12 former Australians of the Year want Malcolm Turnbull to intervene over refugees trapped on Manus Island

2015 Australian of the Year Rosie Batty. Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images

Twelve former Australians of the Year, dating back to marathon champion Robert de Castella, have written to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calling on the government to act over the “human disaster” at the former refugee detention centre on Manus Island.

The open letter to Turnbull and Opposition leader Bill Shorten, is signed by Ita Buttrose, Rosie Batty, Simon McKeon, Patrick McGorry, Mick Dodson, Tim Flannery, Fiona Wood, Fiona Stanley, Gustav Nossal, Peter Doherty, John Yu and de Castella.

The Manus Island regional processing centre was closed by the Papua New Guinea government last month after a 2016 ruling by the PNG Supreme Court that the facility was illegal and in breach of the constitution.

Three weeks later, nearly 400 men have refused to leave the centre, despite the water and power being cut off.

A deal struck by Malcolm Turnbull with the former Obama administration for the US to accept genuine refugees in detention on Manus Island and Nauru has seen 54 refugees resettled while another 500 await assessment of their refugee status under the arrangement.

New Zealand offered to take some of the refugees, but the Australian government refused the offer with immigration minister Peter Dutton arguing it would encourage people smugglers.

On Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative Nai Jit Lam, who is on Manus Island, said the situation was “quite difficult” and a humanitarian crisis was developing.

“Australia must take responsibility for the protection, assistance and solutions for the refugees here on Manus Island,” he said.

“This is a man-made and entirely preventable humanitarian crisis. It is a damning indictment of a policy meant to avoid Australia’s international obligations.”

The 12 eminent Australians say it is “inevitable” people still at the facility “will become sick and even die through the lack of basic sanitation, food, water, and medical care”.

They say the treatment of the men does not reflect what it means to be Australian or a human being.

“We should not withhold water from people, nor withhold food; we should not leave seriously ill people to die without medication and treatment,” they wrote.

“We are also concerned about Australia’s international reputation in human rights. It seems that both our major political parties have failed to meet their most basic obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention, one that our country helped to negotiate and which we signed in 1951.”

Earlier this year, the government settled a compensation claim on behalf of nearly 2,000 people detained on Manus Island for $70 million before it went to court.

The government did not admit liability and denied it was responsible for any false imprisonment.

The class action from law firm Slater and Gordon involving 1,905 people detained at the centre between 2012 and 2016 was due to get under way in a six-month trial in the Victorian Supreme Court today, but reached a $70 million last minute settlement.

The former Australians of the year say the Turnbull government should take responsibility for the men, find safe haven for the genuine refugees and restore essential services on the island in the meantime.

The government and opposition have yet to respond to their calls.

Here’s the full letter:

OPEN LETTER TO THE PRIME MINISTER & OPPOSITION LEADER FROM FORMER AUSTRALIANS OF THE YEAR

Dear Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten,

We, as former Australians of the Year, representing the hearts and minds of the nation, are deeply concerned about the health and human disaster that is unfolding on Manus Island.

In the coming days, it is inevitable that people will become sick and even die through the lack of basic sanitation, food, water, and medical care.

Australians from all walks of life, from all sides of the political spectrum, are hoping that your government will now move to prevent these consequences of neglect. We believe that it is time to stop the unacceptable and internationally criticised treatment of the refugees on Manus Island, who, though innocent of any crime, have been incarcerated and now abandoned there.

This treatment does not represent who we are as Australians, or indeed as human beings.

We should not withhold water from people, nor withhold food; we should not leave seriously ill people to die without medication and treatment.

We are also concerned about Australia’s international reputation in human rights. It seems that both our major political parties have failed to meet their most basic obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention, one that our country helped to negotiate and which we signed in 1951.

The irony of Australia’s recent appointment to the UN Council for Human Rights is palpable. Do we now condemn our own actions?

We plead with you to immediately restore all essential services to the men on Manus Island. Please allow the Australian Medical Association to provide medical and preventive care, as they have recently offered, as soon as possible. At the same time please find safe haven for the acknowledged genuine refugees without any further delay.

We cannot see any good for Australia to pursue this policy in connection with Manus Island. We believe that the Australian Government is the one that needs to act in this matter and not the government of Papua New Guinea.

Yours sincerely

Australians of the Year

2015 Rosie Batty
2013 Ita Buttrose
2011 Simon McKeon
2010 Patrick McGorry
2009 Mick Dodson
2007 Tim Flannery
2005 Fiona Wood
2003 Fiona Stanley
2000 Gustav Nossal
1997 Peter Doherty
1996 John Yu
1983 Robert de Castella

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