I walk through gates of an open prison. The inmates have taken over, but this is no triumph. It’s been nine days since the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre [MIRPC] was closed and the centre is already being consumed by rot and decay. All services in the centre have ceased: there is no water, no electricity, no food, and all staff have been withdrawn. Toilets overflow with urine and faeces; litter collects in corridors; graffiti riddles the walls; tired bodies lie awkwardly on mats on the floor or on tables.
A tall, muscular, Sudanese man approaches me and introduces himself. He has a young face but it shows years of fatigue.
‘Follow me,’ Aziz says and disappears into his detention centre kingdom.
The detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is the ugliest face of Australian immigration policy. The island prison is one part of a deterrence policy intended to discourage asylum seekers taking boats from Indonesia into Australian waters, risking their lives and engaging people smugglers in their desperate attempts to reach a safe and prosperous nation. Australia reasoned the best way to prevent boat arrivals was to punish people with indefinite detention. Lock them up in offshore prisons and throw away the key. No time limits, no future, no hope. Force them to return home ‘voluntarily’.
In April 2016, the PNG Supreme Court ruled the detention of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island to be unconstitutional. Eighteen months later, the Australian Government closed the detention centre. Greens Senator Nick McKim believes the government had already satisfied the terms of the court’s ruling by opening the gates at the centre, and the decisions to close the centre and remove essential services were unnecessary and punitive. Regardless, the government is determined to relocate the detainees to three new centres on the island: Hillside Haus, East Lorengau Transit Centre and West Lorengau Haus. The refugees refuse to leave, claiming it’s unsafe for them to live in the island community.
Hillside Haus and West Lorengau Haus are construction sites ruled incomplete and unsafe by Nat Jit Lam, a representative of the UNHCR. East Lorengau Transit Centre was built three years ago but it is unclear how the conditions there differ from the detention centre. At the front entrance there is a boom gate manned by security guards; a fence surrounds the perimeter, and the refugees are not allowed visitors. It’s another prison, just a different face.
Aziz assumes the role of guide on a moonlight tour of injustices perpetrated against the detained. He leads me through the camp using the narrow walkways between the imposing security fences. The crunch, crunch, crunch of white coral follows us everywhere we walk.
We stand in an open space of grass Aziz calls Charlie compound.
‘This was the isolation area,’ he says. ‘They put white tarpaulins over the fence to cover the view. You couldn’t see anyone from outside and no-one from outside could see you. If you misbehaved they would send you to Chauka for seventy-two hours and then they brought you to Charlie for two weeks. If you behaved well during your isolation they’d return you to normal detention. If you didn’t behave you would stay longer.’
‘What is Chauka?’ I ask.
‘Chauka was Australia’s Guantanamo prison. I was put in there three times. I slept in a shipping container. There was no air-conditioning, no breezeway, no door, no toilet door, no shower curtain, so the guards could watch you at all times. The bed was made out of wood. One time, they handcuffed me for seventy-two hours.’
The situation in Manus Island is a humanitarian disaster. This is not just my opinion, it is the view of the UN, Amnesty, the AMA and many other independent agencies. The concept of forcibly resettling refugees on the island is not only absurd, it’s criminal.
It is not safe to travel at night around Lorengau, the main town on the island where the refugees are expected to live. There are notorious wards of Lorengau where it is not safe to travel at any time. Every refugee I meet in the community in Manus has a story of violence and robbery at the hands of locals. I meet a frail, old Bangladeshi man on his way to hospital. He was attacked in the street at ten in the morning, hit with a machete that fractured his arm and sliced his skin so meat popped out like a poorly cooked sausage on a barbecue. Only a few refugees have jobs in the community. Without work, without purpose, without family, life becomes unbearable and some men resort to alcohol and marijuana to dull the pain and battle the boredom. There have been two suicides in the community in the past three months.
If the stand-off at the detention centre hinges on refugees’ fears for their safety, there are clearly dangers in the community. But this refusal to submit to Australia’s command to leave the centre is about more than that. It is about four years of torturous detention; four years of institutional abuse; four years of life lost; and a hopeless future in Manus.
We walk through Oscar compound where the Good Friday shooting took place. In April 2017, an armed, drunk mob of local men, including members of the PNG defence force, broke into the camp, firing bullets in the air and attacking refugees. Evidence from the local police said the confrontation escalated from a fight over who was allowed to use the soccer field near the centre. I wanted to talk about this frightening attack, but there are more stories to tell and very little time to tell them.
‘We thought we’d be here for a couple of weeks or months. We never thought we’d be here for four years,’ Aziz says.
In Foxtrot compound, we enter P block, a WW2-era Quonset hut. It is empty except for a bed, a desk, a sleeping refugee covered in a mosquito net, and a stray dog. ‘Don’t Give Up’ is written in thick text on the back wall.
‘This room used to house over one-hundred people,’ Aziz says. ‘I slept here for six months. There was no air-conditioning, no air movement, no natural light. Each four bunk beds shared one fan. This is where Hamid Kehazaei died.’
Hamid Kehazaei’s death began with a sore on his leg. Then there was infection, sepsis, cardiorespiratory arrest, and finally a lack of oxygen to his brain caused his death. But what really killed Hamid Kehazaei was bureaucratic mismanagement of a health emergency in detention. When Hamid needed to be urgently transferred to Australia because facilities on Manus were inadequate, Australian immigration officials refused to give permission for his transfer for a further thirty-six hours. He died en route to hospital.
The only hospital in Manus is a small collection of aqua-painted buildings in Lorengau. A person with a serious health issue will be sent to Port Moresby. If it’s more serious, they will be sent overseas. There are no mental health facilities in Manus, a bitter irony considering for the last five years Australia has operated a factory for mental illness. The best medical facilities on the island were inside the MIRPC, but those facilities were closed and the resources taken with them.
