My first reaction to the report that the Australian government was planning to boost tourism in Manus Island was one of disbelief and revulsion. This was the place – well, one of the places—that successive coalition ministers gloated was hell on earth.
The cynical myth of the so-called Pacific Solution as a tropical paradise of palm trees and beaches had been well and truly dispelled: Manus was a gulag, a prison camp where asylum seekers, whether genuine refugees or not, could be left to suffer and if necessary die in the national interest.
It was and is a monument to political brutality, opportunism and a jingoism that frequently crosses the border into racism. To turn it into some kind of pleasure resort would be an obscenity.
And yet perhaps there is a kind of sense to the idea. Perhaps the tourists would not come for the surfing and scuba diving, but for those all too recent memories.. Perhaps they would finally able to see for themselves the horrors that have been implemented in Australia’s name and understand the viciousness of the regime – or regimes – that decreed them.
After all, many of the more terrible sites of history are kept as monuments. Without making any direct comparisons, Auschwitz-Birkenau – arguably the most memorial in history – attracts hordes of visitors every year not in order to wallow in some kind of morbid curiosity but to bear witness to the Holocaust and determine never to repeat it.
Manus, of course, is not on that scale, but the motivation is uncomfortably similar: the obsession with national borders and security and the belief that those who do not meet the demands of the state can be considered disposable.
As far as we know Manus has only killed six of its inmates to date, two of them allegedly recovering in Australian facilities. But the calculated negligence of Peter Dutton and his departmental goons makes it clear that this hardly matters, just as the hand-wringing about deaths at sea is almost invariably hypocritical; the problems is not deaths at sea but lives in Australia.
The hard fact is that Manus has been an affront to human decency if not a crime against humanity. The proposition that the only way to keep the nation safe is to lock up innocent victims behind razor wire until they die or go mad should be untenable, but since it has not been, let’s be open about it. This has been a shameful, even an unforgivable, episode in our history and Manus – and of course Nauru – will be notorious for a long time.
Neither Papua-New Guinea nor Australia will be able to rehabilitate the centre and perhaps should not try. Instead we should open it to the world as a grim and salutary warning. And we might emulate Auschwitz with a sign over the original buildings; not Arbeit Macht Frei, that ancient discredited lie, but something more modern:
We Will Decide Who Comes to This Country and the Circumstances in Which They Come. Not quite as snappy as the German, but just about as threatening.