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We created the Manus Island danger


Detail from the painting 'Looking at What' portrays the shocked faces of townspeople as they witness the horrific aftermath of a concentration campThe connection between good intentions and the road to hell is a semi-permeable membrane. We want to 'stop the boats' — ostensibly, so desperate people stop drowning en route — so the Rudd Labor government decided to 'deter' those yet to come by punishing those who had already got here.

When it set up Manus and Nauru Islands to house the camps necessary to warehouse that next wave, off-shore, that government no doubt meant to capitalise on the Salvation Army's reputation for humble charitable interventions to soften any abreaction to its harsh decision, when it contracted them to provide 'humanitarian activities' to ease the suffering of the detained.

That reputation did not match the skills or expected achievements of the Army's workforce. It seems that the maligned, perhaps unfairly, security guards did a better job of communication and community-building than those temporary staff expected to achieve the impossible goal of keeping the peace.

It was tragic and avoidable that some of those whose refugee claims have still not even begun to be processed, would protest and damage property which was meant to improve their living conditions. If we deprive a man of hope, he often goes mad.

On Manus Island, local men, police and security guards have apparently been involved in a terrifying melee, in and out of the 'campus'. The asylum seekers were not armed, yet one is dead, one has been shot in the back, and 77 have (mostly head) injuries. They say that they fled for their lives when PNG police and locals came to 'teach them a lesson' after a few of them fled the wire fence between them and their local neighbours.

We cannot say precisely what happened, but an open inquiry is required. Manus Island is what it has to be: a warehouse for the unwanted. A concentration camp, in fact, but one in which, despite the Morrison wall of soundlessness, unlike its 19th and 20th century counterparts, atrocities cannot occur. Or so we believe, because they, their purpose, and their activities, cannot be entirely hid, thanks to journalism, activism, social media and mobile phones. 'Decent people' cannot do nothing about a wrong they witness.

That is why the Nauruan camp should be closed down — locals have decided to scrap the rule of law and deal with the criminal trials of last year's rioters by exiling the Supreme Court, expelling the Chief Magistrate and forcing the Attorney General to resign, because they want to punish privately within the camp and not in the courts. And that is why we should remove the Manus Island would-be refugees: they are at great risk of death and disability because we put them at risk in a desperately poor and struggling country.

I have a painting in my home called 'Looking at What' (pictures). It portrays the horrified faces of townspeople near an extermination camp who 'did not know' the people in the cattle trucks were also the atoms in the chimneys. The allies brought them in and made them see and smell it. Their eyes and faces can't be forgotten.

What makes human life bearable is our imagination and empathy. Love one another is a pretty simple concept. Dismayingly so. We are not far from our simian cousins who are affronted and become belligerent when people who look, smell and act differently from us encroach upon our personal space. We have, over thousands of years, developed symbols and rituals, protocols and palliatives to reduce what can be a state of constant warfare, to a resilient and thriving interactive 'federation' or commonwealth of self-sufficient communities.

We are bound to thrive when our social capital is high. But it cannot be, when times are tough and resources are few, as for the tribal groups and families living on tribal lands near Manus Island. Tensions build and the threat of violence is at hand.

We created the Manus Island danger. We absolutely know that when a different cultural group encroaches on the space of a people which defines itself by location, religion or visible similarities such as language, dress and attitude, tension is an inevitable result.

We cannot pretend we did not notice. Nor can we be apologists for the 'necessary' peril we created with these concentration camps, as Shadow Minister for Immigration Richard Marles did on the ABC on Wednesday.

We created this risk, intending it to 'deter' both boat people and people smugglers. As a consequence, we have created racial conflict in PNG, and the collapse of the rule of law in Nauru. Now we know, it is surely a duty to re-evaluate a policy that leads to mental illness, destruction of property, hope, imagination and civil society, and death. I think we have a duty to refugees, because we are descended from refugees and may be refugees ourselves, one day. This is a moral responsibility of thinking persons. Spiritual leaders have a duty to act.

What then should we do?

I think we already know the answer to that question.

Moira Rayner headshotMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer.

