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With another year of their lives lost to an unknown future, the refugees and asylum seekers trapped on Manus Island dream of resolution, security and healing in 2018. By Imran Mohammad.

A new year’s resolution for Manus

Peaceful protests continue on Manus Island this week.
Credit: MANUS ALERT

Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers are still stuck in limbo on Manus Island, with no obvious future.

There has never been a balance of normality about anything in the years we’ve been trapped on the island. However, the weight of pain in 2017 was substantial. The year has been described as one of the hardest. It has been profoundly traumatising in multiple ways.

I can’t believe what we experienced during this dreadful year. We were pushed to our limits, we experienced fear, pain, vulnerability, hopelessness and abandonment. We lost faith in any system because of our indefinite incarceration and the deprivation of our basic human rights.

We have seen riots, been beaten and shot at, lost six friends who were full of life. However, we had the tenacity to survive. Mental torture was exacerbated during the months leading up to the Australian government abandoning the detention centre on October 31.

We could not believe what we were told as we were lied to over and over again. Our days and nights were ruined by the threatening signs on the noticeboard when we woke up, and another before we went to bed, and these caused upset and increased depression.

Every time, day or night, when the men sat together, they talked about their fear, pain and uncertain future. It was so gruesomely painful and there was no one we could rely on for support. It felt as though we were drowning in a sea of despair. None of us could believe the Australian government would leave us without food, water and power.

It was unbelievable because animals are given more protection than we were. Our whole world changed overnight; staff left the island and everything stopped. It was not the hunger that killed us inside; it was the thought that the Australian government really did it that shattered our hearts into a thousand pieces.

What was the place called Lombrum detention centre?

It was a place set up by the Australian government to intentionally exhaust and undermine human lives. It seems as though they wanted to see if people could cope with absolutely unnecessary restrictions, hardship, loneliness and mental anguish. I have added some examples so that you can better understand the absurdness and stupidity of the situation: a shaving razor was allowed, but not a sharpener to sharpen pencils so that you could write or draw; you could not lend an MP3 to your friend in another compound; you could see a psychologist, yet problems were exacerbated by the constant pain of torture in the compounds; men in one compound were allowed to have water bottles, whereas men in others were not; you were not permitted to take an apple to your room to eat later when you got hungry, but it was not a problem if you took five apples and threw them in the rubbish bin while you were in the mess; there were phones but you were not given an extra phone call so that you could talk to your sick parents and children; you were allowed to go to Lorengau town after the detention centre was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea in 2016, although you were not allowed to have money et cetera. Even so, strangely, the centre was our comfort zone and became like our home.

After spending more than four years of our lives in the detention centre, it was demolished in front of our eyes. It felt as if we were in a war zone. We sat along the beach and prayed for someone to come with food and medicine. The experiences were beyond comprehension and it will take years for us to be healed of these horrors. All we asked for was our freedom in any safe nation, not just to be moved into another detention centre after those miserable years of imprisonment.

Everyone was forcibly moved from the Lombrum detention centre on November 23 – by cruel and aggressive PNG immigration officers and police and Australian Border Force employees – to the new facilities. There was no plan, discipline, structure or system in place to relocate the refugees and asylum seekers. The officers used steel rods to hit some of the men and destroyed all their belongings, including computers, telephones and clothing.

Once again, the refugees were robbed of a future. There are no other words to describe the new facilities other than another detention centre. Has the situation got any better? The answer is no. It feels like everyone is at the end of their tether and the current situation is fraught with difficulties and conflicts. It is becoming more inflamed every day and the hopelessness and uncertainty is eating away our strength.

The refugees have been relocated to East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre (ELRTC) and West Lorengau Haus. No refugees are accommodated in Hillside Haus. The centres are very different from each other and, on top of everything else, West Haus is still under construction. There is no mess, so the refugees have to go to Hillside to have their meals. No one knows exactly how things operate in the centres. We used to have hundreds of welfare workers, but now, when the need is just as great, there are none. None of the refugees and asylum seekers have been told how their welfare will be looked after. There is no organised structure in place. As there are no education programs, no gym and no recreational programs to occupy the days men have nothing to do, which is fuelling depression and despondency. At least those who are staying in ELRTC can cook; there are no such facilities for those who are held in West Haus and Hillside Haus.

There are no prayer rooms in West and Hillside so there is no place to go to seek hope and strength through prayer. There is a prayer place in ELRTC, but visits are restricted. The facilities are described as open centres but in reality they are not.

There are hundreds of refugees who are silently trying to cope with the obstacles they face every day. Many don’t have the language to express their problems. There are about seven or nine people in each room at the ELRTC and many aren’t given a key to their main door, nor have they received the keys to their lockers. I have seen many who sit outside silently because their roommates lock the main door when they leave the rooms. There are many older Rohingyas who don’t know how to use their Bank of South Pacific ATM card to withdraw their allowances as they have never had access to a bank account. These are obvious things, but God knows what else they go through on a daily basis.

In terms of medical treatment, there are many who don’t even know where International Health and Medical Services are located, how to see a nurse and where to go to receive their medications, as nothing has been explained by the authorities. Even if they knew, they would not be able to explain their symptoms or go to the local hospital to get their medicine as they can’t speak English and there are no interpreters. It is hard to explain how vulnerable that makes them and how incredibly scared they are with a kind of fear that exists only in their heads, so to others is invisible.

There is no end of struggle for the refugees and asylum seekers. It is not just about those still on Manus Island; there are many who are in Port Moresby for medical reasons who are going through hell as well. They have been in Port Moresby for many months and there is no allowance for them except three meals a day and some phone cards. They are surviving by selling their food, juice and milk because they need money to buy other necessities. They walk around the shopping malls and food shops like zombies so that they can escape the boredom of their hotel rooms.

We have lost almost five precious years from our lives and all we are asking for is our freedom.

We are refugees and asylum seekers, but first and foremost we are human and we had no choice where we were born. We came to the shores of Australia longing for a chance to give our lives to this world as a global citizen.

Despite the insufferable hardships sent to try us, we have shown we are peaceful and tolerant, the same as the general human population. We want to share our love and live with respect like everyone else. It is time both the Australian and PNG governments sought a humanitarian solution for the lives they have kept trapped in limbo.

To the many kind and generous Australians who do their best to support us in every way, we can’t thank you enough for the unconditional love you have shown. It is your tireless work and unwavering support that has enabled us to survive all these years. We will be forever grateful, as your love restores our hearts and souls when we lose hope and strength. You make our lives worth living. This being said, there are many refugees and asylum seekers who cannot speak for themselves and who are being left behind. I have experienced all these unspeakable sorrows and know what they are suffering but there is nothing I can do except raise my hands to pray for them.

It may seem like a dream, but if we all dream together we may have a world in which everyone is born into security and freedom. It is my hope that 2018 will be the year of healing, peace and safety, and may there be many peaceful and happy years to follow for every citizen on this earth. 

Malcolm Turnbull

(02) 6277 7700

(02) 9327 3988

Bill Shorten

(02) 6277 4022

(03) 9326 1300

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 27, 2018 as "Hope in limbo". Subscribe here.

Imran Mohammad
is a Rohingya refugee who was held on Manus Island for four years. He learnt English while in detention.

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