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A rare visit to the Manus Island detention centres to interview and photograph refugees revealed the violence awaiting them in the community and the obstacles to reporting this black spot. By John Martinkus.

Reporting the violence on Manus

An Afghan refugee lies unconscious at a Manus Island police station after being attacked by locals wielding iron bars. A PNG police officer tries to stop the photograph being taken.
Credit: Matthew Abbott

If you have ever wondered why we don’t see pictures from the Australian-run detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, this story might help to explain. This is the story of a 31-year-old Australian photojournalist from Sydney, Matthew Abbott, who managed to get to Manus Island last week. It was only for a few days but the difficulties he encountered, from both the Papua New Guinean authorities and the overseers of the detention centres there, started almost as soon as he landed. In the few days he was on Manus, he witnessed and photographed violence against refugees by the local population, saw the decomposing corpse of a refugee the Australian government refuses to repatriate, was threatened with death and was detained by the PNG police. And, yes, they tried to delete his photos.

Abbott had been to Papua New Guinea before, once on holiday and once shooting material for the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority. He organised a business visa through some local NGOs to accompany a representative of the Human Rights Law Centre, Daniel Webb, to Manus and interview refugees detained there. It was supposed to be a simple job: take portraits of the men Webb was interviewing. No controversy, no trouble. But nothing to do with access to Australia’s offshore detention centres is straightforward. As Australia’s own minister for immigration and border protection has said, media access to both Manus and Nauru is an issue for those sovereign governments.

After arriving early in the day from a connecting flight through Port Moresby, Abbott and Webb were able to check in to a hotel and then after 6pm travelled to the refugee transit centre, closer to the main town of Lorengau than the main detention centre. Because of the late hour and the confusion about the presence of unannounced expatriates, the PNG guards at the centre let them in. “They didn’t want to say no to a white man so they let us in,” says Abbott. The refugees were excited. They wanted to tell their stories. They wanted to cook the two dinner, which they did, and as they ate, the stories kept coming. The pair stayed at the camp until 9pm and then went back to town.

The following day, scores of refugees came to their hotel to tell their stories. As they spoke, Abbott took their portraits. “The whole point was to tell the human side of what was happening and once we explained that, they were happy to talk,” Abbott says. “The whole situation is set up to not allow these people to be seen.”

One man told how this was only the second time he had been out of the detention centre in three years. Another man, who spoke no English when he was first locked in, told Webb he had written a book while in detention, writing a thousand words a day until it was done. “I met some truly amazing people,” Webb says. “A guy who speaks seven languages, one man who used to work for the UN. [But] these offshore camps are dead ends. These are innocent people in our care and they are suffering. We must urgently look at humane policy alternatives. First and foremost, we must bring them here.”

Peter Dutton once accused human rights workers of coaching detainees to relate stories of abuse. In fact, these are men imprisoned for so long they are sick of talking about it. They have told their stories so many times it is almost like they can’t be bothered anymore. But Webb and Abbott had persuaded them this time their stories would be heard.

“I spent the week interviewing the men our government has locked up on Manus for the last three years…” Webb tells The Saturday Paper. “They are men of different ages, from different parts of the world and with different stories to tell. But what they all have in common is they are tired. After three years of fear, violence and limbo, they are completely exhausted.”

 

On the afternoon of Wednesday, August 10, the attack happened. The refugees were waiting for the 6pm buses back to the detention centre and the transit centre. Since the PNG Supreme Court ruled the detention centre on Manus illegal in April, the detainees have been given day release – it is a diplomatic sidestep to allow the Australians to say they are not being detained. This week, agreement firmed between PNG and Australia to close the detention centre, but without details of how and when.

