After almost a month, the Manus Island crisis has come to a close — at least for now. As the crisis rolled on, its ongoing ubiquity force me to reflect upon it at some length. Images of men, despondent and listless, lying on soiled mats or drawing fetid water from makeshift wells, still confront me. Major media publications are replete with sobering stories about the increasingly decrepit structures some asylum seekers inhabited, their stubborn efforts to remain in the processing centre, and the deepening tensions between the men and local Manusians. When such a steady stream of words and pictures is presented to one’s consciousness — and in so stark and persistent a fashion — one is compelled to pause and think about it.
None of us receive an unmediated view of what’s occurring on Manus Island. In fact, the entire debate surrounding asylum seekers — particularly as it relates to the state of Australia’s offshore processing regime — has been conducted amidst a thick pall of fog, shrouding the truth from view. There are a number of reasons for this. The present government’s foolhardy decision to maintain some kind of media blackout around Nauru and Manus Island has surely contributed to the information vacuum. Its incessant refusal to adopt a more transparent approach to the system over which it presides has only encouraged rash speculation and innuendo. Moreover, discussion concerning asylum seekers seems to give people on both sides of the divide license to abandon all sobriety; I am often bewildered by the way rumour is frequently elevated to the level of substantiated fact. On the one hand, Australia’s offshore processing centres are regularly denounced as “gulags” or “hellholes”; on the other, every act committed by an asylum seeker is dismissed as a cynical, manipulative attempt to force the government’s hand. When divisions run this deep, a meeting of minds appears impossible.
But behind the riven nature of these debates lie competing ideological narratives, which shape and constrain one’s interpretation of the broader issue generally, and the Manus Island saga in particular. Used wisely, narrative frames are extraordinarily helpful, providing us with the means of sorting and organising the mass of information regularly assailing us. At the same time, they can encourage simplistic interpretations of what are, in reality, often complex and ambiguous events. Indeed, where they inspire slavish devotion in people, narrative frames can actually be quite misleading.
Reporting around the unfolding events on Manus — specifically as it relates to the now-concluded standoff — provides small, but telling, examples of this broader point. I should note here that my aim is pretty modest: I am seeking neither to condemn nor endorse Australia’s current approach to boat-borne asylum seekers. Nor am I concerned to provide a blanket defence of this country’s offshore processing regime. Rather, I wish to critically examine one particular strand, and to challenge it with a more balanced, nuanced perspective. Furthermore, even though I am concerned to correct what could be called a “left-wing” narrative (simplistic though I regard that term), I certainly wouldn’t want to argue that only one side of the ideological divide is susceptible to “streamlining” the truth. I think, for example, of crude conservative voices, which characterize all refugees and asylum seekers as either potential threats (of the terroristic or criminal kind), or as nothing more than a drain on the country’s economic resources. All of us are vulnerable to motivated reasoning and unbalanced accounts. In any case, I hope in this exercise to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued the debate for so long.
It may be recalled that one of the main reasons behind the stand-off between the asylum seekers on Manus and local PNG authorities was the refusal of the former group to move to a new transit centre near the island’s main township, Lorengau. In part, it was because the men who remained in the (now decommissioned) processing centre at Lombrum claimed to fear for their safety if they moved to their new location. Tweeting about the impasse, Australian politician Nick McKim said that the detainees’ “big concern” was just that — safety. It seems plausible enough, to be sure: a number of asylum seekers have been attacked by locals, whilst violent incidents at the centre have seen several individuals either maimed or murdered. The most notorious of those was a riot in early-2014, in which Reza Barati, a young Iranian man, was bludgeoned to death. During this recent standoff, some locals (perhaps with a fair amount of braggadocio) have promised to form lynch mobs to block the transfer of asylum seekers to the new facility. These facts are not in dispute.
However, in their zeal, some activists and refugee advocates have moved beyond these basic facts to weave together a rather Manichean narrative, in which a band of innocent, beleaguered men, languishing in a tropical prison, are constantly beset by a population marked by unremitting hostility. The men themselves are often beatified — transformed into paragons of the purest morality — whilst their reluctant hosts are implicitly denigrated as an apparently rabid and merciless group, driven by little more than xenophobic animus. The same phenomenon was observed some while ago in relation to apparent tensions between asylum seekers and native Nauruans. Notwithstanding his own reasons for wanting to portray life on Nauru in a certain light, former shadow immigration minister, Richard Marles, had a point when he chastised activists for depicting the sleepy Pacific outcrop as a hotbed of rape and violence. As he noted then (and as one ought to do now), crime, whilst always traumatic for its victims, exists everywhere. Manus Island certainly isn’t immune. The temptation to repeat these errors — where every unverified claim is aired uncritically — is proving too great for current commentators and advocates.
