Five years ago, on a boiling hot day, Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison entered Manus Prison. A number of refugees who represented various groups were invited to meet with him. In that meeting, the refugee representatives found themselves being threatened – Morrison pointed his finger at them and yelled: “You have no chance of coming to Australia and you must return to your countries.” I depict this exact scene and its aftermath in my book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison.
It was a time when few people had heard of the prisons on Manus Island and Nauru. The refugees felt isolated and forgotten, the refugees felt extreme pressure. It was in this context that the refugees were confronted with that single threatening line by Morrison. That sentence conjured up a wave of hopelessness, so much so that a few people attempted suicide.
His despicable behaviour was also subject to serious criticism from the prison authorities. For days the situation was out of control. Actually, the circumstances created by this event eventually led to a riot in February 2014 – it led to the killing of Reza Barati. It also resulted in hundreds of refugees suffering serious injuries.
In fact, Morrison has been accused of playing a crucial role in inciting this riot. Even the guards were critical of him in this respect. Then on the day that Reza Barati was killed Morrison appeared on TV and lied by saying that Reza was killed outside the prison. But after a few days he was forced to admit he was wrong. After Reza’s death Hamid Khazaei lost his life due to a very basic infection. Just one month ago the Queensland coroner found that Hamid’s death was totally preventable.
It is clear that Morrison – the man who is now prime minister of Australia – has been instrumental in establishing a system that is responsible for the deaths of 12 human beings. He is a merciless individual.
During a week of chaos in the political sphere which resulted in a change of prime minister, many Australians who did not have a good impression of Peter Dutton breathed a sigh of relief when Morrison was chosen as leader. The general perception is that Morrison has a more moderate approach compared to Dutton.
We can learn a lot from this fundamental error; this error may also impact the upcoming elections. Morrison is in no way a moderate figure. The biggest difference between him and Dutton is that the latter is an example of a new kind of western politician who has no fear of being seen as a bad person. However, Morrison is a demagogue who tries to present himself to society as a moderate politician.
During the past five years the refugees incarcerated on Manus Island and Nauru have witnessed many shifts in Australian politics. We have experienced four prime ministers and two federal elections. But, ultimately, our situation has remained unchanged. We have hit a dreadful dead-end. What I mean is that both major political parties in Australia are in competition to see who will be successful in totally destroying us.
Replacing one individual will never transform our situation; it makes no difference whether the prime minister is Peter Dutton or Scott Morrison – or anyone else for that matter. What is clear is that we continue to be trapped on these two islands and Australia does not have the moral courage or political will to make the necessary changes to its policy of exiling refugees.
A deep analysis of the policy used to exile refugees reveals how Australian’s socio-political culture has led to the creation of these island detention centres. This pertains to every aspect of Australian political and social life; that is, the failures of its civil society. During these years many advocates in the media, politics, academia and Australian civil society have criticised the barbaric policies of the government – they have worked to combat the policy used to exile innocent refugees. However, history will remember the mainstream socio-political culture of Australia during this period as an embarrassing phase in Australia’s history that will plague generations to come. The point I wish to make here is that the prisons on Manus Island and Nauru are the logical consequence of Australia’s kyriarchal system.
These two prisons are an extension of Australia; they are an integral part of the state and this connection cannot be denied.
One must investigate the origins of Australian society and politics in order to realise the extent to which Manus Prison is the logical consequence and product of Australia’s education system, its cultural scene and political developments.
Australia needs to instil humanitarian principles within its centres of power.
Manus Prison is the creation of Australia; however, it has also impacted the nation by, in turn, recreating significant aspects of Australia. I refer to this critical analysis as the Manus Prison Theory. Perhaps Australian analysts do not pay sufficient attention to the situation on Manus Island and Nauru and do not consider it to be such a vital issue. But it is clear that the ideology that has given rise to the prison is profoundly rooted in Australia’s political system. Regardless of whether one accepts this or not, Manus Prison is having a destructive effect on Australia’s political culture.
No one can ignore the relevance of Manus Prison Theory. With the passing of time this theoretical approach will become increasingly more salient. Basically, how can a nation look to the future when its leaders cage little children for years, in a remote and forlorn prison? What future does a nation have when those same leaders take selfies with little children as part of their PR campaigns? Are these leaders not demagogues?
Australia needs a serious wake up call. Australia needs to instil humanitarian principles within its centres of power. Australia needs to think very seriously about the value of life and what constitutes a democratic and humane society. More than anything else, Australia needs a new ethical vision and love. Australia needs a moral revolution to escape this dead end.
Two thousand people have been incarcerated, but there are other things at stake here for Australia: human virtues, freedom, the sense of what it really means to be human … and love. These qualities have also been incarcerated. This is exactly what is absent today from Australia’s political culture. How can one expect a nation that has suppressed these qualities to promote educated, wise and respectable people to leadership positions?
In this morally bankrupt political climate people who aim for the highest qualities of humanity find themselves in situations where they have to choose from either bad or worse. What we have here is not only a political quandary resulting from a discredited and scandalous political system, we also witness a profound moral quagmire.
Australia has to ask itself the difficult question about where it is heading, and reflect on this stage in its political and cultural history. It needs to question why it has a leader who is toying with far right ideologies but who is interpreted by many as being a moderate politician.
What has happened to the nation? Why has it reached this point? Why must Australians feel that they have no choice but to choose between bad and worse? As someone who has been gazing over at the political landscape in Australia for more than five years from Manus Island, I ask myself sometimes: where is Australia heading?
Behrouz Boohani is a journalist and an Iranian refugee currently held on Manus Island. Translation by Omid Tofighian, American University in Cairo/University of Sydney