Driven to death on Manus Is­land

As the eighth asy­lum seeker dies in off­shore pro­cess­ing, con­di­tions de­cline fur­ther and the sit­u­a­tion wors­ens for refugees. By Martin McKen­zie-Mur­ray.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

This is what we know of Hamed Shamshiripour. He was 31, Ira­nian and home­less at the time of his death. He had been on Manus Is­land for four years. An asy­lum seeker, he had been neg­a­tively vet­ted. In the past year, fol­low­ing a ma­jor men­tal health episode, he was shut­tled care­lessly be­tween the re­gional pro­cess­ing cen­tre, the nearby tran­sit cen­tre, prison and the streets. His men­tal health prob­lems were se­vere, and well known to of­fi­cials. The Aus­tralian Bor­der Force’s chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer was alerted 12 months ago. In Jan­uary, Manus MP Ron Knight said of Hamed: “To be blunt, the guy is dan­ger­ous to all around him and he needs psy­chi­atric help. There is none for him here.”

We know that Hamed was volatile, vi­o­lent and para­noid. He would some­times wan­der camps – or the streets – naked, mum­bling about en­e­mies and his divin­ity. He told friends, who had be­come both pity­ing and fright­ened of him, that lo­cal po­lice beat him “for fun”. Days be­fore his body was found, The Satur­day Pa­per un­der­stands he made a sep­a­rate at­tempt on his life.

We know that on Mon­day, about 9am lo­cal time, refugees found his body in a for­est. We know that a photo of his corpse – show­ing how he died – en­cour­aged sus­pi­cions among asy­lum seek­ers that he was mur­dered. The pho­to­graph is haunt­ing. Hamed’s head is shaved, his eye sock­ets black with blood or bruis­ing. His fam­ily is de­mand­ing an in­quest. “It don’t seem like sui­cide,” Hamed’s best friend, Farzan, tells me. “I think he has been mur­dered. It’s re­ally sus­pi­cious. How can we pro­vide a third party to in­ves­ti­gate this case?”

Hamed was ill, ap­par­ently sui­ci­dal, and his death ruled self-ad­min­is­tered, but his friends glimpsed his death through their own dis­trust. If there was no ev­i­dence of Hamed’s mur­der, there was plenty to sup­port his friends’ dark­est mis­giv­ings: only three months ear­lier their camp had been fired on with ma­chine­guns aimed by drunken mem­bers of the lo­cal navy.

Dis­trust in au­thor­i­ties is com­mon among these men. The dis­trust is a mix of fact and fan­tasy. An­other friend of Hamed’s told me: “Man, I don’t know if

I’ll walk out of here alive. I think they are work­ing for a mass elim­i­na­tion plan. To

get rid of all of us at once. I mean to kill us all here. We have al­ready lost five men just on Manus, and a hand­ful on Nauru. Don’t you think it’s a sign?”

I tried gen­tly to dis­abuse the young man of the the­ory. But we might un­der­stand the con­text of his prophecy. The men­tal health of the 800 men on Manus has de­te­ri­o­rated sharply, as per the as­sess­ment of vis­it­ing psy­chi­a­trists. Their ma­te­rial con­di­tions, al­ready con­sid­ered grossly in­ad­e­quate, have wors­ened. Power and san­i­ta­tion have been cut to some com­pounds, in ex­pec­ta­tion of the cen­tre be­ing shut at the end of Oc­to­ber. On Good Fri­day, lo­cal mil­i­tary, af­ter shoot­ing up the camp, sought to breach its perime­ter while our im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter reck­lessly at­trib­uted this vi­o­lence to un­founded claims of child abuse. Peter Dut­ton’s as­ser­tions were per­sua­sively con­tested and fi­nally aban­doned.

When Reza Barati’s head was crushed by the men em­ployed to pro­tect him, Aus­tralia’s then im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son said Barati had es­caped camp­grounds. He hadn’t. This was the same min­is­ter who al­leged that Save the Chil­dren staff were coach­ing chil­dren on Nauru to self-harm. They weren’t, and were later com­pen­sated for their defama­tion and sum­mary re­moval from the coun­try.

Mur­der parsed. Teach­ers slan­dered. But other­wise, this is a gov­ern­ment quiet about the camps it cre­ated. It is in­ter­est­ing to note when they do find their voice. It was not found when chil­dren were flown to Aus­tralia, hav­ing swal­lowed ra­zor blades or bleach. Nor was it found when their own in­quiries re­turned the tes­ti­monies of abused chil­dren. It was not found when men set them­selves alight, or when the Pa­pua

New Guinean Supreme Court found the Manus camp to be un­con­sti­tu­tional.

