Closing Manus Island
The refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island are at the lowest point of their lives. There are no words to describe the pressure the Australian government is imposing in order to empty and close its illegal offshore detention centre by October 31.
The way in which the Australian government is managing the impending closure of the centre is making a bad situation worse.
As well as the constant threat of being told to move to unsafe housing, systematic removal of services is adding to the mental trauma of the men. The authorities took away the public phones almost two months ago, so many men have no contact with their families. The main fences were taken down from Bravo and Charlie compounds.
Some buildings have been demolished. The canteen is closed for the majority of men. The Australian government and those working for it have stopped providing fruit, sugar, coffee and paper cups. Men who never smoked before and who have become addicted to cigarettes can no longer get them.
I cry seeing the men smoking dry leaves and papers. The medical centre has been closed, so there is no medical or mental health support and patients requiring medication have been given one month’s supply, whether it is for a mental condition or a physical ailment.
The Australian government will not rule out disruption to water and electricity supplies, which of course could be the cause of disease.
We have experienced riots, been shot at, assaulted, treated sometimes worse than animals, robbed, and on many occasions beaten in front of Australian security guards as we moved around the centre.
We call out for help in the vain hope that someone might answer. The fear that has grown in the inmates’ minds will never go away. It moves around in our minds constantly. Six men who were full of life have died because of this endless pain. They would have been alive if they had been taken to safety.
In Lorengau, about 30 kilometres from the detention centre, there are three facilities, two of which are newly built close to the houses of the Manusians. Refugees will be accommodated in the established East Lorengau Transit Centre, as well as at West Lorengau Haus. Detainees with negative refugee status will be held in Hillside Haus to prepare for voluntary repatriation, deportation or refoulement. Neither of the new buildings has fences and there is no proper security.
Moving more than 600 men from many different countries into an isolated town will make conditions more drastic for refugees and local people alike. It is obvious that the Australian government has no solution for the obstacles they have created during the four years of illegal imprisonment of innocent refugees and asylum seekers on Manus. I call it illegal because the Papua New Guinea High Court has deemed it to be.
There are hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers who have never left the centre – even after it was opened following the High Court decision – as they are extremely frightened. Many are traumatised and mentally disturbed. Some of the local people, who don’t want us on their island, are just as afraid of the refugees.
There is only one hospital on Manus Island, and it doesn’t provide proper medical, psychiatric and general health services for the Manusians, let alone for hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers. On top of this, a lack of interpreters for those who cannot speak English means patients do not receive proper treatment, even for minor illnesses.
Some form of health service will be available once the detention centre closes but financial support offered will not cover our living costs. Those who require medication will have to provide for themselves, if the correct medication can be purchased in the town at all.
There will be no activities, gym or education facilities in the new accommodation. There is nowhere to go and there is nothing except one supermarket. It means we will be stuck in a sort of prison indefinitely, a prison designed to inflict more psychological damage. The doors will be open but the fear of being attacked will keep us inside the four walls.
There is no clear information for how long we will be staying in Lorengau and our future is as uncertain as it has always been on Manus Island. It feels as though we could be stuck in limbo for years again. Not knowing anything about our future will rob us of any strength we have left.
With the closure of the detention centre, hundreds of Manusians who have been employed will lose their jobs. Many have said they will find it extremely difficult to go back to their previous way of life. For the past few years, they have had money to spend and, having worked with Western people, have lived a lifestyle different to what had previously been the norm on Manus. Everything will change for them when the centre closes, and it is anticipated that unrest will escalate. Because we, the refugees and asylum seekers, are the outsiders, the concern is that we will suffer.
Most of the locals have never left Manus province. They have little awareness of other cultures. There will be an immense cultural communication breakdown if we are left here, which will significantly affect both sides in multiple ways. Our lives will be exposed to an insufferable situation if the Australian government goes ahead with its plan and abandons us here.
Until now, we have done everything we have been told and shown great respect. However, we are still stuck in limbo without any hope of a life that can be created in a safe nation.
There is considerable uncertainty about our future on Manus Island. Friends who came with us on the same boat after July 19 have been living in safety in Australia for almost three years.
Last month, after four years, 23 men from Manus Island found their freedom in America under the resettlement arrangement between the Australian and US governments. It brought some sort of hope to the lives of the hundreds left behind.
In the meantime, however, we are drowning in a sea of despair with every passing day. We gather in peace and silence every afternoon around 2pm, in front of the two main gates inside the centre, begging the Australian government to bring our suffering to an end and to show we are resisting pressure to move to Lorengau.
We are powerless and hopeless. We have no intention, nor the strength and ability, to fight anyone. We have been made to endure indescribable and unspeakable hardships for more than four years.
For us who are held on Manus Island it never rains but it pours. We wonder: if we move to the transit centre, will we be tricked again? Will we be forced to sign resettlement papers to remain in Papua New Guinea, as some of the refugees have already been forced to do, so they can have access to services and support?
We feel as if the Australian government will simply dust its hands of us and dump us here forever. We will become the headache of Papua New Guinea, where we know we are not wanted. We will not even be allowed to leave Manus, to travel to the mainland.
It feels as if we will be pushed beyond our limit to survive here. We have been told the PNG military is going to reoccupy the detention centre – their land – on October 31.
If we stay in the centre, we will be at risk. If we leave the centre, we will be in danger.
I am one of many stateless Rohingya refugees in detention on Manus Island and the fear we have endured for most of our lives is still with us. We came to Australia thinking we would be given a chance to experience freedom and safety, but in fact the reverse has been true. We are as frightened now as we were at home, because the whole centre is surrounded by menacing police and we don’t know what their next move will be.
People such as us, who put our lives in danger on the sea to find our freedom in a safe nation, can never make plans before leaving our country. We are allowed no documentation by our government, so can never enter any country through normal channels. We had no choice but to endure unspeakable tragedies and unimaginable horror all our lives, both at home and in many detention centres. In my case, it has been almost seven years in camps and detention.
Despite having been through all of these hardships, our hearts still hold faith. On behalf of all the refugees and asylum seekers, I am begging the Australian government to bring an end to our suffering. Please don’t let us die here slowly. We are as human as you. We are real people with a real body and heart, a heart that craves love and respect and wants to share love and respect in return.
We are on our knees, imploring the Australian government to let us live our lives in a safe country. All we are asking for is our freedom in a safe nation. After more than four years of imprisonment, waiting, feeling lost and drifting in this concentration camp, that is all we are asking.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "Alone and abandoned". Subscribe here.