Anglo-Saxon countries like the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia have historically been open to receiving refugees. My grandparents entered the United States with no passports via New York’s Ellis Island at the end of the 19th century. Brexit and Trump supporters’ chants of “Build That Wall” show how that openness has changed
And Australia? Two prizes have been awarded that highlight the resilience of the human spirit and the cruel absurdities of the Australian government’s inhumane policies. Abdul Aziz Muhamat was awarded the 2019 Martin Ennals Prize for human rights defenders, often referred to as the Nobel Prize for human rights, in Geneva February 13th for his efforts on behalf of detainees on Manus Island in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Behrouz Boochani, who wrote his award-winning book by text message from inside a detention center on the same island, was awarded the distinguished Australian Victorian Prize for Literature in late January.
Their stories testify to the cruelties of the current Australian refugee regime and the humanitarian deficiency of a country that boasts a strong liberal/democratic tradition except, of course, towards its indigenous population. While human rights abuses should never be categorized or rated, there is something particularly bizarre about the isolated situation of prize winners like Muhamat and Boochani on Manus, a small island in Papua New Guinea.
Muhamat fled the war in Darfur. He has been sequestered on Manus since 2013, living in a legal limbo. Unable to be properly processed on Australian soil because the government refuses to let asylum seekers and even those who have received refugee status but arrived by boat enter their territory, Muhamat and hundreds of fellow detainees are in a stateless netherworld. Official reports by UNHCR’s Asia Pacific bureau head described “shocking” psychological states of the men after a 2018 visit. The U.N.’s human rights committee called the camps “unsustainable, inhumane and contrary to its [Australia’s] human rights obligations.” The United States, under President Obama, agreed to take in some of the detainees. Donald Trump has called that deal “dumb,” and his travel ban on nationals from seven Muslim countries has further restricted the number the U.S. will receive.
In his impassioned Geneva acceptance speech, Muhamat paid tribute to the solidarity of his fellow detainees in the face of daily humiliating and degrading treatment. “Everything is done to dehumanize us,” he said. “On the island, officials refer to me as QNK002. I have no identity other than that number. We are treated worse than animals, like garbage.” (Muhamat travelled to Geneva with the permission of the Papua New Guinea government and was given a visa by Switzerland for a short visit to accept the award. He insisted he would return to the center to work on behalf of his fellow detainees as their unofficial spokesperson.)
The story of Behrouz Boochani is another example of the absurdity and tragedy of the Manus situation. Boochani, an Iranian Kurd journalist, wrote about his everyday life in the camp without a computer. He typed the book on his phone and then shared it with a translator via WhatsApp. He was not allowed to leave the island to accept the prestigious award in Melbourne. In accepting the award via video link on January 31, 2019, he told the BBC: "In some ways I am very happy because we are able to get attention to this plight and you know many people have become aware of this situation, which is great... But on the other side I feel that I don't have the right to have celebration - because I have many friends here who are suffering in this place. [The] first thing for us is to get freedom and get off from this island and start a new life.”
Why is Australia, founded by those seeking refuge (some convicts and others members of oppressed classes merely trying to survive) been so restrictive in its current refugee policy? Both political parties support tough asylum restrictions. The government argues that in order to protect asylum seekers from making dangerous journeys across oceans, vessels must patrol Australian waters to intercept migrant boats, sending them either back to their country of origin or placing the occupants in camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
The website for the Australian Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders states: “In the five years since the Australian Government established Operation Sovereign Borders, we have successfully stopped the boats and suppressed the people smuggling threat to Australia. Australian authorities have not only intercepted 33 vessels, returning 827 people to their point of departure but we have worked with our regional partners to disrupt over 70 people smuggling ventures before they left.”
The camps, or detention centers, appear to have become indefinite. Muhamat and Boochani have both been held for over six years. And even if the asylum seekers currently on the islands were processed and found to have sufficient cause to be classified as legal refugees, they would not be allowed to settle in Australia in spite of the fact that Australia is listed 100th on the density/population rating of the world’s 100 most populous countries. (Australia has 3 people per km2 while the first, Bangladash, has 1153 per km2.) There is certainly space out there for more people, even taking into consideration that much of the land has limited “carrying capacity” and is thought to be marginally habitable.
Abdul Aziz Muhamat’s and Behrouz Boochani’s prizes will not guarantee freedom for those interned on Manus and Nauru. “We are hopeless and powerless,” Muhamat said in Geneva. “They have stolen our dreams. Many among us have lost their minds. Since I have been on Manus, I have seen with my own eyes over 600 suicide attempts.” There are over 1000 asylum seekers and refugees on the islands. Positively, the Australian parliament recently passed a bill that will enable easier medical transfers of sick refugees from Manus and Nauru to Australia.
Boochani said by video link: “With humility, I would like to say that this award is a victory. It is a victory not only for us, but for literature and art and above all, it is a victory for humanity. A victory for human beings, for human dignity. A victory against a system that has never recognised us as human beings. It is a victory against a system that has reduced us to numbers. This is a beautiful moment. Let us all rejoice tonight in the power of literature,” he said.
And there is some reason to rejoice at the power of the human spirit of Abdul Aziz Muhamat and Behrouz Boochani in the face of such degrading conditions. But, over one thousand detainees still remain on the islands.