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As the eighth asylum seeker dies in offshore processing, conditions decline further and the situation worsens for refugees. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Driven to death on Manus Island

A shrine in the East Lorengau Transit Centre for Hamed Shamshiripour.
Credit: SUPPLIED

This is what we know of Hamed Shamshiripour. He was 31, Iranian and homeless at the time of his death. He had been on Manus Island for four years and in 2016 was determined to be a refugee. In the past year, following a major mental health episode, he was shuttled carelessly between the regional processing centre, the nearby transit centre, prison and the streets. His mental health problems were severe, and well known to officials. The Australian Border Force’s chief medical officer was alerted 12 months ago. In January, Manus MP Ron Knight said of Hamed: “To be blunt, the guy is dangerous to all around him and he needs psychiatric help. There is none for him here.”

We know that Hamed was volatile, violent and paranoid. He would sometimes wander camps – or the streets – naked, mumbling about enemies and his divinity. He told friends, who had become both pitying and frightened of him, that local police beat him “for fun”. Days before his body was found, The Saturday Paper understands he made a separate attempt on his life.

We know that on Monday, about 9am local time, refugees found his body in a forest. We know that a photo of his corpse – showing how he died – encouraged suspicions among asylum seekers that he was murdered. The photograph is haunting. Hamed’s head is shaved, his eye sockets black with blood or bruising. His family is demanding an inquest. “It don’t seem like suicide,” Hamed’s best friend, Farzan, tells me. “I think he has been murdered. It’s really suspicious. How can we provide a third party to investigate this case?”

Hamed was ill, apparently suicidal, and his death ruled self-administered, but his friends glimpsed his death through their own distrust. If there was no evidence of Hamed’s murder, there was plenty to support his friends’ darkest misgivings: only three months earlier their camp had been fired on with machineguns aimed by drunken members of the local navy.

Distrust in authorities is common among these men. The distrust is a mix of fact and fantasy. Another friend of Hamed’s told me: “Man, I don’t know if I’ll walk out of here alive. I think they are working for a mass elimination plan. To get rid of all of us at once. I mean to kill us all here. We have already lost five men just on Manus, and a handful on Nauru. Don’t you think it’s a sign?”

I tried gently to disabuse the young man of the theory. But we might understand the context of his prophecy. The mental health of the 800 men on Manus has deteriorated sharply, as per the assessment of visiting psychiatrists. Their material conditions, already considered grossly inadequate, have worsened. Power and sanitation have been cut to some compounds, in expectation of the centre being shut at the end of October. On Good Friday, local military, after shooting up the camp, sought to breach its perimeter while our immigration minister recklessly attributed this violence to unfounded claims of child abuse. Peter Dutton’s assertions were persuasively contested and finally abandoned.

When Reza Barati’s head was crushed by the men employed to protect him, Australia’s then immigration minister Scott Morrison said Barati had escaped campgrounds. He hadn’t. This was the same minister who alleged that Save the Children staff were coaching children on Nauru to self-harm. They weren’t, and were later compensated for their defamation and summary removal from the country.

Murder parsed. Teachers slandered. But otherwise, this is a government quiet about the camps it created. It is interesting to note when they do find their voice. It was not found when children were flown to Australia, having swallowed razor blades or bleach. Nor was it found when their own inquiries returned the testimonies of abused children. It was not found when men set themselves alight, or when the Papua New Guinean Supreme Court found the Manus camp to be unconstitutional.

With none of these things did the government find its voice. But it became voluble when falsely arguing that Barati had fled his compound, as if his wanting to escape might be sufficient justification for his murder. Or that Save the Children staff had coached children to harm themselves, even as the teachers were themselves seeking counselling for having prevented the very things they were accused of inspiring.

I have seen a “Feedback and Request” form this week, filled out in ink, and submitted to camp staff. Under request details is written: “Put poison in our food, shoot us to death or kill us in any way but make it quick. We are dying here every day very slowly, we are already dead inside.

“We can’t be patient anymore, we are all sick and exhausted. We are only people and we have no power. If you are not letting us free, just end our lives. We are giving you permission to do that.”

So often do men in these camps tell me they want to die that I have sought advice from a suicide counsellor. But I can’t pretend to expertise or influence. I’m simply an observer, and a distant one.

 

“We used to be close,” Farzan says of his friend Hamed, “but about last year he started to act so weird. It was a night that Hamed took his clothes off and pissed in front of everybody. That night he slapped a local officer, too. So they took him to another compound, which is named MAA. He was there for some days; even IHMS [International Health and Medical Services] gave him different kind of tablet. But they couldn’t stop him of being weird.”

Farzan and Hamed were so close for a while that they told people they were cousins. But then Farzan became more carer than friend – at least, when Hamed was in the processing centre. Soon enough, though, he would be shuttled back out.

