It’s been almost three months since the Manus Island crisis slipped out of the news cycle. But having written about the issue at the time, I now continue to reflect on it. Indeed, the plight of asylum seekers on both Manus and Nauru still impinges on my thinking, often making its presence felt at the borders of my consciousness. Some of my more recent reflections have been stimulated by reading works like The Undesirables: Inside Nauru, written by Mark Isaacs. With simple, powerful prose, Isaacs documents his time as a Salvation Army welfare worker on Nauru in 2012 and 2013. It has helped me to examine the issue anew, requiring me to approach it via the perspectives and experiences of the men who were first transferred to the re-opened processing centre. I hope to blog about Isaacs’ book in the future, but it’s first-hand accounts like his that have further nuanced my views on the matter. With that in mind, then, I want to re-visit what I wrote about the Manus Island crisis.
In my original piece on the subject, I focused on what I saw as a certain lack of subtlety in the way activists portrayed life on the island. I won’t really re-hash what I said there, except to say that such portrayals seemed designed, not to represent Manusian society with the appropriate shades of nuance and complexity, but to further a political-ideological goal. I still think that claims made by (some) refugee advocates are at least partly motivated by the desire to see a basic shift in Australia’s response to boat-borne asylum seekers. Whether the government would be right to undertake such a shift isn’t my point; nor would I wish to challenge activist claims with the equally simplistic assertion that the island is some kind of Edenic paradise. I merely wanted to highlight the inordinate influence such a goal appears to have had on the lurid assertions being made about Manus (and, by implication, local Manusians).
I myself tried to adopt a position that was more sensitive to the rolling complexities of the situation. But one thing I failed to properly appreciate was the role that past and ongoing experiences of trauma would have played in the men’s subjective perceptions of their own safety and wellbeing. It’s an important point to consider. Many of the asylum seekers have fled horrors most of us will never have to face. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how this might undermine a person’s sense of self, and shatter their trust in the world. Furthermore, the late Michael Gordon – who up until his untimely death was writing for the Fairfax papers – filed a report in 2016 about the deleterious mental health of asylum seekers on Manus. He wrote of the re-traumatising experiences some of the men have had whilst staying on the island. I think, for example, of the riots that have occurred at the (now-defunct) processing centre at the Lombrum naval base, or the handful of documented assaults on asylum seekers whilst they were outside the compound. For people who have already endured their fare share of suffering, such incidents were sure to have had a profoundly debilitating effect on their sense of safety and resilience.
This extends well beyond a series of isolated incidents, however. The more mundane, quotidian aspects of life in the Manus Island compound have had their own effects. As I wrote at the time, the conditions in Australia’s offshore processing centres remain deeply inadequate (to say the least). Whatever success it may have had in helping to stem the flow of boat-borne asylum seekers, the system has been marked by chronic mismanagement, degrading conditions, and what appears to be an endemic, almost crushing, lack of certainty. All told, it’s quite clear that they have played their own, independent role in the deterioration of already fragile individuals. As Gordon noted 18 months ago, poor conditions, open attacks and pre-existing trauma have conspired to produce a pervasive sense of vulnerability among certain of the asylum seekers on the island. Moreover, there is likely to be a contagion effect under such trying circumstances. Living in close proximity with other “exposed” individuals is certainly going to heighten, expand and intensify feelings of insecurity, whether or not a particular asylum seeker has been subjected to violence or assault. Indeed, what may germinate with a handful of people initially can quickly spread, “infecting” much of the centre’s residents.
Of course, it’s not the case that Manus is awash with violent, unremitting xenophobia after all. As I have already said, despite the fact that the island certainly wrestles with its own share of anti-social behaviour (just as every community does), I remain convinced that some activists are determined to paint as bleak a picture as possible. Even so, it’s also true that the subjective perceptions of some of the men are likely to have been shaped by prior experiences of abuse. For example, interpretations of the wider significance of individual incidents of violence – brutal enough in themselves – are likely to have been viewed through the lens of past trauma. We’ve all heard of people who have been assaulted or robbed struggling with the residual consequences of such an ordeal, even long after the event in question. Objectively, the threat to one’s life may no longer exist, or is somewhat diminished; an acute sense of subjective vulnerability, however, may well persist for many years. This is consistent with clinical research, which indicates quite clearly that people who have suffered different kinds of trauma are more likely to experience the world around them as dangerous and threatening (again, regardless of what is objectively the case). Much the same likely obtains here: concerns around safety (which are entirely legitimate) are undoubtedly going to be amplified, given the deep psychological wounds a number of the men have already been nursing. In fact, they probably have more reason to wrestle with an enduring conviction that they remain at risk. This is so, partly due to the manifest inadequacies of their present living circumstances, and partly to the ripple effects of the contagion phenomenon I noted earlier.
Whatever the (more complicated) reality of Manus Island might be, then, it would make sense for many asylum seekers there to feel unsafe — perhaps desperately so. It would certainly help explain the reluctance some men expressed last year when asked to move out of the Lombrum compound into new lodgings (of course, it’s also possible that others among them deliberately exaggerated such fears for their own gain, but I doubt this could ever be substantiated). Again, this doesn’t mean that the reality of life on Manus Island corresponds neatly to activist portrayals. It does suggest, however, that a significant proportion of the men have been shouldering genuine fears – borne out of past experiences, and compounded by present ones – that understandably colour their perceptions, and magnify their belief that future acts of violence are likely. Accurate though I may have been on other points, I should have been far more attuned to these particular facts from the beginning.