As the Manus Island detention centre is closed, refugees are under mounting pressure to resettle in an area of PNG where they are unsafe and unwanted. By Behrouz Boochani.

Rising tension on Manus Island

The Foxtrot compound in Lombrum, which is set to be the first to close.
The Foxtrot compound in Lombrum, which is set to be the first to close.

During the past two months the atmosphere in the Manus Island detention centre has been affected by news of its impending closure. More than anything else, the mood here has been marked by the announcement that the prison camp will shut down once and for all before October 31. By announcing this date, the government declared the beginning of another phase, another period in the history of the Manus Island detention centre, another stage in the process of violence, the system of torture.

In this two-month time frame the Australian Border Force and Department of Immigration and Border Protection have been applying pressure on refugees on almost a daily basis. They have been using various tactics in order to force people to leave the main prison camp in Lombrum and shift to the prison camp half an hour away in East Lorengau.

East Lorengau is a camp positioned next to the small town of Lorengau on the north-east coast of Manus Island. Refugees in Lombrum are mostly out of sight to locals. But transferring to East Lorengau practically means settling among the locals in the island’s main town.

For a period of four years Australia has been able to persuade only 70 refugees to move there. During the same period, about 850 people have remained incarcerated in the main prison camp. Those refugees are subject to threats during one-on-one interviews with officials. They are told they have two options: exit the Lombrum prison camp and transfer to East Lorengau or return to their country of origin.

The East Lorengau camp is called a “transit centre”, but when refugees ask questions about where they will end up if they move there, the officials avoid answering with any clarity. They just continue to stress the option of settling in Papua New Guinea.

As this occurs, the Department of Immigration forges ahead with its political agenda aimed at closing the Lombrum prison camp. The first move in that strategy was to officially announce the shutdown of the Foxtrot compound, first slated for June 28. This is one of four compounds in Lombrum, along with Delta, Oscar and Mike. Although now behind schedule, its closure means that a community of 200 people must move to the other compounds. If this occurs the other compounds will become overcrowded and the pressure on refugees will double. Under these oppressive conditions they will ultimately be coerced to accept transferring to East Lorengau.

The announcement by the authorities claimed that every room and all tents in Foxtrot would be destroyed. As I write, the compound remains open. But, of the 200 people who inhabited Foxtrot, during the past month about 100 have moved “voluntarily” to other sections of the prison. They have received no assistance in finding space elsewhere and it has caused overcrowding. At the same time those people remaining in Foxtrot compound are resisting and staying in place.

The refugees held in Foxtrot who submitted to the pressure and threats ended up moving into the adjoining prison camps. The fate of each of these people differs. Most of them have been able to acquire beds inside tents. For a few days a group of roughly 10 people occupied the rooms in the former medical centre beside the detention centre’s main gate; they cleared an area for sleeping and were residing among the junk cluttering those spaces. However, Immigration cut the electricity and the police began to threaten them. Therefore, they were forced to leave. They became homeless for about a week and then had no choice but to go back to Foxtrot compound.

Another group of about 10 people created a space in an area known as Charlie, which is beside Oscar prison camp. In Charlie they have been living in tents. At this very moment they do not have running water; Immigration has cut it off. It seems they will also be forced back to the Foxtrot compound in coming days due to the unbearable conditions.

The main objective of these kinds of oppressive tactics is to coerce the refugees out of the current prison camp and into the East Lorengau camp. But during this period only about 10 people have buckled under pressure and shifted to East Lorengau.

Other political tactics at play by Immigration aimed at closing the Manus Island detention centre are the closure of all the sporting facilities and discontinuation of educational activities. A group of Immigration officers accompanied by a few local police officers entered the prison camp and took away all the exercise equipment. There is no longer any kind of sporting activity practised inside the prison camp.

For the refugees who have endured four years of hardship, the availability of a small exercise space is vital. And so the lack of such a fitness space, regardless of how small, contributes to further physical, emotional and psychological deterioration. After enduring four years of indefinite detention, actions such as this increase depression and result in extreme and irreparable mental and emotional injury for refugees.

