Reza Barati was tragically killed in February riots at a detention center for would-be refugees on the far-flung Manus Island in the Pacific Ocean. The 23-year-old Iranian who had tried to flee to Australia had found only confinement and an early grave at the other side of the world.
An Australian Senate inquiry report published on Thursday blamed the events that led to Barati’s death on the “hopelessness” created by the Department of Immigration in offshore detention centers and stated that Australia failed to protect asylum seekers.
Australia maintains several offshore centers for migrants who have tried to enter the country by boat from Indonesia. Manus Island in Papua New Guinea is home to a complex housing some 1,000 asylum seekers, predominantly from Iran and Afghanistan.
Nicole Judge, a Salvation Army worker with experience of working at Manus and other detention centers around the Pacific, testified to the inquiry about conditions on the island.
“When I arrived on Manus Island during September 2013, I had previously worked on Nauru for one year,” Judge said. “I thought I had seen it all: suicide attempts, people jumping off buildings, people stabbing themselves, people screaming for freedom whilst beating their heads on concrete. Unfortunately I was wrong; I had not seen it all. Manus Island shocked me to my core.”
She continued: “I saw sick and defeated men crammed behind fences and being denied their basic human rights, padlocked inside small areas in rooms often with no windows and being mistreated by those who were employed to care for their safety.”
Barati was at the facility when, on February 16 2014, anger at the conditions of their detention, and fears they would not reach Australia and instead be permanently resettled in Papua New Guinea, led to asylum seekers rioting.
“The committee believes,” read the report, “that the hopelessness of the situation transferees found themselves in, with no clear path forward and no certainty for the future, was the central factor in the incident of 16 to 18 February.”
On 17 February, as tensions rose, G4S security staff employed at the center allowed a Papua New Guinea police dog squad into the compound. Along with other Papua New Guinean locals they then clashed with asylum seekers, gunshots were fired, wounding several, and Barati was beaten to death.
“Numerous witness reports state that he was attacked using fists, feet and bats by a group of G4S staff and at least one local staff member employed by The Salvation Army,” read a submission to the inquiry by Amnesty International. “Several eyewitnesses reported that one attacker picked up a large rock and hit Mr. Barati on the head with it several times.”
Two Papua New Guineans, one a G4S guard, the other an employee of The Salvation Army, have been charged in PNG with his murder, although their trial has been delayed until next year. The new senate inquiry has recommended compensation be paid by the Australian government to Barati’s family
The government has refused to offer compensation so far, arguing that paying this “presupposes that human rights have been violated.”
The senate committee responsible for the inquiry is dominated by members of Australia’s Labor and Greens parties, the political opposition to the current Liberal government.
Immigration Minister Morrison accused the committee of a “blatant attempt to whitewash their own failures in government,” because the Labor Party had in fact been in government when the Manus Island center first was set up.
Its remote location has meant independent observation of the facility has been near impossible and accounts of Barati’s death have mostly come from anonymous insiders. Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Collective, is one of the few Australians who is able to maintain contact with detainees in the facility.
“I have heard, and know, that people inside have been physically threatened and in two instances were restrained in order to withdraw their witness statements,” Rintoul told VICE News. “There’s no question there have been attempts to coerce people during the investigation.”
Julian Burnside QC, a well-known legal advocate for asylum seekers in Australia, made similar allegations when he accepted the Sydney Peace Prize in November.
“My understanding is that some people in the Manus Island detention are being offered the opportunity of being taken to mainland Australia on condition they withdraw any witness statements they’ve made,” Burnside said during his acceptance speech.
Morrison called the claims “false and offensive” at the time, saying the suggestion was “made without any basis or substantiation by advocates with proven form of political malice and opposition to the Government’s successful border protection policies.”
The release of the new senate report has coincided with the leak of confidential documents that revealed how the department believed medical staff were advocating too strongly for detainees.
On Friday, an interim government report on the performance of International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), the private contractor that provides medical care to Manus detainees, was published by the ABC.
“IHMS are seen to be risk averse and advocating for transferees beyond the services IHMS is contracted to deliver,” the Immigration Department said in the report. It went on to recommend that: “IHMS should recruit people who are able to follow the government requirements in the contract.”
The department complained that the regularity with which IHMS was recommending detainees should be sent to mainland Australia for better medical care, “places the department in a difficult position as it is very difficult to reverse a medical recommendation once made.”
“IHMS need to ensure medical staff who do reviews are not against Offshore Processing Centers,” reads one section of the report, suggesting that the department is concerned that the political views of staff are influencing their medical assessments.
The true medical and psychological condition of the detainees will remain a mystery as long as the government insists on detaining asylum seekers in remote areas of the Pacific, without providing access to media and independent investigators.