There’s a story they like to tell in December, about people seeking hospitality in a city that wasn’t their home. A powerful man, hearing a rumour that the old order was changing, saw them and their baby as such a threat to all that he had acquired that he committed an atrocity we have never forgotten. This is both how Christmas began, and why nobody ever names their baby Herod.
On December 25th 1643 years later, Captain Wiliam Mynors sailed past an uninhabited island 1500 miles off Australia, and called it Christmas. 270 years later a Kurdish Iranian journalist called Behrouz Boochani landed there, fleeing persecution. For those leaving Indonesia by boat, Christmas Island is the nearest Australian landfall on a dangerous ocean and he hoped, as a writer with much to contribute, he might be made welcome there. He could not have been more wrong. From Christmas Island’s detention centre he was shipped to Manus Island, off Papua New Guinea, where he has been for three years, his story entwined with one of contempt for human rights that is drawing towards a partial conclusion as another Christmas approaches.
Offshore detention has diminished Australia in the eyes of the world. Torture, abuse, suicide, cruelty and murder on Nauru, Christmas, and Manus Islands have been exposed and denounced by human rights groups, doctors, nurses, journalists and the UN. In April Papua New Guinea, weary of the controversy, declared Manus Island’s detention centre unconstitutional, illegal and in breach of human rights. Since October Australia has been trying to force the remaining men out of it, warning that the PNG Navy will be sent in to enforce this. Unfortunately, the men say it’s not safe outside. Boochani says, “the refugees must decide between one of two choices: attack from the local people or attack at the hands of the navy. The whole situation is volatile and unpredictable.” He fears being a particular target, because of his continued reporting on detention centre conditions.
Since October 31, he and 300 others have barricaded themselves inside the half-demolished centre. The immigration authorities have cut off their power and poisoned their water. The UNHCR has described the situation as a “damning indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations”. Last month 12 prominent Australians wrote an open letter to their government saying, “this treatment does not represent who we are as Australians, or indeed as human beings.” New Zealand offered to take 150 but were rejected. Australia’s Prime Minister told Donald Trump that he would not let any of the refugees in, not even if they were Nobel prize winners. So the police wait outside, and the refugees, starving, dehydrated, sick and scared, wait inside and wonder when the final onslaught will come.
Meanwhile, around the world, millions of stars are placed on millions of pine trees as people sing songs about the good things that can happen when you show a little kindness to refugees. The Doctor finds it all quite painfully ironic.
Image: from the 84th day of protest, Manus Island Detention Centre