Australia's boat people psychopathy


Blood stain at Manus Island detention centreLast night I watched the excellent ABC Four Corners program recalling the orgy of violent rioting against Manus Island detention centre inmates on 16–17 February, climaxing in the deliberate beating and kicking to death of a young Iranian man, Reza Barati, apparently by a gang of PNG nationals working at the camp as security or maintenance staff. To this point, no charges have been laid.

Though few of the facts presented were new — most were canvassed in more or less detail by Australian media reporting in the weeks following the events — the impact of watching live accounts by present or former G4S expatriate staff members (mostly anonymous, one declared) was profoundly unsettling. I am not going to attempt to summarise the program — I urge readers to watch it online — but here are some follow-on thoughts.

In the final weeks of the G4S management contract for the detention centre, inmates mounted three weeks of sustained peaceful demonstrations which finally goaded PNG camp staff and police into invading the camp, firing guns and wielding machetes and nail-embedded clubs, and beating any inmates they could lay their hands on.

Barati was killed through his head being beaten and stomped into a metal grating on a stairway landing. As several G4S staff commented in the program, it is a wonder and a mercy that this was the only death.

The program only hints at the high degree of Australian official complicity and culpability in this terrifying story. I want to develop those threads further.

Those Australian politicians and officials who chose to set up and administer the Manus detention centre on PNG sovereign territory, subject to PNG law and police 'discipline', had deliberately and in full knowledge put three groups of people — young distressed male detained boat people, locally employed PNG nationals, and a small contingent of expatriate Australian G4S supervisory staff living on a boat moored at a nearby pier — into a situation where such a disastrous confrontation was only a matter of time.

It was predictable that detainees would demonstrate their rising frustration and anger with no progress in processing their refugee claims, and that their desperation would provoke violent retaliation on the part of resentful surrounding PNG nationals. This was a controlled experiment in the provocation of violence and terror.

It could also be correctly anticipated that expatriate G4S staff could not protect detainees from violence by angered PNG nationals when things boiled over. G4S staff had neither the force nor the legal backing to do so. When armed PNG nationals surged through the fence into the camp, G4S expatriate staff were helpless.

All this was predictable. Such was the underlying logic of the Manus project. Ministers and officials structured a sustained deterrence scenario intended to be so awful as to choke off the flow of boat people wanting to come to Australia; to send the message that these young men had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. The people in the camp, thus cowed, would be less troublesome in future. And the publicity of the riots and deaths would send useful deterrent messages to others in the international boat people pipeline.

The impeccable logic of the above paragraph reflects the logic of psychopathy. Psychopaths are highly intelligent, good planners, manipulative, with expert knowledge of human nature, yet totally lacking in empathy with the pain of their victims. Whatever their motivation, the planning of the Australian ministers and officials who set up and operated Manus ticks all these boxes.

Four Corners highlighted two culpable decision moments in the two days of the riots.

The first was when the Immigration Department in Australia directed, contrary to the advice of Immigration staff in Manus, that detainees should now be advised through their community representatives that if refugee claims were to be accepted, the only resettlement prospect was to be PNG. Given the rising temper of the detainee demonstrators, it was predictable that this news would push them beyond the limit of prudent peaceful demonstration into insulting and provoking PNG nationals. Yet Immigration in Australia gave that direction.

The second occurred when the PNG nationals' camp invasion was getting underway. G4S expatriate staff asked Australian management whether they should attempt to control the PNG nationals' behaviour themselves, or withdraw to the safety of their staff ship and hand over 'control' of the situation to PNG police (who, it seems, were themselves keenly participating in the violence against detainees). The directive came back to withdraw.

Later, to their credit, after the surge of violence had peaked, expatriate staff returned to tend the wounded in an emergency field hospital set up at pierside — we see all this in the Four Corners program, and it is excruciating.

The sincerity and pain of the declared former G4S staff member was palpable. His words were corroborated by other G4S and interpreter accounts (as dramatised by actors — the witnesses wished to preserve anonymity for employment reasons).

