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Manus Island and Australia’s Asylum Policy

The violent breakout at Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea is making the headlines this week after one asylum seeker was reported dead and 70 others injured. In the first half of 2013 over 15,000 asylum seekers were estimated to live in this offshore processing facility awaiting the result of their asylum application in Australia.

In a statement released by Refugee Action Coalition, asylum seekers have been protesting at the Manus Island detention centre since 25 January calling the Australian government to end their indefinite detention. While a signatory to International Refugee Convention, Australian law mandates that asylum seekers who arrive without a valid visa must be held in immigration detention until they are granted a visa or removed from Australia. There is no limit under the law to the length of time for which a person may be held in detention.

There have been similar protests in Australian detention centres before. These two videos uploaded by EngageMedia contributors portray the desperation of people held indefinitely in such camps.

In March 2002, detainees of Australia’s Woomera detention centre staged a mass breakout in a spontaneous and desperate bid for freedom. Aided by hundreds of committed social activists protesting Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in mandatory detention, the breakout captured the attention and interest of human rights groups around the globe. At the frontline of the breakout, filmmaker Pip Starr captures the raw emotion and urgency of the event to create a damning indictment of Australia’s inhumane immigration policies.

September 2001. A trip is made in solidarity with asylum seekers in the Woomera detention centre. During the visit riot police attack the refugees with water cannons, tear gas and batons for over 20 minutes. In a David vs Goliath situation some refugees throw stones at the forces of order. Meanwhile, 260 Australian activists, kept back by the state police, watch horrified from about 200 metres distance.

Woomera detention centre has since been closed, and most of the asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are now diverted to off-shore detention centres such as those in Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island.

GetUp!Action for Australia describes the living condition in Manus Island in this animated video.


Human rights advocates have criticized the Australian government’s policy of indefinite detention and outsourcing of its asylum policies. In 2002, the head of Amnesty International Irene Khan said:

“It is obvious that the prolonged periods of detention, characterized by frustration and insecurity, are doing further damage to individuals who have fled grave human rights abuses. The detention policy has failed as a deterrent and succeeded only as punishment”.

In this story by the Global Mail, a former immigration detention center worker describes the condition and culture at such camps.

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The Australian government has issued materials like this discouraging people from countries such as Afghanistan from travelling to the country seeking asylum.

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