UTS student completing a Masters in Advanced Journalism. Areas of interest include style, subculture, education and community action.
There are calls to give Manus Island detainees certainty around their future on the fourth anniversary of the detention centre reopening.
A vigil was held in Hyde Park on Wednesday marking four years since the controversial reopening of the centre - a period activists are calling “four years of shame”.
The vigil was organised by activist group GetUp with support from the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney.
It coincided with over 50 vigils around the country and vigils held internationally outside Australian embassies.
Protesters lit candles and held a minute’s silence in solidarity with refugees still being held on Manus island.
“We are lighting these candles for you, and will not stop until every one of you are safe,” Matthew Phillips, human rights director at GetUp, said at the vigil.
Video messages from detainees on Manus island were also played.
“Four years is really hard for me,” said one Kurdish detainee, “It’s like someone paused my life and never woke me up and I really want someone to wake me up.”
“This place is… we call hell,” said Naseem, another detainee from Pakistan.
On July the 19th 2013, then prime minister Kevin Rudd announced the beginning of a new regional resettlement arrangement. These arrangements lead to the reopening of the detention center on Manus Island where asylum seekers who arrived by boat were to be processed and settled in Papua New Guinea.
The policy was in response to a rise in asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, with over 25, 000 “illegal maritime arrivals” between 2012 and 2013. More than 800 people died trying to reach Australia by boat between 2008 and 2013.
The regional resettlement arrangement was supported by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, opposition leader at the time, but was widely criticised by activists and human rights groups.
Since its reopening the Manus island detention center has been marred by controversy, including the death of 24 year old Iranian refugee Hamid Kehazaei whose evacuation for treatment of a dangerous infection was delayed.
The regional resettlement plan has been upheld by subsequent liberal governments under Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.
Mr. Rudd claimed on Twitter that the agreement was for one year only.
July 2013 Agreement with PNG was for 1year only.Refugees should've been resettled in Oz by Abbott/Turnbull 3 yrs ago https://t.co/FYg0mm5TMi— Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) July 19, 2017
However, a media release from Mr. Rudd at the time stated that, “as of today asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”
A report released by GetUp said that, according to Department of Immigration and Border Protection records, there had been 78 major incidents and one critical incident reported on Manus Island between February and May this year.
In July of last year, a Supreme Court decision in Papua New Guinea declared the centre to be unlawful under the constitution. Due to this, it was announced that the detention centre was to be closed.
Activists claim conditions have “deteriorated” in the centre since the announcement.
Refugee Action Coalition volunteer Janis Ryan said the conditions there [on Manus Island] are becoming steadily worse, and people are becoming more and more desperate.”
Imogen Szumer also volunteers with the Refugee Action Coalition. She believes that with more news coming out about the conditions on Manus Island the more “angry” the community becomes.
“We’ve seen a big shift actually, in the last few years, in terms of the work the refugee movement has done. The polls show that actually more people think that refugees on Manus Island should be brought to Australia.”
Polling by the Lowy institute shows that the Australian public are divided on the topic of what should happen to the refugees on Manus Island. 45% believe that they should be brought to Australia, 48% believe that they should never be brought here and a further 7% were unsure.
With the regional processing centres due to close, refugees were given the option of being resettled on Manus Island or returning to their home countries.
However in a media release, Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian journalist currently held on Manus Island, said that the community outside the detention centre was not safe for the refugees to settle in.
“In the past weeks, some locals attacked a number of refugees with knives and robbed them of their belongings. These kind of incidents make refugees too scared to leave the detention centre.”
The refugee resettlement deal with the United States, agreed to in November of last year, is still under question. In the eight months since the deal was announced, no refugees have been resettled in the U.S.
“Over 2000 people - including 169 children - have remained in limbo for four years in unsafe conditions on Manus and Nauru. This cannot continue a day longer.” Mr. Phillips said.
Despite this, the government is still confident that the deal will go ahead.
The proposed Federal Government “super-ministry” proposed brings further question to the future of asylum seekers in Australia. The ministry would combine border security, the federal police and the spy agency ASIO under the authority of one minister.
“Those branches of the government who are tasked specifically with those very careful and particular roles in protecting the community against terrorism are very difficult jobs,” Ms. Ryan said, “now we’re going to put it all into one big basket and how is that supposed to make it work better?”
“What this is, is really the latest step in what the government’s been trying to do for many years, which is to criminalise asylum seeking,” Ms. Szumer said.