Australia was central to a high point in human rights. So why Manus Island?

Australia was central to a high point in human rights. So why Manus Island?

If only we saw these people as fellow human beings, we would empathise with their pain – so far as we could imagine it, writes Rebecca Barber from Oxfam, after their Humanitarian Manager returns from Manus Island.

Sixty-nine years ago, world leaders came together and, for the first time, adopted a legal instrument that set out the fundamental rights and freedoms of everyone, everywhere.

Driven by the horrors of the Second World War, and a recognition that “contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”, they adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.

The declaration recognised, among other things, that no one should be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and that everyone had the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.

It remains one of the high points in the history of human rights. And a proud time to be Australian – we were one of the eight countries that worked on the draft.

But today in every corner of the globe, human rights are being violated. From the persecution of the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, to the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Syria and Yemen, many things make us wonder if the world’s leaders recall the lessons of history that drove the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In light of all this, Oxfam welcomed Australia’s recent election to the Human Rights Council. We were pleased when our Foreign Minister welcomed the appointment by promising that Australia would work towards protecting and advancing human rights, upholding the international rules based order, and respecting fundamental human rights and freedoms. And we were pleased when she said that Australia would build human rights into the fabric of society.

It is so hard, in light of this, to understand what’s happening on Manus Island right now.

There are currently about 770 refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island.  These men have horrific stories of fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries, and enduring unimaginable hardship in their efforts to reach safety in Australia. They have been separated from their wives, parents and children, and are severely traumatised. They have been languishing in detention, with very little information about what will happen to them, for an average of four and a half years.

In late November Oxfam participated in a delegation of independent humanitarian organisations that travelled to Manus Island. We hoped that by bearing witness to the suffering of these men, and speaking publicly about what we saw and heard, we would increase pressure on the Australian Government to take care of them.

Our delegation’s visit coincided with the forcible removal of the men from the now-decommissioned detention facility, and was the first independent group to visit the East Lorengau Transit Centre, where many of the men are now housed, and to meet with refugees at the centre.

Oxfam was represented on the mission by our Humanitarian Manager, Meg Quartermaine.  As with others on the delegation, she was shocked by the physical and mental health of the refugees she met.

Ms Quatermaine spoke with one refugee, a teacher in his former life, who said he’d been seriously assaulted and abused back home. He’d seen a specialist for his injuries, and been told that he needed further treatment, but no one had told him where or when this was going to happen. Meg said this exemplified something she heard from many of those she spoke with: they reported serious physical and mental health issues, but minimal access to information about where, how or when they would be treated.

No one cares enough to tell them.  It is disrespectful, degrading, humiliating and dehumanising.

This particular man had a wife and four children who were also refugees, now living in another country. He had no way of knowing when he would see them again.  If only we saw these people as fellow human beings, we would empathise with the pain – so far as we could imagine it – of not knowing when you will see your family again.

Our Government, proud member-to-be of the Human Rights Council and proud drafter of the world’s first statement of inalienable human rights, put these men on Manus Island. We are responsible for them; and we are responsible, as our Foreign Minister so recently promised, for respecting their fundamental human rights and freedoms.

It is our hope that our mission to Manus Island helped people to understand the suffering of these traumatised men. On Human Rights Day, with all of our hearts, we call upon the Australian Government to assume responsibility for their safety and wellbeing.  This means immediately ensuring medical care, and ensuring that whatever the resettlement options are – whether in Australia or a third country – they happen now.

The longer this goes on, the greater the stain on Australia’s reputation for upholding human rights – a reputation of which, on this day 69 years ago, we were so proud.


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