Disaster capitalism on Manus Island


Prime Minister Julia Gillard referred to arrangements for the proposed reopening of the Manus Island detention centre as a 'partnership' with Papua New Guinea. It is wishful thinking to consider people smuggling a regional problem that bothers our neighbours as much as it does us. 

The partnership consists of Australia funding the detention centre and PNG providing the location. In reality, PNG is not worried about people smugglers but supports the partnership because it sees the detention centre as a boost for the local economy.

Earlier this year, ABC correspondent Liam Fox visited Manus and discovered overwhelming support from locals for the mooted reopening of the detention centre. Business owner Ken Kuso told him:

'I think it's good news for me, when they established the asylum seeker centre in Manus last time, actually I benefited yes, the Australian Government planted a lot of money to this small island community and we really benefited from it.'

Profiting from the misery of others is the odious principle underlying 'disaster capitalism'. Disaster capitalism was conceived by extreme neoliberals at the University of Chicago who argued that profit rather than humanitarian concern should be the motive behind disaster management. 

A background paper from the Edmund Rice Centre explains that disaster capitalism is 'financing a new world economic order'. 'Each new disaster can generate great excitement as reconstruction becomes a big business'. The authors suggest the concept also applies to Australia's asylum seeker detention centres, which are run by multinationals such as the British firm Serco. 

Manus Island locals enjoying an economic windfall from the detention centre is hardly a serious manifestation of disaster capitalism. But it does represent a small-scale example of the increasing global phenomenon of business profiting from human misery. 

What is worse is that it is at the heart of the Australian Government's pitch to the PNG Government, at least implicitly. The desire to stop people smuggling is not the reason that PNG has agreed to the facility. If there was no economic benefit, it would have declined to proceed.

The Australian Government might argue that PNG's motivation is a matter for PNG. But in going ahead with the Manus solution, we are complicit in the exploitation of the suffering of asylum seekers for financial gain. Not only are we providing the opportunity for this to occur, we are condoning it. If PNG looks to Australia for moral leadership in the treatment of asylum seekers, they are misguided.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, disaster capitalism, Manus Island, PNG, asylum seekers, Edmund Rice Centre



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Existing comments

and if the human right lawyers and people smugglers would do it for nothing!
Beat Odermatt | 15 August 2011

Someone will profit from these people wherever they go. It not good. It's reality. If you can persuade them, why not ask Caritas upthere to run a centre for the illegals? Failing that someone will run it. If in Australia, Australians will benefit, if in PNG, the the Papuans will benefit.
Skye | 15 August 2011

There is no people smuggling, it is asylum seekers getting a ride and that is legal all over the world.

Why does everyone fall into the same mindless spin when it has been shown over and over again that the right to asylum is embedded in concrete in international and Australian law and Article 31 forbids any form of punishment for how people get here.

People smuggling is the smuggling of MIGRANTS across borders for gain - under the protocols those using the refugee convention to get to safety are not smuggled migrants and if they were punishment is also forbidden.

it's very simple - anyone has the right seek asylum, it is not an offence to come here without papers ergo no-one has to be smuggled ergo there are not smugglers.
Marilyn Shepherd | 15 August 2011

to Marilyn Shepherd: According to you people smugglers are not people smugglers. Even if people smugglers are not people smugglers, humans continue to die because they are transported in sub standard vessels across dangerous waters.
Beat Odermatt | 15 August 2011

Beat, it is illegal people smuggling to force people across borders for gain.

It is not now and nor has it ever been illegal to give refugees a ride across borders and it is not people smuggling.

Marilyn Shepherd | 15 August 2011

I can understand that you are looking for reasons to argue the case against off shore processing. But is the argument about stopping people smugglers and boat people or finding a humane way of dealing with the mass movement of peoples around our globe.

I agree with your point about the odiousness of 'disaster capitalism' but I think the application in the case of Manus is a bit stretched. Manus itself is very isolated and far from the market place of capitalist interaction. The one hotel and few shops would relish the opportunity to have a few more people visit their island.

The detention centre on Manus is also very distant from the town on the island. The comments of the local business owner is as much about providing the rural villages scattered all around the island with a possible source of cash in exchange for their food and crops. I have visited may of these island communities and I know that their schools, clinics and transport infrastructure is in great need of repair and the community make a big commitment to maintaining these within a minimalist cash economy. Its hard to call this 'profit making'.
Chris Dureau | 19 August 2011


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