The nightmare scenario that everyone has predicted for months is now unfolding. Desperate and frightened refugees are digging in the ground for tainted water. Hundreds of men who are dependent on psychotropic medication because of neglect and mistreatment now have less than a month’s supply of medication left. But there is a small window of hope. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern has offered to take 150 of the refugees, possibly opening the way to other resettlement arrangements. Malcolm Turnbull meets Ardern on 5 November, and has the choice of accepting this offer, or slamming the door in the faces of the refugees. Mr. Turnbull, just say yes.
The photos say it all: the confused and frightened refugees gathered together in fear as the Papua New Guinea security forces try to starve them out; desperate men digging in the ground for the tainted water, which will soon be all they have to drink. The disaster has been coming for months, and the government has not lifted a finger to avoid it. Peter Dutton and Julie Bishop have claimed that the refugees on Manus Island have other options, but this is utterly disingenuous. The options are to place themselves back in detention in Nauru, where conditions have roundly been condemned by the UNHCR and other international human rights agencies, or to move into unfinished and squalid accommodation on Manus Island which lacks the capacity to house them, and where they are in fear of their lives.
Not only are the Manus Island refugees cut off from food, water and electricity – hundreds of them are now dependent on psychotopic and other medication as a result of their poor physical treatment and the trauma they have experienced, and are about run out of the medicines they need to stay alive and sane, because Australia and PNG have left them with less than a month’s supply, and will then provide no further assistance. Even senior Liberals like John Hewson have slammed the situation as “disgusting”.
For many months, a group of colleagues and I have been in almost daily chat contact with some of the men on Manus. We have shared their stories, and seen them struggle courageously to keep their spirits up. We have followed their experiences as they have tried to obtain medical help in situations of mindboggling confusion and incompetence by the relevant authorities. We have begun to get a sense of the massive amount of money that has been squandered through the Australian government’s cruel and irrational determination to make life miserable for this group of asylum seekers (the vast majority of whom have been determined to be genuine refugees). Now we are hearing the refugees’ cries of desperation as they face a terrifying future.
But, in the midst of this misery, there is a small window of hope. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern will visit Sydney on 5 November for discussions with Malcolm Turnbull, and will renew New Zealand’s offer to take 150 of the approximately 600 refugees from Manus Island. This is not a full solution to the problem but, handled properly, it could be a step that would open the way to further similar arrangements to avert disaster.
None of the threadbare excuses for Australia’s behaviour is even remotely credible any more. Causing cruel and unusual suffering to the refugees does not “stop the boats” or “save lives”.
Accepting New Zealand’s offer is not difficult. The Australian government has said that it has washed its hands of the Manus refugees, and is therefore hardly in a position to decree that none may go to New Zealand. All that Malcolm Turnbull needs to do is gratefully accept the offer, and open the door for New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the UNHCR to work out a way to transfer the first 150 refugees to New Zealand as quickly as possible. This could reduce pressure on the accommodation situation on Manus Island, and become a model for further arrangements which should urgently be followed up with other nations, ensuring that the remaining 450 refugees are moved to safe havens before further disasters unfold.
Mr. Turnbull has the power to say yes, or to slam the door in the refugees’ faces. The choice is simple, and buck stops with our prime minister. If he blocks New Zealand’s offer, this will surely go down in the annals of Australian history as a nadir of weakness, inhumanity and irrationality. If he accepts and facilitates it, his government may finally find a way out of the miserable hole into which it has dug itself.
It is time, for once, for Australia to say yes.
Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Professor of Japanese History and Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the Australian National University.