The crisis is deepening on Manus Island. 600 men who remain at the former regional processing centre compound are being starved out, deprived of medical aid and having fences taken down around them as we go to print. Notices have now been posted at the former RPC compound that if the men do not vacate the compound, they will be removed by force.
The men are being told they must either relocate to 'transit centres' at Hillside Haus, East and West Lorengau, or relocate to Nauru, to the US or be returned to the danger they fled. These sites, according to the UNHCR are inadequate, unfinished and have no security. But even if they are made suitable, relocation will not resolve the situation. In fact, it could well escalate things, especially if the men are subject to attack – the very real fear which has driven them to remain at the RPC compound.
It also won’t change the fact that they remain effectively prisoners of the Australian government and continue to suffer human rights abuses at the hands of Minister Peter Dutton and his underlings and it won’t change the fact that the Australia government cannot shirk its international responsibility to provide these men with care and protection.
There has been an overwhelming response to the crisis from everyday people – thousands of dollars have been donated to provide food and phone credit. Telephone trees have been set up for volunteer Australian doctors to provide assistance and advice to the men by phone. Local Manusians have been prepared to risk arrest to get supplies to the men. Activists across the country are maintaining constant contact with the men via social media and other means, providing moral support and helping to get the word out about the actuality of the situation – providing an essential counter to the government’s lies.
Emergency protests have been held across the country – and look likely to continue – demanding that the government restore food and water and evacuate the men to safety.
Teachers have taken action in support of the men by wearing ‘Teachers for Refugees’ t-shirts and badges at school and protesting at the Department of Immigration in Melbourne.
Heroic activists have dropped protest banners in spectacular style - from a crane above Flemington Race Course on Melbourne Cup day, suspended above Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s office building, by scaling the Sydney Opera House.
Activists in Brisbane have launched a protest vigil outside Peter Dutton’s electoral office and in Melbourne a blockade has been launched outside the offices of Border Force.
The Mayor of Indigo Shire in Victoria’s border region has offered to resettle the men and has called on other mayors to do the same.
The ACT government has offered to be part of a national program of resettlement for refugees and asylum seekers from Manus and Nauru and the Australian Refugee Action Network (ARAN) has launched a call for individuals and organisations to declare they are willing to take in the men from Manus.
By contrast, all the ALP (our so-called Parliamentary ‘opposition’) can offer up is to urge the Prime Minister to accept New Zealand’s offer to take 150 of the men, while at the same time the ALP spokesperson on Immigration and Border Protection, Shayne Neumann stresses that "Australia is not, and must not be, a resettlement option" continuing their shameful, bipartisan support for mandatory, offshore detention.
A number of unions have been vocal and active in support of refugees and against mandatory detention, but others have remained silent, or put their loyalty to the ALP above principle on the issue. The events of the 2015 ALP conference, which led the MUA and CFMEU to vote in support of Bill Shorten’s policy of boat-turnbacks, were dark days for the union movement. Now is an opportunity for the union movement to put those days behind it and step up to force the government to act.
It is a welcome step that the Victorian Trades Hall Council has released a statement on November 9, calling on the government to ensure food and water access to the men, to take up New Zealand’s offer to take 150 men, and to evacuate the remaining men from Manus Island and to find them safe homes.
The ACTU and other unions need to follow suit – not just with words, but with action.
Geelong Trades Hall, under the leadership of its former Secretary Tim Gooden – a member of Socialist Alliance - was instrumental in establishing Geelong’s Combined Refugee Action Group (CRAG).
During the campaign to save Baby Asha in Brisbane in 2015, the Qld Council of Unions got behind the vigil at Lady Cilento Hospital in support of the medical staff who refused to let Baby Asha and her mother be sent back to Nauru.
If we’re going to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe on Manus, the campaign will need to broaden out and escalate. There are positive signs of this already. Let’s keep up the pressure.
[Susan Price is a refugee activist in Sydney and National Co-Convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]