TESSA MORRIS-SUZUKI. Manus Island – Mr. Turnbull, Just Say ‘Yes’

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.




Tessa Morris-Suzuki is Professor Emerita of Japanese History at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on modern Japanese and East Asian
history, particularly issues of historical reconciliation, minorities and grassroots movements.

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4 Responses to TESSA MORRIS-SUZUKI. Manus Island – Mr. Turnbull, Just Say ‘Yes’

  1. Avatar Andrew McRae says:

    Sadly, I agree with Elly. The two major parties have made those poor people a political football. The first to drop the ball loses. Every further ratcheting up of suffering on Nauru and Manus Island is met with the same response by Labor, frightened of being ‘wedged’. The government, desperate to lift its terminally terrible polling, appears resolute in persevering with punitive, disdainful treatment of the asylum seekers, to the point, now, where the unthinkable is almost inevitable.

  2. Avatar Andreas Wagner says:

    Well said, Professor, indeed. Turnbull is not a leader, neither is Shorten, neither were the previous incumbents. That fact lies at the root of the current situation. And without a leader the current bunch of immigration portfolio operatives in charge have sprouted.
    This once admired country has turned into a backward-looking sycophant of a declining empire, run by drongoes concerned primarily about their personal wealth.
    How bereft of humanity must be the present bunch of operatives from Turnbull down, that the generous and repeated offer by our tiny neighbour New Zealand appears as the only (partial at least) circuit breaker? Shame on you, Australia! All credit to New Zealand!

  3. Avatar Joanne Horniman says:

    This has indeed reached crisis point, and many thousands of Australians are writing and ringing politicians both Labor and LNP to do something urgently.
    They could restore food and water in the first instance, or at least allow good Samaritans to deliver food to them. Taking up New Zealand’s offer would also be desirable.

    And then … Bring them here. There are many communities who would welcome small groups of refugees, would help them settle and find work. And then there’s Russell Crowe…

    But as the first comment says, this government will do nothing but maintain their hard stance. They have no shame, no compunction about lying and misrepresenting the situation.
    Only huge, concerted action might force them into compassion. I hope so.

  4. Avatar Elly says:

    Well said Professor. But sadly, Malcolm Turnbull is not a leader. Nor is he a courageous man. Many of his ministers, especially the powerful and dangerous Dutton, are hard-nosed idealogues. They lack empathy for these suffering people and, if future behaviour is an indicator of past behaviour, this Government will do absolutely nothing. They will show no humanity. They will continue to chant their mantras of hardline zealotry. There will be thousands of empty words spoken by them in press conferences and interviews. Meanwhile these people on Manus are desperate. How did this country become so mean-spirited? What has happened to our compassion?

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