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, asylum seekers, Manus Island



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Existing comments

The Nauru and Manus Island 'solution' to the boat people 'problem' has been loudly condemned by social justice activists, the Greens and individuals in our society. Church leaders have also been vocal. We still, very convincingly, voted in a government which has reached new heights of cruelty. "What then should we do?" Please enlighten me. Someone.

Pam | 19 February 2014  

Gillard signed a 15 year lease without thought or consultation in September 2012, she signed another deal in April 2013 to make the prison permanent. Why do you continue to blame Rudd.

Marilyn | 19 February 2014  

If by "we" you mean the hubristic Rudd/Gillard/Greens/Independents and their supporters then, yes, "you" did indeed create the problem, which Howard had managed to solve effectively. Apologies are in order, not least to Mr Howard and the Australian taxpayer. Fortunately, it seems, the Abbott government has once again managed to stem the flow, (saving lives thereby, so that "Hanson-Young accidents" don't routinely occur any more), which means we are in a position to tackle the considerable Manus Island Rudd/Gillard/Green/Independent legacy difficulties without the added burden of thousands more refugees piling in per month. Maybe, when that's all done and dusted, we'll be able to seriously consider upping our refugee intake from camps around the world in situations where we can distinguish the truly persecuted from the economic queue-jumpers (whom I don't at all blame, btw, for wanting to better their lot) and select for those desperately needy who are also likely to integrate most happily with our culture founded on Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian and British principles.

Name | 19 February 2014  

If by "we" you mean the hubristic Rudd/Gillard/Greens/Independents and their supporters then, yes, "you" did indeed create the problem, which Howard had managed to solve effectively. Apologies are in order, not least to Mr Howard and the Australian taxpayer. Fortunately, it seems, the Abbott government has once again managed to stem the flow, (saving lives thereby, so that "Hanson-Young accidents" don't routinely occur any more), which means we are in a position to tackle the considerable Manus Island Rudd/Gillard/Green/Independent legacy difficulties without the added burden of thousands more refugees piling in per month. Maybe, when that's all done and dusted, we'll be able to seriously consider upping our refugee intake from camps around the world in situations where we can distinguish the truly persecuted from the economic queue-jumpers (whom I don't at all blame, btw, for wanting to better their lot) and select for those desperately needy who are also likely to integrate most happily with our culture founded on Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian and British principles.

HH | 19 February 2014  

I don't think we can deal with this situation long term without looking at the ethos which has created it. As someone with relatives that support this policy, we need to confront the Murdochs et al who have promoted the fear and hatred. We may be a people who are fearful of difference and invasion, but it takes someone to bring that to the surface and exploit it. Then you just need the opportunistic politicians to run with it.The opposite is also possible - for the media and politicians to educate and bring out the best in people. I have watched the slow (and not so slow) erosion of basic human rights. So we handcuff young people while transporting them, punish the innocent, give no hope and all in the interests of populism. As someone who arrived by boat in 1959, my heart aches for what is happening. God help us.

Vivienne | 20 February 2014  

On this day - World Social Justice Day - let's join Ban Ki-moon and Moira to support protection for the vulnerable at Manus and Nauru

Kevin | 20 February 2014  

Yes, Australia is responsible for what has happened at Manus Island. Rudd and Gillard and Abbott are responsible for what has happened. Morrison is very clearly responsible. We have to consider also the grim reality of what happened with the change of government in 2013. A policy that was already dysfunctional and inhumane was acquired by a group of politicians whose agenda is punitive. We only have to observe Abbott’s approach to issues like unions, the public service, the state system, education, Labor and Green politicians and other major areas of our society to see that he wishes to punish people who don’t fit in to his view of the world. It is therefore not surprising that there has been an escalation in the punishment of asylum seekers. Punishment, and a corresponding increase in the indifference of the government to these people, has become the status quo. Abbott is first and foremost a punitive Prime Minister.

Canberra Watcher | 20 February 2014  

The sad thing is that the current mess is the creation of both sides of politics. I would expect the Labor Party to show leadership on this issue, but I'm not hopeful. After all the deterioration of Australian policy on this issue started when Kim Beazely failed to challenge John Howard over the Tampa, and I see no signs of an impetus to change. The insight and compassion of HV Evatt and others after the war has been well and truly lost.and that is extremely sad.

