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Crude stories about criminal asylum seekers and cannibal locals were used to foster division and suspicions on Manus Island, aiding Australia’s agenda of obfuscation. By Janet Galbraith.

Fear deliberately spread on Manus Island

Manus Island foreshore
Credit: Behrouz BoochanI

Many in Australia reiterate one story about Manus Island and Manusians. It is a crude story, developed to bring about segregation and fear between local people on Manus Island and those seeking asylum. This story speaks of Manusians in particular, and the people of Papua New Guinea in general, as inherently violent and dangerous. This story has been accepted by many in the Australian community, including many of those who advocate the freedom of refugees caught in this system of violence.

Sitting in a group made up of Manusians, and a man each from Kurdistan, Sudan and Myanmar, I listen as they discuss what they were told of each other by Australia’s immigration officials. Aziz, a Sudanese man recognised as a refugee, tells me the only information his group was given, prior to being transported to Manus Island, was: “There are many deadly diseases and the local people are cannibals. They are dangerous. Do not go near them.”

Aziz, along with some others who spoke English, asked questions about this information but none of these were answered. This was the beginning of three-and-a-half years of limited and incorrect information dealt out in order to create division.

Paru, a Manusian local, tells The Saturday Paper that before the first asylum seekers were forcibly transferred to the island, he and other Manusians were told by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection: “These people are dangerous criminals. They are different to the first lot you had here. They are terrorists. Don’t go near them.” Again, there was little opportunity for questions. As Manusian politician Ron Knight told me: “We were never consulted. It was a done deal and we on the island were not given any information or asked if we wanted this.”

The fear engendered by these stories immediately set up a division and suspicion between those seeking asylum and the local people. This added to the anxieties and fractures that had already been created among Manusians when Australia took over the land of the local clan to extend the immigration detention prison.

After the 2014 attacks, when Reza Barati was murdered and hundreds of imprisoned men were seriously injured, both psychologically and physically, I conducted an interview with one of the men incarcerated on Manus. This man had been told that the people on Manus Island were cannibals. He recounts arriving at Momote Airport, which serves Manus Island.

“All I could see was a line of men,” he told me. “We were taken down from the plane and moved one by one into a small bus. All I could see was jungle. As we were driving along a bush track I saw a woman in the jungle, she had red teeth. She waved at me. Her teeth were red. I was so scared. Really I was so scared. I thought it was blood. I thought, we are being taken to a place where we will be food for these people. I am not a stupid man but really I was so so scared.”

The red colour on the teeth of the woman he saw was, of course, not human blood. It was buai, also known as betel nut. Buai has an important role in the culture and traditions of many of the tribes of PNG. Paru tells me that when a visitor arrives in your village, the elders will place buai and food beside the visitor, sit and share. Only after buai has been chewed will conversation begin. It is a sign of hospitality. Uncle Davai Rarua, who is indigenous to the lands around Port Moresby, tells me: “Buai is a cultural and unifying commodity. It is the beginning of a conversation. It is used to bring different clans together.”

He goes on to say: “Nowadays buai has become a commodity for some to make money from, but it still holds its cultural significance for many ... Buai binds us together.” But the fear of the asylum seeker relayed above was not isolated. This horror at the red teeth of the people they were told were cannibals was reiterated by many of the men I spoke to on Manus.

Before one of my recent trips to Manus Island I heard about a young man, a refugee, who had been attacked and seriously injured by a group of young Manusian men. The story was recounted, as these incidents often are, as follows: a young refugee is walking from Lorengau to the transit centre; he is attacked by locals and seriously injured. The locals in this representation come to stand for all Manusians.

While on Manus Island, I met a local man whom I will call Benjamin. He recounted the same incident. He told me he was walking along the road between Lorengau and the transit centre. Ahead he saw a group of young men. As he came closer, he saw that one of the men was a refugee and was being set upon by a group of drunk young Manusian men. Benjamin began to shout at the young men to go away, to stop, to leave the man alone. He grabbed one of the young men, punched him, tried to stop the attack. He was not successful. The man who was attacked lay badly wounded on the side of the road. Benjamin went to the aid of the attacked man. The young men dispersed into the surrounding scrub.

Benjamin flagged down some police. The man who had been attacked was taken to the Lorengau hospital. Once Benjamin knew that the attacked man was relatively safe he demanded the police apprehend the perpetrators of this violence. Benjamin and the police searched for them, finding all but one of the young men. They took them to the local police cells. Benjamin says he will testify to what he saw. “This must stop,” he says. “These people are not our enemies. They are looking for safety. If you treat me with respect I will treat you with respect.”

In recounting this story I am not discounting the violence that many in Papua New Guinea experience. What I am trying to highlight is the violence inherent in Australia’s representations of people and culture in Papua New Guinea.

Many Manusians are becoming more aware of what happens in the prison camp and relationships and understandings between locals and refugees are growing. Walking around Manus I became increasingly aware of how both groups are wary of Australia and Australians and are beginning to articulate Australia as their common oppressor.

A group of people who sought refuge in Australia – as is their legal right under international law – are being used as collateral for the furthering of Australia’s political agenda. They have been forcibly transported to a small impoverished island where resources are scarce. They are men who carry the wounds of indefinite incarceration without charge on an island that carries the wounds of a colonial history.

People indigenous to the island are also being manipulated for Australia’s interests. Australia offers, but does not deliver, much-needed healthcare, education and infrastructure. Instead, prices of food increase immensely making usual foods less available to locals. The trade in marijuana grows as new markets open up, and this beautiful island becomes known as a place of green hell.

Uncle Davai Rarua says: “We got independence and the idea behind Australian aid was supposed to be recompense for their colonisation of us, but now this ‘aid’ is being used to buy PNG, to loot us. To pass their own problems.”

The money does not go to the people who need it on Manus. The profits of the camp have not furthered the lives of the Manusians. As Paru says: “Of course this has not. Australia does not want us to be educated or healthy. We would grow ourselves up strong then. We two groups – the refugees and us Manusians – we are being treated as starving dogs. Australia throws a bone into the middle and we are to fight over the scraps.”

Kurdish writer and journalist Behrouz Boochani, who is detained on Manus, calls on Australia to critically examine how advocates are unknowingly furthering the goals and aspirations of the Australian government.

Unless many of us in Australia take the time to educate ourselves, to critically question representations and stories fed to us, unless we examine the truth of our colonising history in Papua New Guinea and the ongoing exploitation of this, we are working to further the Australian government’s violent agenda even as our intention is to fight against it. We do so by simplifying the story of what is happening on Manus, unwittingly making the local population the villains in it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 28, 2017 as "Fear factors". Subscribe here.

Janet Galbraith
is a poet and founder and co-ordinator of Writing Through Fences, a writing group made up of people who are, or have been, detained in immigration detention.