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Six hundred men are left behind on Manus Island. There is no electricity, water or sanitation. There is also no plan for what happens next. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The men on Manus we’ve left behind

A Manus Island detainee digs for water this week.
Credit: BEHROUZ BOOCHANI

On Monday evening, the night before the Manus Island detention centre’s deadline for closure, 600 asylum seekers were preparing for their indefinite defiance of that deadline. The men had planned, almost without exception, to remain in the camp, refusing their transfer to various sites in Lorengau, on the other side of Manus. For weeks, some had been rationing their food – bags of oranges and TV dinners. In recent days, after most supplies were cut, they were filling large bins with water.

On Monday, I was told by one refugee that “everything is quiet now … We’ve been trying to keep guys calm and in control.” But the atmosphere on Manus is fraught with fear and paranoia – not ungrounded, given the “epidemic” levels of mental illness, and the precedent of violence committed against asylum seekers and refugees by locals. Rumours circulated, and were relayed to me: locals in Lorengau were arming themselves with knives and machetes; security guards at two new accommodation sites had been attacked. What could be confirmed is that the new sites are incomplete and understaffed, after garrison service provider – Paladin Solutions – had somehow failed to have foreign staff issued with the proper visas.

On Tuesday morning, a final notice was posted by local immigration authorities. It read, in part: “The Manus RPC will close at 5pm today. All power and water will cease. There will be no food supplied – and no dinner service this evening. All ICSA [Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority] personnel will depart.

“You have been advised that accommodation and services have transferred to alternative locations. You have been given access to transport to take you to these alternative destinations … Move to alternative accommodation now.

“Anyone choosing to remain here will be liable for removal from an active PNG base. This is the last communication you will receive at this location.”

Jurisdiction of the decommissioned site now shifts to the Papua New Guinean military, a fact that chilled the men with whom I spoke. It is only six months since local navy officers drunkenly fired on the camp after a game of soccer. The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has said that the men will be secure if they accept their transfer to the other sites.

Since the PNG Supreme Court ruled last year that the detention of these men was unconstitutional, plans were made to close the camp. In recent months, services were pared back and parts of the centre closed. By this week, most Australian staff had left the country. It was no longer a secure camp – if, indeed, it ever was. Fences were taken down, locks removed, security staff dismissed. Without running water, another issue was sanitation.

The men I’ve spoken to this week have impressed upon me their feeling of acute vulnerability. “I’m feeling sick to my stomach,” one refugee told me on the day of the closure. “There is a guy, he always was a happy guy but now he’s different and talking things that doesn’t [have] meaning. Some of the guys gave him medicine for sleep but he didn’t sleep from last night.”

Following the October 31 deadline, refugees told me – and other reporters – that locals had begun looting the camp. Photos The Saturday Paper has seen appear to support this.   

At the time of writing, the 600 men have spent two nights in the pitch-dark semi-abandoned camp. Warnings that the local army would forcibly remove them – and possibly charge them with trespassing – remain unfulfilled. According to reports, the PNG government is anxious to transfer the men but equally anxious to avoid a violent conflagration. The result is a perilous stalemate, where it is hoped the dire conditions will eventually coerce them to the new accommodation.

On Wednesday night, working in the dark with improvised tools, men began digging for water in the Oscar compound. A couple of metres down, they struck it. A feed on the instant messenger system Telegram boasted of their discovery. “Turn off the water no worry,” one message said. “Some of us know where to get more. Water came from well before tap, Australia. Problem solved.”

Less optimistic messages followed: “Mortifying days and nights … It’s almost impossible to live in a tropical region without food, water and electricity as well as a complete denial of security in and around the compound in a hostile atmosphere.”

 

Currently, local lawyers – aided by Australian counterparts – have lodged an injunction application with the PNG Supreme Court that would effectively force the government to reopen the camp and provide water and electricity. It is an odd situation, given its closure was on constitutional grounds and was celebrated at the time by refugee advocates. Then, it was assumed that the camp’s closure would force the men’s resettlement in a third country. New Zealand, which has long agreed to settle the men – a position reaffirmed by the new prime minister, Jacinda Ardern – was one option. While the Australian government has consistently deferred responsibility to PNG, The Saturday Paper understands our government quietly pressured PNG to resist New Zealand’s offer for fear it would revive the incentive to travel by boat to Australia in order to ultimately seek asylum.