Robert Glass | 20 February 2014  

A great piece of analysis of this situation. I spent two months on Christmas Island as a pastoral care worker with refugees. Our politicians should spend some time in these centres. Their attitudes might become a little more humane as a result. I am ashamed of the inhumane treatment of our government towards these people, the majority of whom have fled desperate situations in their own country. Thank you Moira

Patricia Wood rsm | 20 February 2014  

Thank you.

Helen Bergen | 20 February 2014  

I agree absolutely with this very good piece by Moira Rayner. There is much more thinking to be done in both major parties on the evil system they are both supporting in Manus.

Tony kevin | 20 February 2014  

Moira, thank you for your article. I suspect there are many, like me, who are shamed by our recent Governments' responses to this most significant moral issue of our time. Your clear exposition is encouraging because it articulates what is at issue. Like Robert Glass, I lament the response of both our major parties, and for me, the 2001 federal election marked a sad era when political strategy proved more attractive to the ALP than the principles on which it was founded. Thank you.

Anne Benjamin | 20 February 2014  

"Name". 19 Feb. "you did indeed create the problem, which Howard had managed to solve effectively.??? " What Howard did was put the problem out of OUR sight and out of OUR mind, but making the problem for those desperate people worse. "The Abbott government has once again managed to stem the flow, saving lives thereby" Yes? Saving drownings, but by killing lives with hopelessness, suicide, depression, self-harm and madness. GREAT!!

Robert Liddy | 20 February 2014  

Thank you Moira for your clear unambiguous article on refugees. Eureka Street is an important voice in our community of Australia.

Br Geoff Kennewell | 20 February 2014  

An interesting article from Moira Rayner, holding up the mirror to what has become Australian insularity. What can be done indeed when so many take the hard line view - Labor and Liberal? I know people who see foreigners as ruining the country and argument with them does nothing to soften their views. We have moved solidly and unfortunately to the conservative right. I thank god I'm an athiest! At least I can see 'Christian' values as worthwhile and not disposable ideas. As an aside, why should Australians support Citizen Murdoch in any of his media businesses here when he remits the income to offshore tax havens and avoids tax here (getting an $880,000,000 return via court) and yet he could rail against the Gillard government for economic mismanagement. Now we owe him the $880m. Abbott and his disposable Christianity is there largely because of Citizen Murdoch.

Joe Logan | 20 February 2014  

The problem is that we should simply be generous and welcoming to people. Successive Australian governments since the Tampa have pandered to and encouraged the most insular and selfish elements of Australian society. Just imagine - if the refugees had been welcomed to Australia, Darwin would now have an extra suburb and Australia would be financially and culturally richer.

David Crowley | 20 February 2014  

The policy on this now from both sides of politics is a classic: "the end justifies the means". Rudd, Abbott and Morrison are all worshipping Christians! God help us!! The Libs are somewhat worse than Labour in that they were the populist scare-mongers who got all the hysteria going for the sake of Hansenite votes in Western Sydney, and also crushed the Malaysian solution which might have stopped the sea traffic by humanely processing refugees in Malaysia and Indonesia; i presume to keep the issue hot for the same electoral reason. The Greens also help destroy that plan...as always for the them, the ideal being the enemy of the good. How depressing is all this!

Eugene | 20 February 2014  

P.N.G. ...."a desperately poor and struggling country." Please Moira! Independent since 1975 and still fiercely independent and proud. A country that is sick & tired of being bled dry of its natural resources by greedy, condescending foreigners. Exactly how much time have you spent in Papua New Guinea? The intentions of your article are sincere and your sentiments need to be heard and acted upon by Abbott, Morrison & Co. As I'm sure you'll agree, this saga is another shameful chapter in our relatively brief history and the abovementioned imposters will hopefully be found guilty of crime(s) against humanity. Please keep my son in your prayers, he returned to Nauru today to work with asylum seekers. His experience in working at Manus would horrify you.

