by Allanah Leahy – EM TV Online
Asylum seekers residing at the regional processing centre on Manus Island have written to the Australian government amid various forms of protesting since last week, Australian media reports.
The situation has been compared to the lead up to the death of Iranian asylum seeker, Reza Barati. While the ABC reports the construction of barricades within the processing centre to keep out security staff and government officials, The Guardian Australia yesterday reported that over 200 asylum seekers on hunger strike have received medical attention.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that around 700 asylum seekers have now joined the hunger strike; the detainees are protesting the length of their detention, the conditions they are being kept under and the threat of being attacked, should they be ordered to live within the PNG community.
A letter to the Australian government from the detainees surfaced on Friday, some of which read:
“Dear Mr Minister, PNG is not [a] safe place for us and if we are supposed to die there, we will die here in the centre. Our message today is very clear to the immigration of Australia, our decision will never change. Hand us over to the UN.”
Another letter released by the Refugee Action Coalition, purportedly signed by 80 detainees from the detention centre’s Foxtrot compound, reads:
“Here is a disaster about to happen, please prevent this disaster. The Australian government is planning to resettle us in PNG against our will, by forcing us.
“We are not willing to be resettled in PNG because there is no safety [or] any future for us and our family. Today we consider us to be hostage for the Australian government so they can deter others not to come to Australia.”
Despite reports of broken down water services, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the government was “advised that food and water continue to be available.”
“However, normal services and supplies in certain areas of the centre have been affected by the disruptive behaviour of some transferees. Normal services are ready to resume in those areas as soon as the situation allows,” the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, a PNG government source told the ABC that staff were working to reduce tensions and did not try to force entry into the barricaded compounds.
“At this time, the government of PNG has refrained from forcing entry to the two compounds,” the government source said.
“However, while we respect the right of asylum seekers to protest and voice their concerns, we will not permit them to do so in a way that endangers other asylum seekers, staff or the centre.”
Although Refugee Action Coalition spokesman, Ian Rintoul said in a statement that men are burrowing under a perimeter fence to reach bottled water outside of the compound, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said:
“The flow of information is not always reliable… You won’t be able to get your way into this country through some kind of illegal people smuggling operation or by, for that matter, put up an argument that somehow or other you are being badly treated now and therefore should be granted access to this country.”
Australian Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Australians are tired of the secrecy surrounding the asylum seeker processing centre.
“Australians will normally give support to their government on tough matters – if people are told the truth,” Shorten told the press on Sunday.
PNG’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration, Rimbink Pato responded to the ‘peaceful protest by a minority of asylum seekers’ at the Manus offshore processing centre last Friday, saying:
“I am aware that a small number of dissatisfied asylum seekers at the Manus regional processing centre and advocates in Australia are seeking to coerce other asylum seekers to join in protest actions in a misguided attempt to change the policies of the governments of PNG and Australia.
“The policies agreed by the two governments under the Regional Resettlement Arrangements are working: maritime people smuggling has stopped; refugee claims are being processed; genuine refugees are receiving visas and are commencing settlement; non-refugees are returning home. These policies will not change.”
Minister Pato further stated that the PNG Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority had started issuing refugee visas. Refugees will then move to a refugee transit centre to receive training and preparation to aid them in settling in PNG.
“We only want people who want to be here – nobody will be forced to settle,” the Minister stated.
The Minister also said that adequate security, welfare and care arrangements will ensure the safety of refugees entering the PNG community.
“I am grateful to Manus Province Governor, Hon. Charlie Benjamin MP, who has personally stated that refugees will be welcome and safe in his province,” the Minister stated.
“The PNG government has been approached by a range of employers who are willing to provide refugees with jobs and income. We are also in the process of obtaining the assistance of a professional recruitment company to help link refugees to jobs. It is important that they are able to start work and make a contribution to the PNG economy and society as quickly as possible.
“The protest action will not delay settlement for those refugees who wish to commit to making PNG their new home… We will not permit a troublesome few to jeopardise the safety, security and life prospects of the majority of peaceable asylum seekers,” the Minister stated.
Meanwhile, Manus MP Ronnie Knight told ABC’s The World Today program that the current tensions are similar to last year’s, when Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati was killed.
“The situation there at the moment is very tense. I’d say we have about 300 to 400 mostly young males who are really, really aggressive… They are blocking off areas. The food’s available, they don’t want to eat it.
“And now that they’ve blocked it off, they’re saying that they are not getting food but they started the hunger strike in the first place so it’s a bit confusing.”
He urged the government to consider other options, such as sending them back to where they came from, giving them back to UNHCR or placing them in a refugee camp somewhere.
“That would probably be much better than leaving them there and letting them get more and more aggressive, and eventually things will not turn out the way they want them to be,” the Manus MP said.