There are currently over one-hundred sick refugees and asylum seekers housed in the Granville Motel in Port Moresby awaiting medical treatment.
‘It’s like a jail,’ one of the sick refugees in Port Moresby tells me. ‘There are only refugees in the entire motel. There are security guards in front of our rooms and they open and close the door for us. We are not allowed to keep our room keys. We have no privacy. Some of the men are in a critical condition, some are not. Most, like me, have not received any medical treatment. The motel is located in a dangerous area of Port Moresby, so we are afraid to leave.’
In Mike compound, we navigate a maze of stacked demountables and end up standing in an open space, encircled by two-storey accommodation blocks, illuminated by moonlight, as if we are on stage in a strange theatre.
This is where Reza Berati was murdered in February 2014. In response to refugees rioting inside the centre, Papua New Guinea police entered the centre and attacked the refugees, injuring more than seventy asylum seekers including one man who was shot and another who had his throat cut.
‘Six or seven guys were thrown off this balcony by locals. The locals grabbed the men by their arms and legs and asked them, “Do you know how to fly?” Then they threw them over the edge like garbage.’
We are two storeys up. At the top of the stairs Aziz stops and says, ‘Reza Berati was killed right here.’
Reza was repeatedly hit over the head by a local security guard wielding a large wooden, nailed stick. While Reza lay on the ground, a group of ten to fifteen local and Australian guards kicked him in the head and stomach with their boots. One of the local guards lifted a big rock above his head and threw it down hard on top of Reza’s head. Reza did not survive his injuries. The Australian Government later lied about the circumstances of his death.
How painful and traumatic it must be to live in the place where your friend was murdered, to relive these haunting scenes every day, with no chance of escape.
‘It’s one of the worst memories we have with us and we can’t take that memory away from us,’ Aziz said.
Manus is a poor island with high unemployment and limited facilities and resources. AusAid signs in schoolyards advertise the island’s reliance on Australian charity. There are fuel shortages and blackouts, supermarket shelves aren’t fully stocked. The unemployed hit the streets on Friday nights, spending whatever money they have on alcohol and betelnut, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and violence.
Not only are refugees being forced to live in the Manus community, the impoverished local people are being forced to accommodate them. The decision to allow the detention centre on Manus was a top-down decision, made by the Papua New Guinean (PNG) Prime Minister without community consultation. There were no education programs, no government attempts to help the locals and refugees understand each other. When the refugees first arrived in Manus they thought the locals were cannibals. When two communities are fighting for survival, they become competitors rather than neighbours. The local people are envious of the facilities the refugees receive. The refugees are scared and suspicious of the locals who attack them.
There are friendships and relationships between locals and refugees but these are rare. The refugees’ uncertain future is disruptive and upsetting for everyone involved.
‘This was not the Manus people’s decision. The refugees want to go to Australia. They don’t want to stay in Manus. This causes problems for everyone here. We don’t want them here if they are unhappy. Those men have been here for four years and they need to be resettled somewhere else,’ a local woman named Jill told me.
Aziz and I sit in front of the dispensary, our conversation illuminated by a weak candle.
‘What are you hoping for?’ I ask Aziz.
‘We want to show the international community the human rights violation in Manus. We have been abandoned by the Australian Government in a country that does not have the capacity and ability to help their own people. Why should PNG assume the responsibility to help us? Australia built this place on purpose and they are using us as tools for their own political interest. We are not doing this because we want to go to Australia. The problem is Australia is not letting us go anywhere else. The door has been blocked. We are not hoping for anything. All we can do is stand our ground and maybe someone will help us.’
The Australian Government’s stance on resettlement remains consistent: anyone attempting to enter Australia by boat will never be settled in the country. In November 2016, the Australian Government negotiated a deal in which the United States agreed to resettle up to 1,250 refugees from the two offshore detention centres on Manus and Nauru. This amounted to just over half the total number of refugees on the two islands, and it was before Trump was President. The US has just agreed to resettle 200 refugees in 2018, in addition to the fifty-four who were resettled in September. But it has also just reinstated Trump’s travel ban, meaning it won’t resettle anyone from Iran, Syria or Somalia, among a number of countries affected by the ban. New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees was rejected by the Australian Government because ‘settlement in a country like New Zealand would be used by people smugglers as a marketing opportunity.’
All the men can do is wait. Every day more men leave the camp, whether that be for medical reasons or fear of violence, but there appears to be a core group determined to stay and resist.
‘There is solidarity here,’ Aziz says. ‘They try to divide us, but this has become our last stand.’
Two weeks after my visit to the centre, PNG police, members of the mobile squad and immigration staff forcibly removed the remaining men from the centre and relocated them to the transit centres. They used metal poles and machetes to beat and cut resisters and arrested over thirty men including Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian journalist and refugee who has been reporting to the Australian press from within the centre. Their resistance was suppressed, the media attention dissipated, the world stopped watching.
In the centre, I was confronted by Australia’s past and current crimes. Viewing Australia’s designed cruelty first-hand left me both sorrowful and angry. Manus is a festering wound. Australians can ignore the sickness, but slowly, surely, it is poisoning our country. This is a sickness that was contracted during our violent invasion of Aboriginal land and it surfaces every time we condone state cruelty against a person. We do not realise that by crushing these men, we are weakening the foundations of our own nation, a nation that claims to value each and every individual’s inherent worth.
No-one knows what will happen to these men now that they have been forced into the community. Without real third-country options for resettlement I can only see tragedy ahead.
Lead image: Human Rights Law Centre