I am left with a sense of shame that this atrocious violence against innocent, defenceless people was foreseen and permitted by my country's senior political and administrative leadership. Such decisionmaking needs to be called to account for what it is. Responsibility for Barati's death lies at the feet of Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, and the senior officials who took crucial decisions within the policy framework set by those two ministers. 

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and Poland and author of several books including Reluctant Rescuers.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Manus Island, Four Corners, asylum seekers, Reza Barati, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison



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Existing comments

Yet the usual suspects will claim they deserved all they got because it is claimed by one guard that they swore at the PNG nationals who then turned and slaughtered people. What Tony has missed is how many people who claimed to support a just solution advocated for this. They pushed for it on the fake claim that it stops people drowning, but we could have saved every person who drowned if we had wanted to, we simply chose not to. Add that to the sickening vision released to 7.30 of the navy keel hauling refugees across international waters in orange vomit boxes without a care for their safety and what we have is a perfect storm of hatred set up in our parliament by Gillard and Roxon and followed by Abbott and Morrison to appease racist voters.

Marilyn | 29 April 2014  

"Predictable" Tony claims. Who predicted that inmates would have be attacked by local security guards?

Peter | 30 April 2014  

Tony Kevin has expressed what so many must have felt on watching the 4 Corners program. The former guard, and former military man, breaking down in shame for what the Aust Govt is authorising on Manus Island was enough to convince me that we are seriously off course here. As for Cambodia...!

Rodney Wetherell | 30 April 2014  

The program illustrated the outcome of a terrible policy in which "the end justified the means".

Paddy Byers | 30 April 2014  

The only comment that comes to mind is in the words of Jesus; (Matthew 25:40) "Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me" Not only those who do it, but those who approve of it, even indirectly, are no doubt also included. This in no doubt 'preaching to the converted', but what else can be done?

Robert Lddy | 30 April 2014  

The fact that some of our disgraceful decision makers call themselves Christian is for me doubly shameful. Our country will be forever bruised and diminished by this cruel betrayal of human rights. Hate is being engendered after years of generous welcome of migrants into our country. We deserve better than a reputation for violent dehumanising responses to need. At least we have seen the event via witnesses so the ABC has enlightened the secret moral darkness. I thank the team. Now on to the Budget dollar priorities in the land lacking minimal decency.

Margaret | 30 April 2014  

Yes Margaret, it is more galling that the perpetrators are self proclaimed Catholics. Abbott & Morrison are a disgrace to their faith and their country.Their actions are contrary to Christ's teachings and to every decent Australian's sensibilities. What I find peculiar is there hasn't been opprobrium from every Christian leader in Australia. One would have thought Abbott's alignment of policy and faith, incompatible as they are, would have garnered Christians Australia wide in deploring his asylum seeker treatment. Could the Jesuits please start a call to end Abbott's concentration camps? In the name of Jesus ...... please!

Mary | 30 April 2014  

Oh Peter! It doesn't need someone to 'predict' a specific event for it to be 'predictable'. The rhetoric of 'predictable' is something like: "If these circumstances are permitted to continue then it is inevitable [predictable] that there will be dire consequences". Now I will make a prediction. Despite all our words and reportage and commentary such as Tony's balanced outrage there will be no change in government policy - unless we the public take some action, which is as I read the sentiment within the Australia community, most unlikely. When are we going to occupy Scott Morrison's office and sit there until there is a change?

Mike Bowden | 30 April 2014  

Thank you, Tony, for reminding us afresh of our shameful part in the recent violence on Manus Island. If only Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison would take the trouble to read and reflect on your article, then act in accord with their consciences. Boat people 'psychopathy' is an apt title for their actions.

Elizabeth Murray | 30 April 2014  

A remarkable exposition of the ability to predict an event a couple of months after it has come to pass. I suspect that is why the writer was unable to warn the authorities of his predictions before the event and thus prevent a dreadful tragedy.

