An in-peril deterrent: A chronology of March – May 2013 news coverage regarding the Manus Island detention centre and the women and children who reside there

PNG "out of sight, out of mind"
Image: Daniel Clarke

In March of 2013 an article was published in The Australian[1] claiming the Department of Immigration had transferred nineteen asylum-seekers from the family compound on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to a detention facility outside of Adelaide in South Australia. Six pregnant women and a child were involved in the transfer, which saw families being forcibly split and led to questions around the safety of the detention centre. The transfers were based on medical grounds yet no further details were provided by the Australian government to justify the transfer. According to the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC)[2] this relocation showed the inadequacy of the medical facilities in detention centres, as well as the general unfitness of Manus Island as a processing centre. RAC stated if people need to be moved to the Australian mainland for care, then the quality of medical services on the island are not sufficient and therefore the centre should be closed. The Australian government rebutted stating this type of procedure had been pre-planned before the establishment of the Manus detention facility.

 On 5 April, Paris Aristotle, refugee specialist and former member of the Prime Minister’s expert panel on asylum seekers, responded to questions about this transfer on ABC News.[3] Aristotle explained how the Manus Island detention facility does not allow for freedom of movement, has poor accommodation and meagre medical facilities. He also expressed his concerns about the length of detainment of children and the exposure of pregnant women and children to tropical diseases, expressing that if these issues could not be addressed then women and children should instead be processed onshore in Australia. These persuasive sentiments came from a man long-considered to be conservative on the issues surrounding refugees and detention. Furthermore, In an article from The Age on 29 April, a doctor previously employed at Manus indicated how his requests for medical supplies were often ignored and clinical equipment was not suitable for use with children. The same article stated there were over 30 children in the Manus detention centre.[4] 

So what was the governmental response to these and other critiques? On 30 April in a story from The Australian, Immigration Minister Brendan O’Conner said the remaining women and children would continue to be held at the detention centre on Manus Island in order to ensure the government did not encourage more women and children to risk perilous boat voyages.[5] Based on the principle of deterrence, O’Connor is assuming the punitive treatment of asylum seekers will discourage others from making the journey to Australia if the government keeps the current asylum seekers detained. Hence, the decision by the government to maintain the detention of asylum seekers is not based exclusively on their status as irregular migrants, but is driven by a government desire to get tough on asylum seeking, much like the law and order politics that surround other criminalised activities in Australia. Moreover, in the context of asylum seeking it is unfounded to assume deterrence will work for a ‘crime’ that is committed by individuals that are desperate to flee their own country. The notion that the individual is ‘rationalising’ the offence, which must be evident if deterrence is to take any effect is arguably not applicable in the context of persons desperately seeking asylum. Thus, this type of rhetoric from O’Connor frames refugee women, who are often fleeing dangerous circumstances, as making a rational and balanced choice with all the facts of detention in mind, which is likely far from the truth.

Following this, On 1 May, immigration officials stated in The Australian that they were managing a serious malaria risk on Manus Island. Labour Left spokesman Doug Cameron expressed that the facility was not appropriate for children or adult refugees. Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison also stated it was not a satisfactory place to detain women and children in its current form and instead they should be held on Nauru.[6] In light of this information, it can be argued that endangering the lives of pregnant women and children by exposure to malaria in order to deter those in the future who may try to arrive is unacceptable.

In response to comments from both political sides, immigration officials stated the governments of Australia and PNG were planning for a permanent facility to house 600 asylum seekers, including facilities for families and single men. In the Sydney Morning Herald on 11 May, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, while in PNG, announced that the dilapidated facilities and tents on Manus Island would be closed.[7] And, as suggested by immigration officials, a permanent centre would be built. Construction of the facility is to begin in July of 2013, yet Gillard refused to comment on the size or location of the centre, nor did she address concerns surrounding malaria or the women and children’s physical or mental health. In fact, she stated the facilities on Manus Island were “appropriate” and stressed the need for offshore processing of refugees based on the Houston Panel. An article from stated the PM did not visit the detention facility on Manus Island during her visit to PNG.[8]

On 16 May, Labor not only excised the entirety of mainland Australia from the migration zone (meaning all those who land by boat are immediately sent to detention for up to 5 years and not allowed to work for 5 years after that), but also refused to remove children from offshore facilities nor allow the Human Right’s Commissioner to inspect the PNG or Nauru facilities. [9] This news comes in the wake of the UNHCR’s “scathing reports” of the camps which suggested all children should be removed from these centres. Again, the argument was deterrence—Senator Lundy explained how exempting children from being placed at the Manus Island facility would encourage smugglers to put children on the boats headed for Australia.[10] The issues of this legislation are made even more interesting when one considers the 20 May Sydney Morning Herald article which reported figures from the government showing over 90% of people who arrive by boat are found to be “genuine refugees”, while claims made by those who arrive by plane (who are not held in detention centres) were only approved for refugee status 54.7% of the time.[11]

The United Nations, human rights attorneys, and non-governmental organizations have been decrying the use of detention centres since the Pacific Solution was implemented in 2001. The basic issues brought forth by this short article have been covered in the Australian media, such as a lack of essential health care and dangerous conditions for women and children in the name of deterrence, are a serious concern for which the answer is arguably not additional offshore detention facilities or additional women and children being placed in these facilities as the Australian government would have us believe.













About brandyc

PhD Candidate, Momash University Communication & Media Strategist, Border Crossing Observatory: Research Assistant Post-Graduate Representative, Sustainable Transport Committee Blog: Twitter: @brandy_cochrane