A massive hunger strike is underway at what some are calling "the Guantánamo Bay of the Pacific." The Manus Island detention center is paid for by the Australian government and run by an Australian contractor, Transfield Services, but located offshore on Papua New Guinea’s soil. The inmates are not accused of any crimes — they are asylum seekers from war-ravaged countries who are waiting indefinitely for their refugee status determinations. They are asking the United Nations to intervene against the Australian federal government’s plan to resettle them in Papua New Guinea, where they say they could face persecution. Some have barricaded themselves behind the detention center’s high wire fences; others have resorted to increasingly drastic measures such as drinking washing detergent, swallowing razor blades, and even sewing their mouths shut to protest their confinement. We speak with Australian human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson and Alex Kelly, a social justice filmmaker who organized a New York City vigil in solidarity with the Manus Island detainees.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: A massive hunger strike is underway at what some are calling "the Guantánamo Bay of the Pacific." The Manus Island detention center is paid for by the Australian government and run by an Australian contractor, Transfield Services, but located offshore on Papua New Guinea’s soil. The inmates are not accused of any crimes; they are asylum seekers from war-ravaged countries who are waiting indefinitely for their refugee status determinations.
Eighty detainees recently signed a letter to the Australian government, saying, in part, quote, "Here a disaster is about to happen, please prevent this disaster." They are asking the United Nations to intervene against the Australian federal government’s plan to resettle them in Papua New Guinea, where they say they could face persecution. Some have barricaded themselves behind the detention center’s high wire fences; others have resorted to increasingly drastic measures, such as drinking washing detergent, swallowing razor blades, and even sewing their mouths shut to protest their confinement.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. Alex Kelly, a social justice filmmaker, on Wednesday she organized a protest outside the Australian Consulate here in New York City. And Jennifer Robinson is with us, an Australian human rights lawyer, director of legal advocacy for the Bertha Foundation, also co-founder of International Lawyers for West Papua.
Alex and Jennifer, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Jennifer, explain why you were outside the Australian Consulate last night and what’s going on, for what many in the United States may never have heard of, at Manus Island.
JENNIFER ROBINSON: Well, the description that this is the Pacific’s Guantánamo is apt. As an Australian, I feel a moral obligation to stand up and say, "Not in my name." The Australian government is indefinitely detaining asylum seekers, sending them to conditions that the U.N. has found to amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, in breach of our international obligations. Consecutive Australian governments on both sides of the political divide have continued this practice. And it’s time that Australians stand up and say, "Enough. This is enough."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But could you explain, what is the status of Manus Island? Why are they—why does Australia keep potential asylum seekers in detention there?
JENNIFER ROBINSON: Australia intercepts people arriving by boat seeking asylum in Australia. They are insisting on their international right to seek asylum. Australia is concerned about the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia, and is therefore intercepting them, sending them to PNG for process and resettlement there so they’ll never get to Australia. This is in clear breach of our international obligations.
AMY GOODMAN: Alex, explain who these asylum seekers are, how many are packed into this prison, and what’s the response in Australia.
ALEX KELLY: There’s over a thousand people currently being detained at the Manus Island detention center. We’ve got people there from Syria, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia. And these people have been in there—some people have been in there for up to 18 months. It’s indefinite detention. They don’t know when they’re going to be processed. In fact, there’s been no one that’s been processed and resettled.
So this latest protest is in response to the idea that they’re going to be resettled in Papua New Guinea. Among some of the detainees, we know that there are people who are homosexual, who have actually fled their home countries because of persecution, and now they’re very frightened of being resettled in Papua New Guinea, where homosexuality is illegal. There’s been huge conflicts between PNG locals and detainees. And we’re just seeing that it’s been ongoing violence, a huge number of incidents of self-harm, hunger-striking—
AMY GOODMAN: How long are people held?
ALEX KELLY: It’s indefinite. In some detention centers in Australia—we have some other offshore and onshore detention centers—there’s people who have been in there for up to four years.
AMY GOODMAN: And evidence of the hunger strike going on?
ALEX KELLY: The hunger strike is still continuing. The Australian government is saying that the hunger strike is over, but we’ve been seeing images today, and I’ve had messages from advocates and people inside today saying it’s continuing within the compounds.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Alex, you mentioned the conflict between the locals, PNG locals, and the detainees. Could you explain what happened? There have been two detainees who have been killed or who died within that detention facility at Manus Island. What happened to Reza Berati, his name is?
ALEX KELLY: Yes. There’s been ongoing tensions since the detention center was established. Manus Island, a lot of the community there are living in poverty. And it appears that there’s been a lot of incitement over tensions from people operating the center, so spreading rumors within and without about the tensions. But last February, there was a tragic incident where there was—guards attacked detainees, and there was one detainee who died. We still haven’t actually seen any prosecutions in response to the death of Reza Berati. There’s been two people arrested, but there’s allegations that Australians were involved.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Robinson, you’re an international human rights attorney. What’s the law here? You’ve been to PNG. You’ve been to this area.
JENNIFER ROBINSON: I’ve been to PNG, and I’ve spent times in West Papuan refugee settlement camps, so I can speak with first-hand experience that PNG is not a state that is capable of accepting our asylum seekers and refugees. Ninety percent of these people who come by boat to Australia have been determined to be refugees in the past. The conditions in PNG are terrible. Australia is—it is unlawful for Australia to be continuing to send asylum seekers to conditions the U.N. has found to amount to inhuman, degrading treatment. We are in breach of our international obligations.
The problem is enforcement. Australia’s domestic law—the High Court of Australia has continually found that offshore detention is permitted under the terms of Australian law. When we had the Malaysian Solution under the Gillard government, it was challenged before the High Court and found to be inappropriate, because we had a provision in our law that you couldn’t send asylum seekers to a country that didn’t meet certain human rights standards. In response to that, the Australian government amended that to remove that from our domestic law, which means we are no longer constrained, and they upheld the constitutionality of offshore processing. This is a clear breach of our international obligations, but what we can do as a matter of law within Australia’s courts is limited.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Very quickly, Jennifer, what are the implications of the fact that this detention facility is run by an Australian company or private contractor?
AMY GOODMAN: You have five seconds.
JENNIFER ROBINSON: Australia is clearly liable, as is its corporation, for the human rights obligations taking place.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Robinson and Alex Kelly, thank you so much.