Detainee tells of hellish existence in Australia's off-shore detention centre

On the Pacific island of Manus, people are locked up and are frequently subject to violence. Their crime? For many, it was fleeing persecution at home and seeking shelter in Australia.
On the Pacific island of Manus, people are locked up and are frequently subject to violence. Their crime? For many, it was fleeing persecution at home and seeking shelter in Australia.

Being forced to live on a palm-dotted island in the midst of the Pacific Ocean might seem like heavenly escape for a lot of people. However, it’s more like hell for people imprisoned in Australia’s off-shore detention centre on the island of Manus.

The Australian government uses the centre to lock up refugees and migrants who were caught trying to enter Australia by sea. Many of these prisoners have spent years trapped on this island, which belongs to Papua New Guinea. Condemned to live in terrible conditions, many have lost hope.

“Do you know the television series ‘Lost’? I feel like I’m living that series. It’s like we’re all dead and stuck in limbo, or maybe even in hell,” says Amir.

For the past three years, Amir – who is originally from Iran – has been trapped on Manus island. This tiny, idyllic island, which is part of Papua New Guinea, is a mere speck in the Pacific Ocean. Since 2012, the Australian government has been banishing men caught trying to enter Australia by sea. The men imprisoned in the camp in Manus were all traveling alone. Those traveling with their families are imprisoned alongside women and children in another detention centre on the tiny island nation of Nauru.

>> READ MORE ABOUT NAURU: “Asylum seekers dreaming of Australia stuck on island ‘hell’”

Anxious to keep asylum seekers as far as possible from its mainland, Australia subcontracts with these small Pacific countries to run their detention centres. Most of the people stranded in these camps come from Iran and Afghanistan, but there are also some from Syria and Somalia.

Between 850 and 900 men live in the Manus Island detention centre, which is divided into four camps.

Amir, 23, says he fled his native Iran after being persecuted for his conversion to Christianity. Since arriving on Manus in 2013, he has had to endure terrible living conditions.

“I’m not the same person I was before I came here. I don’t know if I have hope anymore”

Our camp is overpopulated and disgusting. There is a serious lack of hygiene. We sleep 30 people to a tent in bunk beds. We have hung up sheets and pieces of cloth to try and have a bit of privacy. Still, it’s hard to put up with these cramped quarters.

Wooden floors have been installed in each tent but they are poorly made and, whenever someone walks around, the whole tent moves. Often, when the sun beats down, it becomes unbearably hot in the tents. Three times a day, we have to queue up in the sun for over an hour to get our meals. And the food here is just revolting.

The dormitory where Amir sleeps is overcrowded.

“They call us ‘sand negroes’”

Australia pays an enormous sum to Papua New Guinea in order to keep the detention centre on its territory. The NGO Refugee Action Coalition Sydney estimates that the Australian government pays the equivalent of €276,335 a year for each detainee on Manus and Nauru. Australia has subcontracted with private companies to manage the camp and provide security and health services. However, Amir says that the employees of these firms are often disrespectful and even violent towards the detainees.

Some of our security guards come from Australia, others are locals from Manus Island. They never miss an opportunity to insult us. Their favorite insult is to call us “sand negroes”.

The relationship between the camp residents and island locals is extremely tense. For the past few months, detainees have been allowed to leave the camp to travel to the nearest small town, which is located 30 minutes away by bus. However, they are frequently assaulted.

[Whenever we go out], one of us is always robbed or assaulted. A month ago, locals tried to steal my mobile phone right in front of a police station! When I put up a fight, one of them hit my chest and I fell and hit my head on a rock. My assailant then picked up a big rock and tried to hit me with it.

This man from Afghanistan was injured after being attacked by people from Manus Island.

This Somali migrant was attacked on Manus Island.

A bartering system between the detainees and the locals has developed.

There is widespread poverty on Manus and people are very frustrated. At the centre, we are given clothes and three packs of cigarettes a week. I traded 30 packets of cigarettes for a mobile phone from a local man. I don’t know how he got it – probably from a trade with another migrant.

In February 2014, the detention centre was attacked by locals as well as security guards. One migrant, Reza Barati, was killed and 70 others were injured. The Australian Senate recognised the responsibility of the Australian government in this matter because of its failure to manage the tensions between local people and the migrants it detains there.

The same year, the UN Human Rights Council chastised Australia, saying that the government had violated the human rights of the migrants by torturing them and forcing them to suffer cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

“I’ve thought about killing myself”

These terrible conditions have meant that the mental health of the detainees continues to decline.

Many people I knew here have committed suicide – by hanging themselves; by slitting their wrists; by swallowing shampoo, detergent, or razor blades; or by setting themselves on fire. I myself am not the person I was before I came here. I’ve thought about killing myself on several occasions. I wanted to come to Australia to have a future, I wanted to study law. I don’t know if I have hope left.

Amir says the health care provided to migrants is insufficient.

It’s pretty common for people’s skin to break out. A lot of people also suffer from allergies. Almost everyone here has some kind of fungus. There are a few people who hurt their legs and are waiting for operations. Some of them have been on crutches for more than a year.

A lot of people here have also contracted malaria. Most of them are treated here in Manus. Only the people who are the sickest get transported to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, which is located on the main island in the archipelago.

Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian journalist who has been detained on Nauru for three years. He has spoken out extensively against the treatment of the detainees and has made public the health problems they are facing. He says:

In 2014, an Iranian man named Hamid Khazayi died from an infection. I knew him and he asked me to tell the guards that he was running a high fever. He was transported to the clinic and we never saw him again. We only found out later that he had died.

"There is no real healthcare”

Doctor Barri Phatarfod is the president of Doctors4refugees. This Australian NGO helps migrants being held in detention centres. Though she has been unable to get permission to go to Manus, Phatarfod communicates with detainees by phone or online. She has put pressure on the Australian Department of Immigration to provide medical care for detainees who are sick. She agrees that adequate care is largely lacking.

Hamid Khazayi died because of the slowness of the Australian Department of Immigration. Authorities were supposed to give him a visa enabling him to leave Manus, but it took too long. He was already unconscious when he arrived in Port Moresby. He died shortly after being transferred to Australia.

The medical treatment given to people detained in Manus fall well below Australian standards. We know patients who have been waiting more than a year for operations but who still haven’t gotten authorisation from the Department of Immigration to seek treatment. There’s simply no real healthcare or access to specialists. Treatment remains minimal.

We have brought the matter before the High Court [Australia’s highest court] because the Australian Border Force Act promises to punish any medical personnel who testify publicly about what they saw in the detention centres with two years in prison. Since September 30, medical personnel have been exempt from this law, but the battle is ongoing because social workers, security personnel or any other person who provides us with information about the health of people imprisoned in the camps is still subject to this punishment.

As for Amir, he has no real hope of leaving. Since his arrival, he has not been offered the possibility of claiming asylum anywhere but Papua New Guinea, where he was given the status of refugee without his accord. That means he can no longer leave the country. At the end of October, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced his intention to ban for life any migrant who has been detained in Manus or Nauru since July 19, 2013 from entering Australia.

However, on Sunday, November 13, Turnbull said a “substantial” number of refugees in offshore detention centres would be eligible to settle in the United States through a deal brokered between the two countries. Refugees like Amir have been reacting with a mixture of disbelief, fear and hope, with some wondering if US president-elect Donald Trump, who has threatened to ban all Muslims from entering the US, would really accept them.