Andrew | 20 February 2014  

"We" are indeed to blame, Moira. We have chosen to abandon the Law and Ethics of the Judeo-Christian basis of civilised society. Our own interests have replaced God, Without a radical change and return to the presence of God amongst us in our fellow men, I reckon we're buggered and nothing will change. Rather will only get worse.

john frawley | 20 February 2014  

In th first place, something like the tragedy at Manus Island should never happen in peace time. We're not at war with the refugees, as much as the Abbott government employs the war analogy in its immigration policy. Nor is the Manus tragedy, necessarily, a Labor or Liberal-National Coalition's political problem. It is ours - everyone of us. For that alone, we should be ashamed of our generation and the generations to come. We have forfeited our place in the realm of human civilisation. We have abandoned everything that we once held sacred, our belief in the freedom of human spirit.

Alex Njoo | 20 February 2014  

Refugees are a World problem, and needs a World solution. We cannot solve it alone, but we should be setting a much better example. The example of people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela should show us the power of example.

Robert Liddy | 20 February 2014  

The vast majority of Christians in Australia resent the fact that Rudd/Gillard government destroyed the good work John Howard did by stopping illegal immigrants coming here. In return he invited genuine refugees held in refugge camps for years waiting for a kind nation to accept them. Refugees of all races and nationalities, Thank God, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison and other members of the cabinet are loyal Christians and will give preference to genuine refugees including Christian Arabs who are persecuted and their Churches burnt. Will the Greens and the Extreme left-wing advocates help or hinder our Christian Prime Minister and his cabinet?

Ron Cini | 20 February 2014  

You have suggested the answer, very clearly, Moira. It is indeed the moral responsibility of each of us to demand, and hold out hope for, another way.

vivien | 20 February 2014  

I am so glad to read that ''spiritual leaders have a duty to act'' in Moira Rayner's article, as I was also glad to read everything else written. Thank you Moira, a 'pull no punches ' message, and not before time, in my opinion.. Exactly where are the Spiritual leaders in our country? Most seem to be struck dumb! What is their duty when atrocities are committed, by our Govt., against the most vulnerable,who have actually begged for our help? In my Parish the word 'Asylum seeker' or 'refugee' . to my knowledge has not been mentioned from the altar. It is as if this appalling situation had not occurred. How have our Cardinal Bishops and priests guided us to be more compassionate., to those seeking asylum in our country. Let all of us look towards ,understanding more deeply next Sunday''s Gospel.

bernie Introna | 20 February 2014  

I am so ashamed to be an Australian!!

Patricia | 20 February 2014  

Alex Njoo, I am with you 100% How can we organise an enormous peaceful demonstration, marching on Parliament House Canberra, Sydney or anywhere for that matter. The situation is unacceptable!

Bernie Introna | 20 February 2014  

Bravo! I am appalled and terribly dismayed at the deafening silence, the absence of outrage and demand for accountability. Both major parties backed this inhumane policy and now cannot lose face by calling it into question. How low we have sunk. How many times do we have to reiterate, "all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing". Could our good people PLEASE speak out. Before we have more blood and misery on our hands!

Vivien Collins | 20 February 2014  

Yesterday Ray Cassin's described the way Ausralia's handling of asylum seekers upsets the Indonesian government, our own Navy personnel and causes unspeakable harm to people seeking simple compassion and hospitality. Today Moira Rayner outlines the harm the same policy is doing in Nauru and Manus Island, reiterating the needless suffering to our hapless visitors. Why is it not obvious that these are wrong decisions morally, diplomatically, logically? Why can't 60 percent of our fellow Australians see this? Where is our pride as a caring nation?

Anne | 20 February 2014  

Bernie Introna, the fact that "asylum seekers" or "Refugee" has not been mentioned in your Parish it is because your Parish Priest is not stupid. He knows that the vast majority of his parishioners know that so called "Asylum seekers" are economic immigrants and would rather, genuine refugees are welcome to our country.

Ron Cini | 20 February 2014  

I too feel disgusted and helpless in the wake of these inhuman strategies to "stop the boats". Both sides of politics have made a race to the bottom, to take away all hope and put human beings in a gulag. Can we organize a public protest to show our Government we DO NOT AGREE. How dare they do this in our name. I would suggest that the Immigration Minister and the rest of the Cabinet be all challenged to spend at least one month on Mannus and Naru under the exact conditions that are imposed on these unfortunate people. Margaret M. Coffey

Margaret M. Coffey | 20 February 2014  

An article that hits the heart of the subject matter of asylum seekers. WE treat people who have broken o laws as criminal, when they have actively sought to come to our country. There is, as you state, only one thing we should do, but our politicians continue to breach all human rights conventions. Australia is shamed, but not ashamed.