On that Wednesday, while waiting for the bus, two men, Hazara refugees from Afghanistan, were bashed by seven local men wielding iron bars. There was chaos, people yelling; there were two local men trying to defend the refugees and others still trying to attack them. The area was crowded, as at that time of day everybody gathers at the market and the waterfront. The two men staggered into the nearby police station, covered in blood. One collapsed unconscious. Abbott followed them and kept taking photos, then a big man put his hand over Abbott’s lens. He turned out to be the local police chief. The chief kept trying to stop Abbott taking photos. “I am a journalist,” Abbott said. “I have a right to do this.” Abbott was approached by another man employed by the detention centre, who said he was going to shoot him if he didn’t stop taking photos.

Eventually the two beaten men were taken to the hospital. The mood changed. The focus was now on the two foreigners present. The police were angry. “We want your pictures,” they told Abbott. He had the presence of mind to slip the memory card, first into his pocket, and then to a sympathetic person.

As Webb later said: “The aftermath of the attack unfolded in front of a big group of refugees. They were frightened. They were really concerned for their friend. But they were not surprised. Sadly, this has been part of their reality for the last three years.”

Now, the PNG police were asking Abbott and Webb questions: “Why you come here? Why you make us look bad?” The pair were questioned and searched and prevented from leaving the police station for about two-and-a-half hours, and were told to report back the following morning.

This incident happened last week, on the day Guardian Australia released the 2000 internal files from the detention centre in Nauru documenting the abuse there. When Webb and Abbott had arrived at the Manus transit centre, they were asked by the PNG guards: “Have you got permission from Australian Border Force?” Imagine the panic at Australian Border Force knowing that as they were dealing with one massive leak detailing malicious negligence and brutality, another report would come in from Manus describing an Australian photographer with shots of bloody refugees being pursued by an angry mob of locals. By the time the pair turned up for their police interview the following morning, the message from the PNG police was very clear: The photos had to be deleted. The PNG police said: “You make us look bad” and “Our reputation is stained” and “See, this is our reality”.

Abbott argued about the photos, but he knew he’d backed up most of them. The PNG police deleted the lot and told the Australian pair that whatever they did now was up to them, but that the police watched the news and if the incident was reported the Australians would not be coming back to PNG. That is the way it works for journalists on Manus and Nauru. If you have any previous record of reporting on human rights abuses you won’t get a visa in the first place. If you manage to get there and report something they don’t like, something negative, you will not be allowed back.

A journalist can pose as a tourist or a businessman, or create some other pretext to go to Manus Island, but they will be watched and possibly expelled. On Nauru a journalist has to put down an $8000 surety with the government when applying for a visa, which is not refundable if they are not awarded the visa. The only visas to have been approved there since the operation of the detention centre were for The Australian’s Chris Kenny and a crew from A Current Affair.

Former SBS Dateline host Mark Davis visited Manus Island in 2013. He went on a tourist visa but still interviewed Prime Minister Peter O’Neill before visiting Manus. Even then, he was not allowed access to the centre. The Australian staff who run the Manus and Nauru detention centres are under strict orders to deny any access to the media. There is nothing open or transparent about these arrangements, though the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, defends them.

I tried myself to apply for a journalist visa. The PNG embassy in Canberra politely referred me to Port Moresby, and they politely referred me to the office of the PNG prime minister. The weeks dragged on. No visa. It was a bit like dealing with Indonesia and trying to cover their separatist wars in Aceh and West Papua in the 2000s. They never say you can’t go, they just don’t permit you to do so, and the threat of arrest is always there. I still don’t have a visa for Manus Island.

Occasionally someone gets through and reports what is happening. The aerial photograph of Nauru you always see was taken years ago by a young Tasmanian photographer, Rémi Chauvin. He was on a tourist visa and managed to get away with it. Similarly Daniel Webb reflects on his trip to Manus last week: “Successive governments have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the suffering of these men hidden from view. We managed to get a glimpse into their daily reality. Clearly, it was a glimpse the Australian and PNG governments did not want anyone else to see.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 20, 2016 as "Manus attack". Subscribe here.

John Martinkus
is a foreign correspondent and author.