With none of these things did the gov­ern­ment find its voice. But it be­came vol­u­ble when falsely ar­gu­ing that Barati had fled his com­pound, as if his want­ing to es­cape might be suf­fi­cient jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for his mur­der. Or that Save the Chil­dren staff had coached chil­dren to harm them­selves, even as the teach­ers were them­selves seek­ing coun­selling for hav­ing pre­vented the very things they were ac­cused of in­spir­ing.

I have seen a “Feed­back and Re­quest” form this week, filled out in ink, and sub­mit­ted to camp staff. Un­der re­quest de­tails is writ­ten: “Put poi­son in our food, shoot us to death or kill us in any way but make it quick. We are dy­ing here ev­ery day very slowly, we are al­ready dead in­side.

“We can’t be pa­tient any­more, we are all sick and ex­hausted. We are only peo­ple and we have no power. If you are not let­ting us free, just end our lives. We are giv­ing you per­mis­sion to do that.”

So of­ten do men in these camps tell me they want to die that I have sought ad­vice from a sui­cide coun­sel­lor. But I can’t pre­tend to ex­per­tise or in­flu­ence. I’m sim­ply an ob­server, and a dis­tant one.

“We used to be close,” Farzan says of his friend Hamed, “but about last year he started to act so weird. It was a night that Hamed took his clothes off and pissed in front of every­body. That night he slapped a lo­cal of­fi­cer, too. So they took him to an­other com­pound, which is named

MAA. He was there for some days; even IHMS [In­ter­na­tional Health and Med­i­cal Ser­vices] gave him dif­fer­ent kind of tablet. But they couldn’t stop him of be­ing weird.”

Farzan and Hamed were so close for a while that they told peo­ple they were cousins. But then Farzan be­came more carer than friend – at least, when Hamed was in the pro­cess­ing cen­tre. Soon enough, though, he would be shut­tled back out.

“He took strong sleep pills,” Farzan tells me over a mes­sag­ing app. “But he could sleep hardly. He was full of en­ergy all the time. So some­thing was re­ally wrong. Like in­san­ity. So af­ter some days, Hamed pushed an Aus­tralian of­fi­cer. This time they took him to Manus prison. It hap­pened re­ally sud­denly but be­fore that he was an­gry most of the time. But sud­denly he, how can I say, he ex­plode.

“They took him to Manus prison. He was there for a few weeks, but Im­mi­gra­tion didn’t bring him back to MRPC [Manus Re­gional Pro­cess­ing Cen­tre]. They took him to East Loren­gau Tran­sit Cen­tre. But tran­sit cen­tre – it’s a place for refugees only. He got dou­ble neg­a­tives. So he con­tin­ued that way.

Then he died. He even tried to get back in here [to the pro­cess­ing cen­tre]. But Im­mi­gra­tion took him back to town.

“Dur­ing this time, Hamed fought with dozens of peo­ple in the town. Refugees, lo­cals, Aus­tralians, even po­lice of­fi­cers. He was bashed up by po­lice of­fi­cers al­most ev­ery week. It be­came fun for them to beat him. He men­tioned they beat him with­out any rea­sons. Hamed never fight me phys­i­cally, but he sweared me a lot when­ever he saw me. But some­how I could talk to him very calmly and he could recog­nise me as his friend. And he told me what had hap­pened to him. I was scared be­cause he was un­pre­dictable. He could change in a mo­ment.

“I was afraid of him. He al­ways men­tioned that some­thing is hap­pen­ing to him, like see­ing il­lu­sion and hear dif­fer­ent voices. One you could see that he says I am king an­other day he says I am God. Some day you could see he is walk­ing around the town with­out any shirt. So he was con­tin­u­ing that way.”

Farzan stops writ­ing. He’s too dis­tressed to con­tinue.

Hamed’s death comes at a time of par­tic­u­lar ten­sion on Manus. For weeks now, in the lead-up to the camp’s de­struc­tion on Oc­to­ber 31 – and the men’s trans­fer to the East Loren­gau Tran­sit Cen­tre – protests and block­ades have been oc­cur­ring. “Power and wa­ter and clean­ing ser­vices and san­i­ta­tion [are cut off ],” one man tells me. “Imag­ine you are liv­ing in a place with no wa­ter and power. No shower, no toilet flush, no wash­ing ma­chine. Dis­ease start spread­ing and ev­ery day more peo­ple are get­ting sick. And all of this is hap­pen­ing by the or­ders of ABF [Aus­tralian Bor­der Force] and DIBP [De­part­ment of Im­mi­gra­tion and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion] from Can­berra to co­erce refugees to sign pa­pers to live in a coun­try where they are get­ting beaten up and robbed and as­saulted ev­ery sin­gle day and to­day one is found dead in the bushes. It’s mak­ing us all die in here. How long you think peo­ple will be able to sur­vive? I am feel­ing sick in my stom­ach. This place is for no human.”

