Looking for hope on Manus

Senator Nick McKim visited Manus Island earlier this year. We interviewed him about his experiences for World Refugee Day.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

What was the mood like amongst the detainees you spoke to on Manus Island?

They are scared and uncertain of their future. Some have lost all hope and are simply trying to survive, while others are finding it harder all the time to hold onto the belief that their life might one day get better. I met many dozens of detainees in the time that I was there. They told me of the terrible impacts of indefinite detention in awful conditions, and what it has done to their physical and mental health.

Since I visited, the Australian government has announced that the entire Manus Island Regional Processing Centre at Lombrum will be closed by the 31st of October. I’ve been in contact with a number of detainees since that announcement was made, and it really crystallised the fears they held. They’ve been very clear with me that even though the camp itself is not an appropriate place for people to live, particularly for those fleeing persecution and worse, forcing them out into the community is no solution whatsoever.

This was expressed to me directly while I was there and since I’ve come back to Australia. They just don’t believe that PNG is safe for them. My experience both in Port Moresby and in Lorengau (on Manus Island) leads me to strongly agree. 

Do any detainees hold out hope for the US deal?

There is some hope that the US may take some people, but there is absolutely no certainty at all in the minds of the detainees that any of them will be resettled in the US. Comments made by the Australian government have cast further uncertainty on whether any people at all will be resettled in the US, let alone a significant number. Fewer than 50 out of the 850 men on Manus have progressed through the two interview stages with the US government at this point, so most of them are a long way off any kind of resolution.

You weren’t allowed to visit the detention centre, but could you paint a picture of day-to-day life for detainees on Manus Island?

For more than three years the centre was locked down and the detainees were unable to leave. That changed after a decision by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court late last year. So for the last six months or so, detainees have been able to leave during daylight hours and go into the town of Lorengau. Some do, but most detainees don’t leave the centre as they’re too scared to go into town.

The day-to-day life in the centre is a combination of hopelessness and deprivation crossed with short bursts of utter fear and terror. There have been murders, riots and armed attacks by PNG naval personnel where multiple shots were fired into the centre. Detainees have certainly and justifiably been in fear for their lives since they were forced into that centre by the Australian government.

Day-to-day life inside the centre includes ongoing bullying and intimidation by some staff at the centre, although many detainees acknowledged that other staff were genuinely trying to do their best for them.

One detainee told me that he couldn’t sleep at night because of screaming from people with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health problems, and as a result he slept during the day and stayed awake all night.

What’s been the lasting impact of the Good Friday shooting?

The impact of that shooting has been ongoing. I met one of the detainees who was injured during that violent attack. He showed me the wound on his head, about the size of a 50 cent piece, which was inflicted by a rock thrown by a member of the PNG Navy. 

Because of the riots in 2014 when Reza Berati was murdered, people were already living in fear. This Good Friday attack on the camp has brought that fear back to the surface again for many detainees.

By the department’s own admission, there’s a fair bit of tension between the locals on Manus Island and the detainees. What are your concerns for when Australia pulls out in October?

There is tension between the detainees and the local population as a whole, although it has to be said that there are a number of locals who are very supportive of the detainees. Some have opened their homes to some detainees who spend time there and have meals cooked for them.

A significant number of locals don’t want the detainees there. They weren’t consulted by the government before the camp was opened, and they view the detainees with a mixture of fear and anger. If the detainees are forced into the local community, which appears to be Peter Dutton’s intention, there is a significant risk that violence will flare up. We’ve already seen that in the past, and if it does happen it will be Australia’s responsibility. 

The tension in Lorengau is very high at the moment. I felt that when I was there, and my understanding is that it has grown even more tense since the Good Friday shootings which were a manifestation of the feelings of some locals towards the detainees.

Lorengau is not a safe place for the detainees, particularly after dark. Neither, by the way, is Port Moresby. I spoke to refugees in Port Moresby who were simply too scared of going out of their compound at night for fear of being robbed, beaten or worse.

I’m really worried that as buildings in the compounds are progressively closed, conditions and overcrowding will worsen. 

The UNHCR is right to say that these men are Australia’s responsibility, and right to say that settlement in PNG is impossible. We have to bring the men on Manus here to Australia and give them the support they need to rebuild their lives and contribute to our country. 

Also see: Dutton accepts responsibility for Manus Island harm

Senator Nick McKim is the Australian Greens immigration spokesperson. He visited Manus Island and Port Moresby in May 2017.