John frawley | 30 April 2014  

Why aren't Church leaders saying anything need leadership from the pulpit . All Catholics get a petition started I will sign it

Irena | 30 April 2014  

John Frawley, apart from anything else the violence was predictable when it was first reported that the Manus people did not want the prison out there and the fact is human trafficking is a crime and we are the ones committing it.

Marilyn | 30 April 2014  

OK Mike Bowden. You and I are on the same page. We need a Christian tsunami of outrage to tell Abbott and Morrison they don't reflect Christianity in any way by their zenophobic cruelty. Of course, all people, Christian or otherwise, would be welcome to join us. It's just that the label of Catholic is trotted out by Abbott and Morrison and we Christians need to make our outrage felt. This shocking government is not operating in my name. Could we start an online petition through Eureka Street? We need to make our disgust heard and the only way to make an impact is by decent people working together. All ideas welcomed.

Mary | 30 April 2014  

Mike, there was a recent small group of 9 people who sat in Scott Morrison's office and held a peaceful prayer vigil. Five of them were arrested. The charges were dismissed by the magistrate.

Pamela Briggs | 30 April 2014  

Our Abu Graib? Our Guantanamo? Shame is too polite a word.

Tom Mitchell | 30 April 2014  

My parish Priest regulalry prays for asylum seekers. mentions our (Aus') poor treatment of them, prays for a Christ-like response to their plight. I feel proud to hear it, and wonder what the Liberal voters and some party members also in our pews (good, Christian, kindly people) make of it. The difficulty is: the current "solution" is appalling as it is played out. What alternate, practical solutions do people have to offer? Thank you to Four Corners for shining a fact filled light on the events on Manus Island Feb 16 and 17. We need light to dispel the darkness! BTW: is Scott Morrison Catholic? I think he identifies as a Christian but not Catholic.

Anne M | 30 April 2014  

Excellent summary of the Manus Is events & horror that we are implicated in this inhumane behaviour.

Merle | 30 April 2014  

Thanks, Tony. Psychopaths! You have indeed struck it! Can we have them declared? Locked away? [Not only Abbott and Morrison but Bishop, Pyne, Abetz - what a baaad bunch they all are! And then there's Hockey.]

Jim KABLE | 30 April 2014  

It is late at night, but I will not express my opinion on the above article,as my view is not shared by the author, nor by the contributors. But I know I share the view of the vast majority of the people of Australia.

Ron Cini | 30 April 2014  

Let's not give Morrison & Abbott all the credit. It was Gillard who reopened Manus and Nauru and Rudd who took away all hope on 19 July last year. More than half of those on Manus in Feb had been there since last August...

Marg Hutton | 01 May 2014  

'I know I share the view of the vast majority of the people of Australia.' And that makes it right Ron? Why don't you actually argue the case against the article?

Ginger Meggs | 01 May 2014  

'A young Iranian man' - yes, Rezi Barati was a young Iranian man, but he was also 'a young man, 23, beaten to death.' We need to humanise these humans, not differentiate them. It is this 'them and us' mentality that has dragged us down this dreadful pit of callous disregard for life.

Hannah | 01 May 2014  

Julia Gillard is an atheist. Her policy re refugees did not contradict professed religious beliefs. That is the point. Shame on all Christian politicians who agree with internment of asylum seekers, Kevin Rudd included. Ignorance and racism touted by shock jocks like Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and Andrew Bolt fuel people's fears. Can you attempt to imagine you and your loved ones incarcerated behind the razor wire of the wretched detention centres? Each and every one of those people is Christ suffering.

Mary | 01 May 2014  

I share the views of the vast majority of those who have commented on your article, Kevin. We are being shamed before the world by the cruel and inhuman treatment of these detainees, including those on Nauru. One only has to read the recent book, "The Undesirables" my Mark Isaacs on the situation on Nauru to realise what else is being done in our name to crush the spirit of detainees.

Tony Santospirito | 01 May 2014  

All this certainly was predictable. An excellent article Tony!

