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Manus – a tourist destination or a crime against humanity?

Mungo MacCallum
Mungo MacCallum

MUNGO MacCALLUM | John Menadue’s ‘Pearls & Irritations’

OCEAN SHORES - My first reaction to the report that the Australian government was planning to boost tourism in Manus Island was one of disbelief and revulsion. This was the place – well, one of the places—that successive coalition ministers gloated was hell on earth.

The cynical myth of the so-called Pacific Solution as a tropical paradise of palm trees and beaches had been well and truly dispelled: Manus was a gulag, a prison camp where asylum seekers, whether genuine refugees or not, could be left to suffer and if necessary die in the national interest.

It was and is a monument to political brutality, opportunism and a jingoism that frequently crosses the border into racism. To turn it into some kind of pleasure resort would be an obscenity.

And yet perhaps there is a kind of sense to the idea. Perhaps the tourists would not come for the surfing and scuba diving, but for those all too recent memories.

Perhaps they would finally able to see for themselves the horrors that have been implemented in Australia’s name and understand the viciousness of the regime – or regimes – that decreed them.

After all, many of the more terrible sites of history are kept as monuments. Without making any direct comparisons, Auschwitz-Birkenau – arguably the most memorial in history – attracts hordes of visitors every year not in order to wallow in some kind of morbid curiosity but to bear witness to the Holocaust and determine never to repeat it.

Manus, of course, is not on that scale, but the motivation is uncomfortably similar: the obsession with national borders and security and the belief that those who do not meet the demands of the state can be considered disposable.

As far as we know, Manus has only killed six of its inmates to date, two of them allegedly recovering in Australian facilities. But the calculated negligence of Peter Dutton and his departmental goons makes it clear that this hardly matters, just as the hand-wringing about deaths at sea is almost invariably hypocritical; the problems is not deaths at sea but lives in Australia.

The hard fact is that Manus has been an affront to human decency if not a crime against humanity. The proposition that the only way to keep the nation safe is to lock up innocent victims behind razor wire until they die or go mad should be untenable, but since it has not been, let’s be open about it.

This has been a shameful, even an unforgivable, episode in our history and Manus – and of course Nauru – will be notorious for a long time.

Neither Papua-New Guinea nor Australia will be able to rehabilitate the centre and perhaps should not try. Instead we should open it to the world as a grim and salutary warning.

And we might emulate Auschwitz with a sign over the original buildings; not ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ [Work Sets You Free], that ancient discredited lie, but something more modern: ‘We Will Decide Who Comes to This Country and the Circumstances in Which They Come’.

Not quite as snappy as the German, but just about as threatening.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

I couldn't agree more that "the country's whole approach to immigration is overdue for a thorough going review" Chris.

What scares me about that idea is letting Mutton Dutton loose on such a review.

I think we need something a bit stronger than a review.

Rashmii Bell

I'm whole hearted agreement with Carolyn Jeanerette:

" Give Manus back to the Manusians. Australia, quit recolonising PNG".

Paul Oates

Good synopsis Chris. The real issue here is overshadowed by the emotive arguments on both sides of the political divide.

There does not appear to be any logical immigration plan that pleases everyone. Therefore as someone once said: "If you can't please everyone, please yourself!"

No matter what our numbers of legally allowed immigrants rise to there isn't any plan being presented that everyone can understand and the majority of the population agree with.

The issue about legal immigration and border protection will inevitably raise the emotive element of why we can't help everyone less well off than ourselves. Altruism is a hard argument to combine in a rational and logical debate.

Clearly Manus was a thought bubble of K Rudd that was a short term fix just before an election for a long term problem. The fact that it also allowed the PNG PM a huge bargaining chip and a welcome amount of leverage was just to irresistible to ignore.

When the essence of the debate over immigration has been clouded by the emotion of Manus, logic flies out the window.

Chris Overland

When I read articles like Mungo MacCallum's and the responses it evokes from good and intelligent people whom I guess would characterise themselves as political and social progressives, I become very despondent.

It seems to me that the issue for which Manus is now emblematic, being that of border control, simply cannot now be discussed openly without immediately deteriorating into a slanging match between those with diametrically opposing views.

For example, Mungo's decision to even make reference to dreadful places like Auschwitz-Birkenau whilst discussing the now demolished Manus Detention Centre may be great for dramatic effect but is utterly counter productive in terms of fostering any sort of intelligent conversation about this vexed issue.

By now, anyone who thinks that people on both sides of this issue might actually have a few valid points to make, feels totally disenfranchised and hugely disinclined to expose themselves to ridicule and abuse in the ongoing brawl that masquerades as a debate.

The result is, I think, that people who might otherwise have ventured an opinion either supportive or not of the government's border security strategy have simply chosen to remain silent.

So, while the dialogue of the deaf rages on, I suspect that there truly is a silent majority who prefer to ignore the whole issue because there is no reasonable prospect of a sensible discussion on a very complex and difficult policy issue.

This, of course, plays into the hands of the current government, which can afford to entirely ignore some of the obvious deficiencies that surrounded the operation of the Manus facility and which continue to bear directly upon the ultimate fate of those who still languish there.

The opposition is similarly hamstrung. This issue is fraught with difficulty for them too, so silence is the best option even if many of them don't like it much.

It seems to me that the country's whole approach to immigration is overdue for a thorough going review.

