Opinion

Shaminda Kanapathi
From Manus Island to Port Moresby

As the government of Papua New Guinea has vowed to remove all refugees from Manus Island, most of us who have been detained there for almost seven years are being transported to Port Moresby.

It is a big change for us: disturbing and disruptive in many ways. Some 55 men have now been transferred.

In Port Moresby, we have been herded into various hotels, depending on our status in relation to resettlement in the United States.

Those who have already been accepted by the US, and are waiting to be resettled there, are being held at Lodge 10.

Those waiting for the US process to be finalised are at the Hodava Hotel.

Those with no prospects of third-country resettlement, and whose US resettlement applications have been unsuccessful, are held at the Granville Motel, along with about 100 men who are sick. These men were transported to Port Moresby from Manus many months ago and have been waiting for medical treatment for a long time.

I am in the Granville Motel. It has been fully booked for the Manus refugees. We have to use our boat ID numbers here too for all our needs. Our identity continues to be stripped away from us in PNG.

More than 50 men have been found – by a flawed PNG assessment process that lacks any oversight – not to be owed any protection. They are confined in Bomana Prison, in the immigration detention facility purpose-built and staffed by Australia.

It is hard to know what is happening to them. They are being held with no freedom of movement and have no access to mobile phones. They cannot even communicate with their families – a deeper denial of their fundamental human rights beyond being indefinitely detained for nearly seven years.

These 50 or so men have effectively been disappeared.

 

On the flight from Manus to Port Moresby, I was worried about my safety and future.

Alongside the stress, though, there was some happiness in knowing I was going to meet my fellow detainees who had been transported from Manus to Port Moresby before me.

We have grown very close to each other, these men and I; we have looked after each other for years. It has been this brotherhood that allowed us to survive all the hardships and dangers of indefinite detention on Manus Island.

Our solidarity made us stronger and lifted our morale and will to survive circumstances that have destroyed both our mental and physical health.

When the bus got to the Granville Motel, I stepped out into this new and disorienting place and started to greet my friends. Although devastated by their situation, some of them welcomed us with smiling faces. But when I met many of the men, I was completely shocked. I was overwhelmed with sadness and was distressed by how they looked.

Those who had been so careful with their appearance when I knew them on Manus were now dishevelled, the hair on their heads and faces untrimmed. They looked so unwell I could barely recognise who they were. They could not recognise me.

I now know, after talking with them, that they cannot cope with even the basics of daily life, such as self-care. They don’t really know what is happening around them. They are withdrawn.

I feel broken seeing these men – whom I came to know as my brothers on Manus – in this state. I cannot process what I am seeing or the inhuman treatment of innocent vulnerable people that has caused such an unwinding in them.

When these men first attempted to come to Australia, when they arrived on Christmas Island, they were young, strong, active and healthy. Even in the early stages on Manus they tried to remain involved in activities and sport.

Now, after going through all the hardships of this never-ending torture of medical neglect, forced transfers, the powerlessness and dehumanisation of arbitrary indefinite detention, they have been completely worn down. They are broken men.

The chronic lack of basic nutritious food and dehydration in humid temperatures have led to physical deterioration. But this is just the beginning.

The intention of the Australian government in building and maintaining this offshore processing regime was to systematically destroy our lives. To dehumanise and torture us until our state of mind was so broken through mental illness that we would finally sign papers to return to the places we had fled, attempting to escape persecution and violence.

Secret documents published by Guardian Australia in 2017 revealed the intensity of our mistreatment was strategically increased over the years. The plan was to make life unbearable so we would leave on our own.

But these are not voluntary deportations or returns, as the government wants Australians to believe. This is forced deportation and refoulement, effected through a systematic dismantling over seven years of our health and mental wellbeing.

I could see the effect this campaign has had on my brothers on their faces as they greeted me in Port Moresby.

Like a screw being tightened and tightened, we have been more and more traumatised to the point where most of the men are now severely ill and mentally paralysed.

Being imprisoned arbitrarily in Bomana Prison, being shunted and segregated into different places based on our immigration status, whether we have been accepted or rejected by a foreign country – it all takes its toll.

Being dehumanised and taunted as illegal, criminal liars who are undeserving of protection or safety. Being disbelieved and vilified when we speak out about physical and mental health deterioration caused by the very system of torture.

Part of the trauma is mistreatment by some of the medical staff in PNG who enact this dehumanisation upon us on behalf of the Australian government. When sick men are admitted to the Pacific International Hospital, some doctors mistreat them and verbally abuse them, saying: “Why are you here? This is for sick patients and you’re not sick. You just want to go to Australia.”

These men are already mentally ill. Dealing with this added abuse and the disbelief around their suffering, by so-called practitioners of the caring professions, is a further mental torture that exacerbates their illnesses.

When the Australian government says the healthcare we are offered on Manus is sufficient – that the necessary treatment has always been given to the refugees and people seeking asylum on Manus and Nauru – we know that this is a lie. And we have experienced the consequences of this lie in our bodies and minds for almost seven years now.

If people in Australia, and around the world, took the time to look closer, to listen closer, they would find evidence that shows what is being done to people who came to ask Australia for protection is unacceptable.

If the care offered us is sufficient, why are so many refugees held in PNG and Nauru physically and mentally unwell? Why, in the prime of their lives, have they succumbed to so many diseases, injuries and deteriorating states of mental distress? Why have 12 people lost their lives, with many of those deaths due to medical negligence, lack of facilities and lack of safety?

Medical care, safety and freedom are fundamental human rights and should be applied to all of us regardless of whether we are white or black, rich or poor, citizens or refugees.

Building and maintaining a system that attempts to destroy people is illegal and amounts to torture.

In 2017 the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, reported that Australia’s offshore detention regime is “unjustifiably punitive and unlawful ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’”. It is akin to torture.

Denying medical care that is needed because of the harm that has been inflicted on us by the detention system is inhuman.

Our bodies and our minds are the evidence that exposes the lies your politicians are telling you, lies that daily deepen this physical and mental health crisis, costing us our lives and you your humanity.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "What lies offshore". Subscribe here.

Shaminda Kanapathi
is a human rights activist who has been detained on Manus Island and in Port Moresby by the Australian government since 2013.