In the Manus Island detention centre English language classes have been disbanded. Also, case managers are no longer allowed to enter the prison camp. The scene in the prison has become more like a haunted house. Right at this moment there is no one engaging in any kind of activity. The little canteen inside the prison camp has also been practically closed. The only products available to refugees are telephone cards, smokes and some soaps and shampoos.

As the pressure increases on refugees to transfer to East Lorengau the relationship between them and the local people has been affected in significant ways. Locals have made it clear that under no circumstances will they tolerate refugees living in their community. This problem pertains mostly to the weak economic situation that plagues their society, in addition to the dynamics of local tribal culture and lifestyle.

In May an Iranian refugee was attacked and robbed by knife-wielding local youths. One week later an Afghan refugee was also attacked and had his property stolen. Then in late June a Bangladeshi refugee was set upon in a similar way and his elbow was badly cut with a knife. The injury was so extensive that he had to be taken to hospital in Port Moresby for emergency surgery.

This is a reality that cannot be denied: PNG is in no way safe for refugees. This is a fact that even the locals accept. In these precarious circumstances refugees are feeling extreme stress in anticipation of the closure of the prison camp. There is no safety whatsoever if they are left to live in the local community. But life in the Manus Island detention centre is becoming harder and harder with every day that passes.

During this time officers from United States Homeland Security have continued with their schedule of interviewing refugees. The process to evaluate asylum claims for the US has three stages. An Asian company that works for Homeland Security conducts initial interviews. Next, the officers from Homeland Security carry out lengthy interviews that could take as long as seven or eight hours. And finally they assign doctors to administer medical checks to determine each individual’s heath condition – that is, their mental and physical state.

To date almost 470 individuals have had their first interviews. Only 70 have reached the second interview. And roughly 40 individuals have progressed to the medical check; that is, fewer than 40 people have moved through to the final stage of their processing. This is the progress about eight months after the media stated the Australian prime minister had negotiated a deal with America.

Another point to consider is that until now none of the officials have informed the refugees about important details. How long is the whole process going to take? When will the refugees be transferred to the US? How many refugees will the US take? And what will happen to the others?

In reality, no one has yet received answers to their basic and critical questions about this deal. Australian Immigration has said they do not have the answers to these questions. But they know all too well that anyone who does not go to the US for whatever reason will be forced to settle in PNG.

In this predicament, and as October 31 draws closer, a certain scenario is taking shape in the minds of the refugees. They imagine the US deal is nothing but an instrument for the political machinations initiated by the Australian government. They imagine they will be forced to settle in PNG, and be given no choice but to remain there forever. The government is trying to persuade them to exit the prison camp by manipulating the dream that the refugees hold dear: the dream of going to the US. Actually, the generally accepted belief is that the US transfer process is an outright lie designed to deceive the refugees. Even as I write this article news has emerged that President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration will affect the refugees held on Manus Island, and that the process for transferring them to the US will be delayed. Many people feel the dream of settling in a safe place slipping further away.

This whole situation targets the mental wellbeing of the refugees on three levels. First, living conditions within the prison camp are deteriorating daily. Second, it has been made perfectly clear there is no favourable future for refugees in PNG; no one feels safe. And third, the process to transfer them to the US is still up in the air.

It seems to me that three months from now something major – and maybe something perilous – will take place in the Manus Island detention centre. The refugees continue their struggle with tenacity against plans of forced settlement in PNG. At the same time, the Australian government is completely determined to close the prison camp and transfer the refugees somewhere outside it, using any method it can think of. In this predicament, the most worrying thing on the government’s minds is the possibility of conflict and violence. What eventuates may threaten the lives of many.

Translated by Omid Tofighian, University of Sydney.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2017 as "Breaking camp".

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Behrouz Boochani is a senior adjunct research fellow with the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre, University of Canterbury, and is an associate professor at the University of NSW.

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