Carmel Summers | 21 February 2014  

Moira Rayner’s comments about The Salvation Army demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the reality of the offshore processing centres (OPCs). The comments are not only wrong, but also go against the hard work our dedicated staff. Rayner has not been privy to the tireless work and committed effort put in by Salvation Army staff. Often this work is unpublicised and not conducted through broadcast advocacy. Nor is Rayner aware of the regular praise and thanks received from the asylum seekers who thank us for sharing in their difficult journey. Skilled, dedicated and experienced Salvation Army teams work over 16 hours a day in the OPCs, ensuring asylum seekers are taught English, facilitating contact between asylum seekers and their families, organising sporting activities, providing case management services and acting as a bridge between asylum seekers, the local community and other service providers. As a testament to their skill and experience, a vast number of our staff will go on and work with the new service providers in Manus Island and Nauru once The Salvation Army contract expires 21 February, 2014. As an organisation, The Salvation Army has brought over a century of experience and skill in working with distressed, vulnerable and marginalised people. Since the commencement of offshore processing, The Salvation Army has consistently called for a more compassionate and cost effective way of processing asylum seekers. Further, we have been the only humanitarian services organisation to have worked alongside asylum seekers, consistently across both locations, without rest, since August 2012. Sharon Callister CEO Humanitarian Mission Services The Salvation Army

Sharon Callister | 21 February 2014  

Rudd did not dismantle anything Howard did and he did not cause more refugees to come here. That would be the 9 new wars and civil wars, bogus brutal elections and teensy things like the Taliban, the rise and rise of Al Qaida, the Rajapaksa murder squads and the Iranian elections.

Marilyn | 21 February 2014  

A disgraceful and inhumane situation has been allowed to develop under the watch of this Government. The off shore processing centres should be closed and the refugees permitted to reside in the community while being assessed. I am a proud Australian, but ashamed at the manner in which our Government is disregarding the plight of refugees.

Ray Heinze | 21 February 2014  

Ron Cini, your appraisal of the mind of our Parish Priest is nothing less than amazing.! Perhaps we need to tread warily when we claim to read the mind of others.. Those who believe Asylum seekers are only 'economical migrants', deny the evidence most Social Justice Organisations have provided. The Abbot Govt. is creating and supporting a culture of oppression , for all the world to see, much to many Australian's shame.

Bernie Introna | 21 February 2014  

Can we invoke the axiom 'hard cases make bad laws', to justify the harshness of our asylum seeker policy? If not how can we make good laws, in the current turbulent asylum seeker situation, which will deal justly with hard cases? I think it's a case of 'se tutta va bene, siamo rovinati'.

Claude Rigney | 22 February 2014  

Both major parties approved this 'solution' to the refugee dilemma. Neither is brave enough to process quickly onshore, under the pretence that they care about the refugees who drown in boats. When all they really care about are votes and power. I am ashamed to be Australian when it comes our new records on human rights. They have gone too far. It is time for the decent people of Australia to stand up and say this abuse is not acceptable and we won't tolerate it.

Cate | 24 February 2014  

Hi SalvationArmyCEO. I would like to say that on this occassion Moira is more right than you. If you actually believe that your staff were qualified then you wouldn't mind an external audit of all the qualifications of your former employees. As a former staff I know for a fact there were plenty of salvos without training, education or qualifications appropriate to work offshore. Sure, there were some compassionate and qualified staff who did a great job and the asylum seekers really appreciated them but it was not consistent. The Salvation Army was in over their heads with that contract. In addition, you said that the salvos called for more compassionate treatments. I will believe that when I see the evidence. There was never any advocacy or encouragement of staff to support more compassionate approaches to offshore processing. You're also digging your own grave, isn't it illegal to make people work 16 hour days? According to Fair work Australia, the absolute max overtime anyone can work is 14 hours... but hang on, you told us in our interviews we are not covered by fair work Australia anyway. Very poor for an organisation that includes employment assistance in it's welfare portfolio.

Former Salvation Army Worker | 27 February 2014  

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