The reasons for some of these lurid dramatizations aren’t difficult to find. Not only was the issue of safety used to justify the remaining asylum seekers’ ongoing act of resistance (decrepit though their lodgings may be); it provided a prop to the argument that the men, like their counterparts on Nauru, are still subject to palpable, obvious and unrelenting harm as a result of living among the native population. The conclusion is then drawn that those on Manus will only be truly safe if transferred to Australia. Behind this lies a basic view of Australia’s current policy settings vis-à-vis asylum seekers. Certainly, there are many who would like to see the entire edifice of offshore processing dismantled, and who have sought to use incidents of violence to argue for the complete cessation of present government practices. To do this, they have emphasized attacks against asylum seekers, and magnified the danger they face. The ultimate goal, of course, is to elicit sympathy from the Australian public, thereby generating a groundswell of support for a substantive shift in policy.
Human rights lawyer Daniel Webb is representative of this view. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Webb had argued that violence against asylum seekers “highlighted the urgent need to bring those on Manus to Australia”. Similarly, lawyers Greg Barnes and Anna Talbot, in arguing for much the same position, have written of “regularly learn[ing] about asylum seekers being violently bashed by locals” (emphasis mine). In what has to be one of the more extreme — and, as far as I can tell, unsubstantiated — claims, Elaine Pearson, Australian director of Human Rights Watch, said:
“While the October 31 deadline looms [regarding the closure of the Lombrum centre], refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island have been getting stabbed, beaten, and robbed”.
(In the interests of fairness, two points should be noted. First, it’s not entirely clear what kind of timeframe Pearson is operating with: six months? A few weeks? If the former, then it might be possible to interpret her claim as capturing past incidents of violence meted out against individual asylum seekers. But the latter interpretation seems to fit the context more neatly, which would seem to render her statement inaccurate. Second, as the last remaining asylum seekers were being removed from the defunct processing centre, footage emerged purporting to show some of the men being beaten — consonant with Pearson’s allegation — by PNG authorities. Having viewed the footage online, I can only say that it is inconclusive. Whilst it shows police brandishing batons in a threatening manner, knowing precisely what’s happening is far from easy. Additionally, local police commanders have denied allegations of police brutality, saying that where force was used, it was in response to restive or obstreperous asylum seekers. This doesn’t clinch the argument by any means, but it makes it exceedingly difficult to ascertain the real tenor of recent events).
It’s indeed illuminating to reflect upon the way some have framed the vexed issue of boat-borne asylum seekers at this particular point. Urgent claims that the men on Manus are in imminent danger, and were therefore engaging in a heroic act of resistance by remaining in the decommissioned centre, taps into this plotline. All shades of grey have been leached, and other facts — ones that seem to challenge, or even simply nuance, the preferred narrative — have largely been ignored. A closer examination of the issue is thus required.
A number of telling facts present themselves. Take the movement of the men on the island, for example. Even though the asylum seekers who remained in the processing centre claimed to be concerned for their safety if they moved, there were at least 77 men living in the new lodgings, outside Lorengau, by the 4th November. If those concerns were as grave as some of the men (and their advocates) have argued, is it likely that a large swathe of asylum seekers would then move to the very township which is said to be the main source of danger? It’s possible that the 77 who transferred to the transit centre reasoned that the threat of violence was outweighed by the relative comfort of functional dwellings. But again, this fails to neatly cohere with what some activists are suggesting — namely, that asylum seekers who move to their new dwellings will be “rapidly in danger“. Even the earlier-noted reference to the formation of lynch mobs seems not to have eventuated, and may well have represented the bluster of one, frustrated individual. At the very least, I think the fact that so many asylum seekers have voluntarily transferred to the apparent epicentre of anti-refugee opposition raises questions as to the various motives driving such claims.
Of course, this proves little in isolation (even if it nods in the direction of a situation more complex than some would care to admit). But reports regarding the actions of some locals — trying as they did to provide aid and succour to the remaining asylum seekers during the impasse — as well as the activity of the men themselves, would seem to cast further doubt on the broad picture that refugee advocates seek to propagate. Some media outlets referred to local Manusians making numerous attempts to supply the men with a variety of basic goods whilst they remained in the processing centre. For example, The Australian recently reported that in addition to asylum seekers leaving the centre to retrieve caches of food and medicine, locals living nearby “were regularly allowing the men to access water and recharge phones”. It was also said that local PNG authorities were turning a blind eye to this practice, and that even police themselves were bringing the men food and water — something one senior officer said reflected Melanesian hospitality (interestingly, this adds another layer to the implicit depiction of PNG authorities as violence-prone thugs).