Dominic W. Kelly | 01 May 2014  

I would like to say that this atrocious human rights violation was started by Little Little Little John Howard. Rudd stopped it,got thrown out by his own party and Gillard was advised to re-implement the plan to shore up public support and votes. Howard,Gillard,Abbott,Morrison and a portion of xenophobic mis-informed Australians are to blame.

Craig McCarthy | 01 May 2014  

"Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt." Exodus 22:21

AURELIUS | 01 May 2014  

Manus Islanders are some of the most peace loving people on earth and it would have taken a lot of provocation to cause an attack. Overall the current policy of not supporting the people smuggling industry has resulted in hundreds of lives being saved. We all should congratulate Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott for their compassion and maybe a Nobel Peace prize would be appropriate.

Beat Odermatt | 02 May 2014  

"The purpose of this article is to consider the possibility that we are moving toward a world of "garrison states"-a world in which the specialists on violence are the most powerful group in society". Thus wrote Harold Lasswell in The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 46, No. 4, January 1941. He was right and now "we" seem to adopt a militaristic approach to most of today's problems, or otherwise use the metaphors of sport which trivialise and effectively obscure the reality of the profound issues we face.

John Gallagher | 02 May 2014  

Beat the refugees jailed on Manus were trafficked there by force by the Australian government, not some poor Indonesian fishing person.

Marilyn | 02 May 2014  

Marilyn, In all the comments that you have made on this issue, I do not recall that you once criticized the asylum-seekers' "service providers" for sending them out in boats that amounted to death-traps. However, I do stand open to correction on this point. Putting aside any questions of legality regarding seeking asylum, did not the asylum-seekers have the right to expcet that the boats would get them safely to Australian shores? Is that not what they paid for? Yet when the boats broke down or sank, you hold the Australian authorities responsible for every single death due to a lack of will. But when the Australian authorities tow the asylum-seekers back, you criticize them for using "orange vomit boxes" and "without a care for their safety". And if the Australian authorities did not care for safety of the asylum-seekers, why did I see them all provided with life-jackets?

Marg | 03 May 2014  

Perhaps Ron Cini can advise us whether the fact that the vast majority of the people of Australia support abortion makes that right too. You can't have it both ways, Mr Cini. Government isn't run along the same lines as Australian Idol.

Tony | 03 May 2014  

There is a serious derangement among those who whinge about the state of the boat as if that is the only thing refugees ever have to think about.

Marilyn | 07 May 2014  

Let's be clear, Marilyn, we are talking here about people's lives being put at risk, and in some case actually lost, because they were sent out in unseaworthy boats. It seems reasonable to me to envisage that the aslym-seekers might have been concerned about the state of their boat whilst they were on the high seas. If it is a deranged whinge to point out that those who provide unseaworthy boats are morally culpable if people drown, then I am happy to be branded as a deranged whinger.

Marg | 07 May 2014  

I feel a great sadness and shame on how Australia treats any foreign person these days. I was once proud to be called an Australian so much so that I became a citizen. I was proud of how we are a multi-cultural society. However, since the advent of the Howard government and its' policies that did nothing to encourage social cohesion and others since who shy away from reality and empathy towards the more unfortunate whilst chasing the "vote" of those unconscounable, ill informed and perhaps in-enlightened Australians, I hang my head in shame. To me it appears as though all governments these days, irrespective of their political persuasions follow the same harsh treatment towards refugees. No one would undertake the risks of a smugglers boat unless their situation is desperate. Finally after a traumatic journey they land at our shores only to be encaserated and left to rot. As an ex-public servant I would like to know why"processing" takes so long? I wonder how many Australians still suffer for being unable to unite their families due to non-humanitarian laws and regulations. I myself have to live in relative luxury in Australia whilst my ninety one year old mother languishes in her country alone.

Ranjit | 31 July 2015  

Since my comment on this page, I have discovered through SBS on demand, a series titled "Go back to where you come from". What an eye opener!

Ranjit | 31 July 2015  

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