“He took strong sleep pills,” Farzan tells me over a messaging app. “But he could sleep hardly. He was full of energy all the time. So something was really wrong. Like insanity. So after some days, Hamed pushed an Australian officer. This time they took him to Manus prison. It happened really suddenly but before that he was angry most of the time. But suddenly he, how can I say, he explode.

“They took him to Manus prison. He was there for a few weeks, but Immigration didn’t bring him back to MRPC [Manus Regional Processing Centre]. They took him to East Lorengau Transit Centre. So he continued that way. Then he died. He even tried to get back in here [to the processing centre]. But Immigration took him back to town.

“During this time, Hamed fought with dozens of people in the town. Refugees, locals, Australians, even police officers. He was bashed up by police officers almost every week. It became fun for them to beat him. He mentioned they beat him without any reasons. Hamed never fight me physically, but he sweared me a lot whenever he saw me. But somehow I could talk to him very calmly and he could recognise me as his friend. And he told me what had happened to him. I was scared because he was unpredictable. He could change in a moment.

“I was afraid of him. He always mentioned that something is happening to him, like seeing illusion and hear different voices. One you could see that he says I am king another day he says I am God. Some day you could see he is walking around the town without any shirt. So he was continuing that way.”

Farzan stops writing. He’s too distressed to continue.

 

Hamed’s death comes at a time of particular tension on Manus. For weeks now, in the lead-up to the camp’s destruction on October 31 – and the men’s transfer to the East Lorengau Transit Centre – protests and blockades have been occurring. “Power and water and cleaning services and sanitation [are cut off],” one man tells me. “Imagine you are living in a place with no water and power. No shower, no toilet flush, no washing machine. Disease start spreading and every day more people are getting sick. And all of this is happening by the orders of ABF [Australian Border Force] and DIBP [Department of Immigration and Border Protection] from Canberra to coerce refugees to sign papers to live in a country where they are getting beaten up and robbed and assaulted every single day and today one is found dead in the bushes. It’s making us all die in here. How long you think people will be able to survive? I am feeling sick in my stomach. This place is for no human.”

Last week came the extraordinary leak of a transcript of a January phone conversation between Malcolm Turnbull and the United States president, Donald Trump. Substantive elements of the conversation had surfaced months earlier, but the full account confirmed what most already knew: the US resettlement deal was fragile, and the placement of these men in no way guaranteed.

“The given number in the agreement is 1250 and it is entirely a matter of your vetting,” Turnbull assured Donald Trump.“I hate having to do it, but I am still going to vet them very closely,” Trump replied. “Suppose I vet them closely and I do not take any?”

“That is the point I have been trying to make.”

“How does that help you?”

“Well, we assume that we will act in good faith.”

Elsewhere, Turnbull assured Trump that the deal “does not require you to take any” of the refugees held on Manus or Nauru. Turnbull said Australia would not take them either – not “even … a Nobel prize-winning genius”.

Approvingly, Trump said: “You are worse than I am.”

In the end, Turnbull got what he wanted – Trump accepting a deal that he thought was “rotten”. The men on Manus saw a deal that was highly contingent, and saw themselves as political pawns. Those I spoke to remain highly sceptical of their ever being resettled in the US. “It does not seem to be a true deal,” one man told me.

The US Department of Homeland Security is, however, continuing its vetting process. We are now at what a former immigration executive told me was a fraught “endgame” in this chapter.

“Seems the Americans are headed back to do some more screening,” the source said. “I cannot see much benefit of the doubt applying under extreme vetting … The American ‘initiative’ [continues] on Nauru. It’s pretty difficult there, too. It is a different set of issues, but just as difficult an ‘endgame’.

“The whole Manus situation re: those who are refugees but are not ultimately accepted by the US looks very difficult and it is clear that there is no really durable solution likely in PNG. The PNG government just hasn’t done the preparatory work to facilitate real settlement. Throwing more money at PNG government to ‘sort it out’ won’t work. My guess is there will be a search for an NGO, maybe IMO, to set up something at the last minute when it becomes clear that the Americans won’t be hurried and will certainly vet people out.”

In a statement this week, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said it was “gravely concerned by deteriorating conditions at the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, as authorities seek to relocate people to Lorengau or elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. The announcement of the closure of the centre, in the absence of appropriate alternatives, is causing acute distress among refugees and asylum seekers. UNHCR is deeply saddened by the tragic death of a young refugee yesterday, which also highlights the precarious situation for vulnerable people on Manus Island.

“The planned closure of the centre, along with the announced withdrawal of current medical care, torture and trauma support and security services by October 2017, is exacerbating a highly stressful situation for the 773 people who remain on Manus Island. Many fear for their safety outside the centre, particularly in the wake of several violent incidents in recent years.”

The sorrow and questions remain.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 12, 2017 as "Driven to death on Manus Island". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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