Now, I wouldn’t want to lionise local Manusians at all; as I noted above, several acts of the most appalling barbarity have been perpetrated against asylum seekers living on the island. Openness on the one hand is consistent with violent minority opposition on the other. However, the feared brutality of the mob has so far failed to materialise, even though the stand-off had been dragging on for some weeks. Where there may be a risk, the Australian government has said that security at the new centre has been arranged. More importantly, the reported generosity of many PNG residents undercuts the monochromatic portrayal of Manus Island as a place brimming with an irrational hatred of those seeking asylum. The picture that emerges instead is one that is quite common: a people that is generally hospitable, but which grapples (as do all societies, to greater or lesser degrees) with its share of sometimes-violent criminality.
But if it’s true that the character of local New Guineans has at times been unfairly reported, then it is also the case that refugee activists have failed to paint an accurate picture of the asylum seekers on Manus Island. As I suggested earlier, the men who remained in the processing centre have been portrayed in highly flattering, if simplistic, terms. However, one might be surprised to learn that since October 2013 (around the time the current Coalition government implemented its Sovereign Borders policy), PNG police have recorded “161 incidents of various offences involving residents [i.e., asylum seekers]…[including] assault, aggressive behaviour, unlawful entry, property damage, and contraband” (‘Sex and drugs’ at Manus village, The Australian, November 11-12, 2017; article paywalled. For further reporting, see here). Many incidents occurred in Lorengau, which implies a degree of movement between the processing centre and the island’s main township. Some of the allegations relate to sexual contact with underage girls, which would seem to cohere with other reports (featured in sympathetic media outlets like The Guardian Australia and the ABC) concerning the prosecution of crimes committed by asylum seekers against Manusian women.
Leave aside the question as to whether Australia ought to accept such men (if the allegations prove to be true). I think we can draw several tentative conclusions from the information above. Crucially, it further undercuts various features of the picture activists wish to propound: i.e., the notion that innocent asylum seekers are routinely being set upon by members of the local population, simply because they are despised by their would-be hosts. Crimes committed by some asylum seekers — particularly where they involve the exploitation of minors — would help explain whatever animus exists between them and local Manusians. On this reading, antipathy towards the men isn’t arbitrary; it hasn’t emerged from a vacuum, but remains a comprehensible (if at times utterly inexcusable) reaction to criminal acts. Indeed, current local opposition to the asylum seekers is partly grounded in fears that they might threaten the safety of PNG residents — fears that would seem to be somewhat justified, given the grave nature of some of the allegations.
These accounts also place the asylum seekers in a far more ambiguous light, morally speaking. One shouldn’t be surprised: as ordinary human beings, asylum seekers are prone to the same moral failings that everyone else is. Of course, asylum seekers aren’t uniquely gifted in the practice of human perversion — but nor are they the sainted protagonists of activist hagiography. Again, a key plank in the narrative plotted by refugee advocates is not quite as strong as it seems. This, too, appears to be true of claims that the asylum seekers could not leave the centre for fear of attack. The reports in question suggest, rather, that the men have had few qualms about travelling into Lorengau, whether for licit or illicit purposes. Contrary to the suggestion that the remaining asylum seekers were rendered paralysed by terror — and for that reason, remained holed-up in the Lombrum facility — the many allegations of misconduct outside the centre implies frequent movement, unencumbered by such concerns.
I referred earlier to the power of narrative to govern the way we see an issue; this, I think, has been borne out during the Manus Island saga, especially as it concerns the claims I have surveyed here. Certainly, the situation there is far more complex than the black-and-white portrayals some advocates have created, which suggests that the basic narrative frame with which they operate has, in this case, led them astray. Of course, one’s view on any issue is inevitably partial. What we are accorded does not arrive in pristine, undiluted form, but passes through many layers of mediation. A narrative frame is a particularly powerful type of mediating agent, for it establishes the very boundaries — the basic criteria — of what one considers true, plausible or even worthy of attention. This is true of both individuals and collective — including media — enterprises.
It’s not that grasping the truth remains impossible. However, facts are rarely apprehended in isolation; they are held together in a variety of ways, used to sustain whatever “plotline” the speaker or writer finds compelling and wishes to promote. Where the plotline is flexible, a dialectical process of mutual influence usually prevails: the significance of facts is shaped by one’s pre-understanding, whilst that pre-understanding is (where necessary) modified in accordance with new data. Of course, if one it too beholden to his preferred view, the salience of specific facts can either be minimised or magnified; simultaneously, countervailing data may be downplayed in order to maintain a certain frame of reference. I’m not suggesting that this is always done deliberately or consciously; much of the time, a person’s basic view of the world exerts its influence at a subterranean level. But we must remain alert to the fact that the truth we do grasp is always going to be leavened by a welter of other concerns, whether personal or political — lest we end up promoting a largely distorted, one-dimensional perspective. Helpful as they can be in rendering coherent a mass of otherwise disparate information, narrative rigidity is a constant danger, constraining insight, and blanketing comprehension. Sobriety and prudence, then, should be our watchwords. Given that events on Manus are mired in confusion and ambiguity, that warning seems especially germane.