Policy of exile
It has been more than three months since refugees were transferred from the Manus Island detention centre to new camps in Lorengau town. Refugees had resisted leaving the prison for 23 days and the transfer relied on the dramatic use of force. Ultimately, police and immigration officers invaded the prison and moved refugees to the new camps, beating them physically to make them go. This transfer became a critical stage in the Australian government’s policy of exile, forcing refugees to remain in Manus for a new chapter of violent indeterminacy and brutally, marking time in an otherwise uncertain future.
After the transfer, the life of refugees has dramatically changed. We have been moved from a prison with hundreds of big and small rules, hundreds of prison guards who have absolute power and control over us, to an environment where rules and power structures have to be learnt anew. In this new environment, all difficulties and suffering are imposed on refugees in a different way.
One significant change is to do with geography. The refugees were transferred from an actual prison to three new camps 35 kilometres away. These are West Haus, Hillside and East Lorengau. The last of these is very close to Lorengau town and sits atop a forested hill. It is the only one of the camps where construction has finished. Nevertheless, there was an issue from the beginning: East Lorengau does not have the capacity to accommodate all the refugees housed there, and it has now been three months since some refugees were forced to set up makeshift beds in a number of classrooms. They face ongoing issues with more difficult access to toilets and showers. They sleep in rooms as a group with no privacy.
Refugees are now able to freely visit Lorengau town. During the day, they walk through forest tracks in groups and take buses that travel twice an hour between Lorengau and the East Lorengau camp. Only a limited number of people take this option to travel to Lorengau, usually to shop at the market or small stores. Mostly, they prefer to spend their time around the camp.
At the end of the forest route, Hillside and West Haus are located side-by-side. They are furthest from the town, but conversely have the closest relationship with locals, thanks to a small village right next to the camps. Both of these sites are still under construction.
Hillside is unique in that it houses those refugees who are not recognised as such by the authorities. These people are under intense pressure to return to their home countries.
There are many people in Hillside who have never submitted their protection cases to determine their refugee status, and the authorities have punished them by giving them negative assessments. The people in Hillside are not being considered for resettlement in the United States. They are the most depressed and hopeless ones. Just last week the Papua New Guinea police sent five of them to a prison in Port Moresby, and every minute there is a possibility more of them will be transferred there by force.
The proximity of villages to Hillside and West Haus is extraordinary, particularly for people who see this scene for the first time. In some ways, the interaction between locals and many refugees is beautiful, sharing a space in the deep forest and dappled light. From another perspective, it has enormous potential for conflict between the two communities who are both thrown into this situation against their will. In the eyes of many locals, refugees are uninvited guests. It has been disrespectful to build the camps without local consent.
Anti-Australian sentiment grows among Manusians, as they believe Australia exploits their tiny island with a colonial mentality that never retreated. This is an important reality in Manus. People in the forest villages beside Hillside and West Haus are kind towards refugees, but they have held demonstrations outside the camps to voice their opposition to this profound disruption to their lives.
On January 13, people from one of the villages barricaded the main road leading to Hillside and West Haus. They were incensed because sewage from the camps flowed down close to their homes, threatening their health. This protest was clearly directed towards the authorities, who had allowed this unacceptable situation to persist.
Other confrontations have also arisen between locals and refugees in Hillside and West Haus, and have created an extremely unsafe atmosphere. In the most notable incident, on the night of December 10 a number of drunk local men came to the fence and seriously threatened the refugees.
Just last week, about a dozen navy personnel attacked refugees in the middle of the main road in Lorengau town. Three refugees were badly injured. From the refugees’ point of view, this attack is rooted in the Good Friday incident last year, when navy personnel fired gunshots into refugees’ rooms. Police are now investigating the most recent assault, but local witnesses to the incident place the blame on the navy personnel.
Over the past three months, landowners have raised significant concerns with the immigration department and government officials. They have blocked the road to East Lorengau camp a number of times, most controversially on December 19. They barricaded the main entrance of the camp with trucks and cars, creating a siege-like situation in which food and staff were prevented from entering the camps and refugees were prevented from leaving. Landowners believe that officials have not treated them well, and want to be involved in contracts for security and other services. The political, social and cultural realities here are very complex, but the many pressure points can at any time threaten the life and safety of refugees.
Although these difficulties with the three Manus camps have continued, about a hundred refugees who had been transferred to Port Moresby for medical care have been put under great pressure to return to Manus. This is despite the fact some of them have received no treatment. So far, small groups have been moved to Manus under military escort and sent to West Haus and Hillside. This puts more pressure on residents and facilities in the camps. If it continues, living conditions in the camps will worsen as more people are brought in to these already confined spaces.
For some people, these many years of pressure have become too much. Last week two men in the camps attempted suicide. Despite the transfer to new accommodation, violence and suffering are being reproduced in new and evolving ways. It was always apparent that the small community of Lorengau does not have the capacity to house hundreds of refugees. And it is now more clear than ever that the anguish, both for refugees and local people, will not come to an end for as long as refugees continue to be held hostage here.
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Translated by Moones Mansoubi.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 3, 2018 as "Policy of exile". Subscribe here.