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The landmark case to award asylum seekers compensation should not be taken at face value. Indeed, despite the headlines, nothing has changed.
$70 million. That’s how much the Australian government has agreed to compensate the 1,905 asylum seekers detained on Manus Island between 2012 and 2016.
That figure may look reasonable, and it hyperbolically represents “The largest compensation payout in history” but I’d just like to point out that that’s only $36,745 per person, if divided evenly. That’s for four years of “physical and psychological harm” which, through this settlement, the government is essentially admitting it caused. This is in addition to the claim of “false imprisonment” due to the PNG Supreme Court ruling that their detention was illegal.
What can these people do now? The pain and suffering they experienced over those four years was horrific. Every Australian, at this point, knows something of their suffering, whether through news reports or the detainees’ own words.
“I cried every night until I had nothing left. I watched my friends reach breaking point and I prayed we would make it through,” said Majid Karami Kamasaee, a 35-year-old Iranian man held for 11 months from September 2013.
“Sadly many of my friends are still on Manus Island. It feels like they have been given life sentences.”
Kamasaee is still in a Melbourne detention centre. He and people just like him fled religious persecution, violence, oppression and war. They dreamt of a better life in Australia, and instead of being welcomed like the victims they were, they were locked up, chained away behind barbed fences, away from the eyes of the Australian public. It was all justified by the rhetoric of “turning back the boats” and “keeping our shores safe”.
These people, despite their day in court, remain in perdition, in purgatory. What to do with the money? Now that the government has ceded that they were wrong, will they open the doors to these suffering people? Doubtful. These people will have money in a bank account they likely won’t have a use for. Money they could maybe hire an immigration lawyer with, and perhaps end up refunding the government that compensated them through the taxes paid by aforementioned lawyers. The cycle, whether cash or jail time, remains intact.
Even if they are deported back home, what good will the money be? A briefcase of money in Aleppo does not gain security. Many of these asylum seekers have nothing to return home to. This windfall represents little, it’s the “Free Parking” of the geopolitical sphere, with the players consistently rolling doubles, but the lock remaining firm. Perhaps it will only help insofar as it will energise those fighting to keep fighting.
Make no mistake, this is an admission of guilt by the Australian government; a long-awaited admission of horrible wrong-doing. We, as a nation, are admitting that we do not, in fact, have “boundless plains to share”. We have a check for the equivalent of minimum wage, and seemingly infinite detention.
So, award them their money, and cheer when they receive it.
But don’t think this lets any of us off the hook.