Last week came the ex­tra­or­di­nary leak of a tran­script of a Jan­uary phone con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Mal­colm Turn­bull and the United States pres­i­dent, Don­ald Trump. Sub­stan­tive el­e­ments of the con­ver­sa­tion had sur­faced months ear­lier, but the full ac­count con­firmed what most al­ready knew: the US re­set­tle­ment deal was frag­ile, and the place­ment of these men in no way guar­an­teed.

“The given num­ber in the agree­ment is 1250 and it is en­tirely a mat­ter of your vet­ting,” Turn­bull as­sured Don­ald Trump.“I hate hav­ing to do it, but I am still go­ing to vet them very closely,” Trump replied. “Sup­pose I vet them closely and I do not take any?”

“That is the point I have been try­ing to make.”

“How does that help you?”

“Well, we as­sume that we will act in good faith.”

Else­where, Turn­bull as­sured

Trump that the deal “does not re­quire you to take any” of the refugees held on Manus or Nauru. Turn­bull said Aus­tralia would not take them ei­ther – not “even … a Nobel prize-win­ning ge­nius”.

Ap­prov­ingly, Trump said: “You are worse than I am.”

In the end, Turn­bull got what he wanted – Trump ac­cept­ing a deal that he thought was “rot­ten”. The men on Manus saw a deal that was highly con­tin­gent, and saw them­selves as po­lit­i­cal pawns. Those I spoke to re­main highly scep­ti­cal of their ever be­ing re­set­tled in the US. “It does not seem to be a true deal,” one man told me.

The US De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity is, how­ever, con­tin­u­ing its vet­ting process. We are now at what a for­mer im­mi­gra­tion ex­ec­u­tive told me was a fraught “endgame” in this chap­ter.

“Seems the Amer­i­cans are headed back to do some more screen­ing,” the source said. “I can­not see much ben­e­fit of the doubt ap­ply­ing un­der ex­treme vet­ting … The Amer­i­can ‘ini­tia­tive’ [con­tin­ues] on Nauru. It’s pretty dif­fi­cult there, too. It is a dif­fer­ent set of is­sues, but just as dif­fi­cult an ‘endgame’.

“The whole Manus sit­u­a­tion re: those who are refugees but are not ul­ti­mately ac­cepted by the US looks very dif­fi­cult and it is clear that there is no re­ally durable so­lu­tion likely in PNG.

The PNG gov­ern­ment just hasn’t done the prepara­tory work to fa­cil­i­tate real set­tle­ment. Throw­ing more money at

PNG gov­ern­ment to ‘sort it out’ won’t work. My guess is there will be a search for an NGO, maybe IMO, to set up some­thing at the last minute when it be­comes clear that the Amer­i­cans won’t be hur­ried and will cer­tainly vet peo­ple out.”

In a state­ment this week, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said it was “gravely con­cerned by de­te­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions at the Manus Is­land Re­gional Pro­cess­ing Cen­tre, as au­thor­i­ties seek to re­lo­cate peo­ple to Loren­gau or else­where in Pa­pua New Guinea. The an­nounce­ment of the clo­sure of the cen­tre, in the ab­sence of ap­pro­pri­ate al­ter­na­tives, is caus­ing acute dis­tress among refugees and asy­lum seek­ers. UNHCR is deeply sad­dened by the tragic death of a young refugee yes­ter­day, which also high­lights the pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion for vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple on Manus Is­land.

“The planned clo­sure of the cen­tre, along with the an­nounced with­drawal of cur­rent med­i­cal care, tor­ture and trauma sup­port and se­cu­rity ser­vices by Oc­to­ber 2017, is ex­ac­er­bat­ing a highly stress­ful sit­u­a­tion for the 773 peo­ple who re­main on Manus Is­land. Many fear for their safety out­side the cen­tre, par­tic­u­larly in the wake of sev­eral vi­o­lent in­ci­dents in re­cent years.”

• The sor­row and ques­tions re­main.


Life­line 13 11 14

A shrine in the East Loren­gau Tran­sit Cen­tre for Hamed Shamshiripour.

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

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