Another Shocking Week In Refugee Detention That Our Pollies Would Sooner Ignore

One refugee dead, one dying, a devastating fire and more political bickering than action.

What you need to know
  • A Rohingya man died on Manus this week, and a Hazara man is dying on Nauru
  • The Labor Party is debating refugee policy, and things seem to be changing
  • Labor MP Ged Kearney said she would push for action

In yet another horrifying week in Australia's offshore detention regime, one refugee is dead on Manus Island, another on Nauru is fighting terminal lung cancer and being ignored by authorities, and a fire ripped through an accommodation facility on Manus leaving hundreds of asylum seekers without food or a safe place to sleep.

However, barely a politician from either the government or the Labor opposition has acknowledged, let alone spoken out about, the recent news on either island.

On Tuesday, a Rohingya refugee died after allegedly jumping from a moving vehicle. Iranian journalist and refugee Behrouz Boochani reported from Manus that the man, known as Salim, had a history of epilepsy and other medical problems, which saw him sent to Australia for treatment. Boochani tweeted that the man "occasionally used to pass out and needed urgent medical treatment", and claimed he had not previously received required medical care.

It is at least the seventh refugee death on Manus Island since the start of Australia's offshore detention scheme there, according to Monash University's Australian Border Deaths Database. News of the man's death was met with widespread condemnation from the United Nations, Amnesty International, and asylum seeker advocates.

On Wednesday, Kon Karapanagiotidis of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre claimed in a tweet that the man's wife was not notified of his death, and an ASRC staff member was the one to reveal the sad news to her.

In an interview with ABC radio in Melbourne on Thursday, Karapanagiotidis slammed the Australian Department of Home Affairs for not contacting Salim's wife to inform her of his death.

"What was so shocking was that [his wife] was hearing this news for the very first time... In the words of my staff member, 'this was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'," he said.

"She was breaking the news to Salim's wife some 24 hours after she had passed."

In a statement to ten daily on Karapanagiotidis' claims, and in response to questions about policies in place to inform families about the deaths of refugees, a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson simply said "this is a matter for the PNG Government."

This is a standard response from the department to questions about refugees on Manus, despite PNG's immigration minister maintaining as recently as November that Australia still has responsibility for people sent to Manus after attempting to reach Australia.

Adjunct Professor George Newhouse, the principal solicitor for the National Justice Project, told ten daily on Thursday claims by the department that Australia was not responsible for the refugees transferred to Manus Island are "nonsense".

"Australia is up to its neck in the care and control of these poor transferees and owes them a legal duty of care," he said.

Despite news of Salim's death breaking on Tuesday, the government has not made any official statement or acknowledgement of the incident, nor has the Labor opposition asked a question about it in parliament's question time. Labor's shadow immigration minister, Shayne Neumann, has not commented either in parliament or on social media.

It fell to Greens MP Adam Bandt to ask the sole question of Dutton all week on Manus and the death of Salim.

Over the weekend, a fire torched an accommodation facility for asylum seekers on Manus Island, with claims residents were left without power or food after damage to the building. Asylum seekers reported a "big fire" in the Hillside facility on Sunday, which was said to have damaged rooms of the building and affected the kitchen.

"The Hillside men are now sitting outside in the dark. The generators are broken, there is no power at all. The authorities are doing nothing to find the men somewhere to sleep," one asylum seeker claimed. ten daily was told by another asylum seeker that the kitchen was affected to the point that food was not given to the men on Sunday night, and only small packages of food were distributed on Monday.

Again -- no comment from the government, or Labor.

On Thursday, The Guardian reported a 63-year-old Afghan Hazara refugee held on Nauru had terminal lung cancer and doctors on the island had "pleaded" with the Australian government for him to be brought to Australia for medical treatment and palliative care. The Guardian reported Australian Border Force had made "repeated" requests to Canberra for the man to be taken to Australia, as hospitals on Nauru were "dangerously inadequate".

Greens immigration spokesman Nick McKim commented on the case on Thursday, but again, no other comment from the government or Labor.

In other news, the New Zealand government is continuing to push for Australia to let it resettle Manus and Nauru refugees. NZ has offered repeatedly to take some in, but government members have resisted the call by claiming that if refugees were to be resettled over the ditch, that they could easily come back to Australia. However, New Zealand's immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway said it would be a simple matter for that issue to be skirted.

"Ultimately, responsibility for who can come into any sovereign nation is the responsibility of that nation," he said, SBS reported, claiming that Australian authorities could refuse the entry of any refugees if they wished.

"It's over to Australia to determine who can and cannot come into their country."

But to say Labor has been ignoring the refugee issue totally would be incorrect. While the opposition has seemingly overlooked the specific incidents on Manus and Nauru in recent days, they have been talking about refugees in a policy sense.

New Labor MP Ged Kearney, who recently won the Victorian seat of Batman in a by-election, gave her maiden speech to the House of Representatives where she raised the idea that maybe -- just maybe -- Australia could look at changing how we treat refugees on Manus and Nauru, rather than continuing the modus operandi of either ignoring the issue or pretending the status quo is fine. She slammed the "the shameful policy of indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru", in a stark call-out of the policies which Labor has largely remained silent on.

"We are a rich country. We can afford to take more refugees. However, I doubt we can afford the ongoing cost to our national psyche of subjecting men, women, and children to years of punitive indefinite detention. We must, as a priority, move the asylum seekers off Manus and Nauru to permanent resettlement and ensure that indefinite detention never happens again."

She committed to pushing for a "humane refugee policy", outlining time limits for people to remain in detention, expanding Australia's refugee intake, and ensuring new arrivals have access to welfare and other essential social services.

While horrific incidents continue to occur regularly on Manus and Nauru, including death, serious illness and injury, and sexual assault to refugees, Labor rarely directly confronts the government on refugee policy. The opposition, ministers including Peter Dutton are quick to point out, opened the offshore centres and presided over an immigration policy that saw more than 1000 boat arrivals drown at sea, meaning any question to Dutton in the daily parliament question time is a free hit for the Minister for Home Affairs to detail the incidents which occurred under Labor's watch.

So it was too this week, as Dutton responded to Kearney's speech by slamming Labor as weak on border security.

"[Bill] Shorten hasn’t got the leadership ability to haul these people into line and to keep the policy that has stopped kids from going into detention, stopped drownings at sea and make sure that boats don’t restart," he told Channel Nine.

Labor frontbencher Linda Burney also told Sky News this week that "we are saying most clearly that there shouldn’t be indefinite detention" and "I do believe that they shouldn’t be held indefinitely". However, much of the attention on her interview has focused on the fact her office sent an inaccurate transcript of her comments to journalists, which omitted or heavily edited many of her quotes.

Ironically, the initial edited transcript omitted what appears to be Labor's sole specific mention of the Manus incidents. Burney said "look at what has happened on Manus in the last 24 hours, I think there's been a fire, and I think there's been an injury and a fatality", but only the first part of that quote was included in the initial email sent to journalists.

Elsewhere in Labor ranks, The Guardian reported the ALP's Victorian state conference would debate a motion calling for an end to offshore detention and the transfer of remaining refugees on Manus and Nauru to Australia within 90 days of a Labor government taking office. Similar motions are expected to be debated at Labor's national conference later this year.

It remains to be seen whether the opposition will ask questions of the government about any of the incidents on Manus or Nauru this week, but after four days of question time, not once has immigration detention been raised by Labor. It seems, however, that calls are growing, even inside the opposition, for things to change.