at Harvard Law School.