Right now, we have the almost bizarre situation where huge resources are being devoted to border protection while at the same time we seem to running an almost open ended legal immigration program that is very materially changing the nature of the country.

It is simply assumed that high levels of immigration are a good thing, both economically and socially, yet there is, so far as I am aware, no extant body of evidence that supports this belief. It fits in with the government's well worn mantra about jobs and growth but, personally, I'd like to see some independently gathered and verified evidence that this is the case.

In relation to asylum seekers, the government has increased the annual intake to about 18,000 per year. This decision passed with hardly a murmur from the wider public, implying that there is broad based support for a controlled process through which Australia takes its share of the world's dispossessed and oppressed.

The deafening silence about Manus is, I infer, clear evidence that there is very little support for the sort of open borders approach that is now causing tremendous social strains and very major (and worrying) political shifts in Europe.

I hope that we can eventually start to have a real conversation about this very important issue but, right now, I'd assess the chances of this as being very low indeed.

Bernard Corden

He who opens a school door closes a prison - Victor Hugo

Barbara Short

Ha, I remember Mungo from my Sydney University days. Once cleaned his trouses down at the ladies' washroom! Now there's a story for you.

He needs to go and spend some time with these men in Manus. He might be able to think up some workable solution to the problem. He's got a good brain!

Ed Brumby

I'd have loved to have been part of the conversation about the validity of Tok Pisin as a functional language, Keith. I'm genuinely surprised and disappointed that someone of Mungo's stature and intellect has such regressive views.

We must hope that the many intervening years have wrought some change! - KJ

Philip Kai Morre

The Manus refugee centre is an opportunity to screen refugees who are genuine including scientists, engineers, business men etc. Most of them are not criminals but asylum seekers who don't like their country and seek freedom.

USA is a great nation because in the past they allow refugees to enter their country with open arms. Just name a few, Albert Einstein, a German Jew and genius and Werner Von Braun the father of modern rocketry and German rocket scientists who put the first men to the moon. They are many others who are refugees.

PNG as a developing nation needs technical expertise and this is a change to grab the most learned ones to develop our nation. don't treat them as criminals but look at the abilities and talents they have.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think both major parties are culpable in this mess William. That said, the Libs have excelled themselves under Morrison and Dutton. And, of course, we mustn't forget the execrable Peter O'Neill who saw the political advantage that the deal afforded him, especially in keeping Australia quiet over his more outrageous antics.

The consultants funded by Australia will do their usual stuff and disappear and their report will find its way to the dusty shelves where the hundreds of other ignored reports sit.

Better to stick with the Manus people and support them where possible. For a starter, check out their website at

John Highfield

Thank goodness for real journalism by Mungo, a change from marketing pap serve up in Australian mainstream media.

The Manus experience has to be seen in the context of the decline in Australia's administrative and political morality leading to consequent problems.

Not only the insensitive and inhumane refugee gulags dumped on Manus and Nauru - and the surprise of moral decline exampled through cricket cheats - but the topical issue of the Chinese 'Pathway to the Pacific' project on Espirito Santo in Vanuatu.

Years of Australia's venal political cut-backs in aid, enforced changes to Radio Australia's regional outreach in Asia-Pacific and climate change denial (particularly the effect on Western Pacific communities) show only too well why an urgent change for the better is needed by Australia to resurrect credibility and show less developed neighbours of Melanesia-Pacific that we have more to offer than the hegemonious gifts offered by China.

Whether the current crop of Australian politicians has the capacity is open to debate!

William Dunlop

Manus crayfish - none better to be found anywhere in the whole world.

I still remember the TAA cray service 'by safe hand' Manus-Lae on Fridays in the late 1960s-1970s.

Whose door should the blame lie - Rudd or Gillard. After all, they were the original Manus perpetrators.

Mutton Dutton came on the scene somewhat later.

Yes Keith and Peter, those were the days. Slantie.

Keith Jackson

Mungo has long been one of my favourite journalists. The first time I met him was on Arovo Island in Bougainville around 1972 where, over a number of beers, we argued about whether Tok Pisin was a real language (Mungo leading the case for the opposition). Ah, life was so much simpler then.

Frank Keitel

This vile act has vilified and stained us as a nation. When it was brought to its attention by human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs, the Australian Government went into attack mode instead of correcting its behaviour.

It is part of the government's current downfall, as the people have spoken and will no longer tolerate these crimes against humanity.

Carolyn Jeanneret

Great passionate article by Mungo. However it leaves out two key points.

1 - Manus Refugee Processing Centre has been razed to the ground - destroying evidence of the site and noted by Behrouz as an effort to wipe out the history.

2 - Many Manusians themselves want tourism not refugees and see it as an way to economic recovery and healing for the island. Further there is a working group of Manus and Moresby people already doing this themselves.

Manusians need resources to decide their own future - and tourism should be controlled by Papua New Guineans not more Australian companies colonising, exploiting (tourism instead of refugees) and any benefits only trickling down to Manusians.

Australia needs to clean up its environmental mess, pay reparation and get out. Give Manus back to the Manusians. Australia, quit recolonising PNG.

Helen Clare

Not a tourist destination. A prison camp.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Manus and the Admiralty Islands are magnificent Mungo. The scenery is stunning, the seas pristine and the people some of the friendliest on earth.

The sort of mind that would build a gulag there knowing it would destroy it beggars belief.

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