Regardless, this contradiction was the source of Dutton’s pique. In a statement, the minister said: “They have long claimed the Manus regional processing centre was a ‘hellhole’ – but the moment it was to be closed they demanded it be kept open. They claim to fear for their safety if they leave the RPC – but held no such fears for a long period of time as around 200 of them each and every day travelled to and from Lorengau township, some staying in the town for extended periods of time.”

Then there is the matter of “alternative accommodation”. There are three sites, each with problems. The original site – the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre – is too small to accommodate all of the men, and there are questions regarding the constitutional validity of keeping them there anyway. The PNG government has argued that the Supreme Court’s ruling applied only to the Manus RPC – lawyers and the PNG opposition party say that this is a conveniently narrow interpretation of the ruling.

Then there are the other two sites. West Lorengau House, for those men deemed refugees, and Hillside Haus, for those negatively assessed. One facility is incomplete – hotels would be provided in the interim – and they are both understaffed. An official from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees inspected two of the three sites this week and said they were plainly “not ready”.

Locals have recently petitioned against construction of the sites, arguing they’re unsafe and that there was no community consultation. Their anger is reinforced by Manus MP, and speaker of the PNG parliament, Job Pomat, who has demanded construction stop. He has also accused the local police force of bullying his constituents into acceptance. Police say they’re simply warning against local “interference”.

After on-the-ground investigations, the UNHCR released a statement this week: “UNHCR has met with government authorities, including the Police and the Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority, who have noted that tensions within the local community are on the rise, partly due to the lack of consultation prior to the movement of refugees and asylum-seekers outside of the ‘Regional Processing Centre’. Local government officials point to a lack of case workers and interpreters as well as inadequate local hospital facilities as particularly worrying. UNHCR staff have spoken with local community leaders and landowners who describe settlement of refugees and asylum-seekers in the community as ‘inappropriate’.

“UNHCR urges the Australian Government to work with the Papua New Guinean authorities to immediately de-escalate an increasingly tense and unstable situation. Australia remains responsible for the well-being of all those moved to Papua New Guinea until adequate, long-term solutions outside the country are found. UNHCR urges Australia to take responsibility and provide protection and safety to these vulnerable human beings.”

There are already unconfirmed stories of vigilantism. “There were two attacks on the security of the new compound last night,” I was told by one refugee earlier this week. “We are told that guards at Hillside Haus were just now attacked by local people. We don’t know about injuries. Yesterday we were told of a similar attack at West Haus, when a local man attacked another local with a heavy chain.”

Another told me: “Here, were more than 200 local people. Big, big protest against refugees… People very angry. I visit today morning with three local friends. I’m shown how local is angry.”

Added to this latently explosive environment is the deployment of PNG’s Mobile Squad – a notorious paramilitary group, recently funded by the Australian government, who have tortured, raped and murderously beaten locals. These squads have been subject to multiple international investigations.

Most Australian staff have left the island, and the Australian government says it is all now a matter for the PNG government. Our offshore policy has riven local communities, created tension between its civic authorities, and established a parlous stalemate between refugees, locals and the PNG government. As Australian staff fly home, they leave behind legal and political uncertainty – and the most combustible uncertainty of all, the safety of the men. “A foreseeable mess” is how a former executive of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection describes it to me. “This is the inevitable end stage of a ‘we’re making it up as we go’ approach to policy.”

Despite assurances from the Australian government, the current situation is the inevitable outcome of a policy cynically improvised by both Labor and Coalition governments. Independent psychiatrists have documented “epidemic” mental illness. Doctors have testified to the politicisation of care. Senate inquiries have found physical and sexual abuses, and an appalling lack of transparency. Courts have convicted security guards for the murder of a detainee. Others have taken their own lives.

It cannot be assumed that all asylum seekers, by virtue of their desperation, are angels. Nor can it be accepted that the rhetoric of refugee advocates is entirely sober and accurate. The reporter should not abandon themselves to sympathetic credulity. But the documentation of abuse, danger and political cynicism is substantial. Our government has funded paramilitary squads for security, defamed Australian teachers on Nauru, and expensively settled a class action. International organisations have criticised our indifference to humanitarian law. When the camp was shot up on a drunken Good Friday, our minister reserved his most expansive remarks not for profound concern – but the sly implication that they deserved it, that there were paedophiles among their number.

As I write, the parlous stalemate continues. Only a handful of men have voluntarily boarded a bus bound for the alternative accommodation. The PNG army, paramilitary or police are yet to intervene. The men are sleeping on the ground or on plastic tables. They draw brackish water from their well. We watch on.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 4, 2017 as "These are the men we’ve left behind". Subscribe here.

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

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