These are the men we’ve left be­hind

Six hun­dred men are left be­hind on Manus Is­land. There is no elec­tric­ity, wa­ter or san­i­ta­tion. There is also no plan for what hap­pens next.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Martin McKen­zie-Mur­ray.

On Mon­day evening, the night be­fore the Manus Is­land de­ten­tion cen­tre’s dead­line for clo­sure, 600 asy­lum seek­ers were prepar­ing for their in­def­i­nite de­fi­ance of that dead­line. The men had planned, al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, to re­main in the camp, re­fus­ing their trans­fer to var­i­ous sites in Loren­gau, on the other side of Manus. For weeks, some had been ra­tioning their food – bags of or­anges and TV din­ners. In re­cent days, af­ter most sup­plies were cut, they were fill­ing large bins with wa­ter.

On Mon­day, I was told by one refugee that “ev­ery­thing is quiet now … We’ve been try­ing to keep guys calm and in con­trol.” But the at­mos­phere on Manus is fraught with fear and para­noia – not un­grounded, given the “epi­demic” lev­els of men­tal ill­ness, and the prece­dent of vi­o­lence com­mit­ted against asy­lum seek­ers and refugees by lo­cals. Ru­mours cir­cu­lated, and were re­layed to me: lo­cals in Loren­gau were arm­ing them­selves with knives and ma­chetes; se­cu­rity guards at two new ac­com­mo­da­tion sites had been at­tacked. What could be con­firmed is that the new sites are in­com­plete and un­der­staffed, af­ter gar­ri­son ser­vice provider – Pal­adin So­lu­tions – had some­how failed to have for­eign staff is­sued with the proper visas.

On Tues­day morn­ing, a fi­nal no­tice was posted by lo­cal im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties. It read, in part: “The Manus RPC will close at 5pm to­day. All power and wa­ter will cease. There will be no food sup­plied – and no din­ner ser­vice this evening. All ICSA [Im­mi­gra­tion and Cit­i­zen­ship Ser­vice Au­thor­ity] per­son­nel will de­part.

“You have been ad­vised that ac­com­mo­da­tion and ser­vices have trans­ferred to al­ter­na­tive lo­ca­tions. You have been given ac­cess to trans­port to take you to these al­ter­na­tive des­ti­na­tions … Move to al­ter­na­tive ac­com­mo­da­tion now.

“Any­one choos­ing to re­main here will be li­able for re­moval from an ac­tive PNG base. This is the last com­mu­ni­ca­tion you will re­ceive at this lo­ca­tion.”

Ju­ris­dic­tion of the de­com­mis­sioned site now shifts to the Pa­pua New Guinean mil­i­tary, a fact that chilled the men with whom I spoke. It is only six months since lo­cal navy of­fi­cers drunk­enly fired on the camp af­ter a game of soc­cer. The

im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter, Peter Dut­ton, has said that the men will be se­cure if they ac­cept their trans­fer to the other sites.

Since the PNG Supreme Court ruled last year that the de­ten­tion of these men was un­con­sti­tu­tional, plans were made to close the camp. In re­cent months, ser­vices were pared back and parts of the cen­tre closed. By this week, most Aus­tralian staff had left the coun­try. It was no longer a se­cure camp – if, in­deed, it ever was. Fences were taken down, locks re­moved, se­cu­rity staff dis­missed. With­out run­ning wa­ter, an­other is­sue was san­i­ta­tion.

The men I’ve spo­ken to this week have im­pressed upon me their feel­ing of acute vul­ner­a­bil­ity. “I’m feel­ing sick to my stom­ach,” one refugee told me on the day of the clo­sure. “There is a guy, he al­ways was a happy guy but now he’s dif­fer­ent and talk­ing things that doesn’t [have] mean­ing. Some of the guys gave him medicine for sleep but he didn’t sleep from last night.”

Fol­low­ing the Oc­to­ber 31 dead­line, refugees told me – and other re­porters – that lo­cals had be­gun loot­ing the camp. Pho­tos The Satur­day Pa­per has seen ap­pear to sup­port this.

At the time of writ­ing, the 600 men have spent two nights in the pitch-dark semi-aban­doned camp. Warn­ings that the lo­cal army would forcibly re­move them – and pos­si­bly charge them with tres­pass­ing – re­main un­ful­filled. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, the PNG gov­ern­ment is anx­ious to trans­fer the men but equally anx­ious to avoid a vi­o­lent con­fla­gra­tion. The re­sult is a per­ilous stale­mate, where it is hoped the dire con­di­tions will even­tu­ally co­erce them to the new ac­com­mo­da­tion.

On Wed­nes­day night, work­ing in the dark with im­pro­vised tools, men be­gan dig­ging for wa­ter in the Os­car com­pound. A cou­ple of me­tres down, they struck it. A feed on the in­stant mes­sen­ger sys­tem Tele­gram boasted of their dis­cov­ery. “Turn off the wa­ter no worry,” one mes­sage said. “Some of us know where to get more. Wa­ter came from well be­fore tap, Aus­tralia. Prob­lem solved.”

Less op­ti­mistic mes­sages fol­lowed: “Mor­ti­fy­ing days and nights … It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to live in a trop­i­cal re­gion with­out food, wa­ter and elec­tric­ity as well as a com­plete de­nial of se­cu­rity in and around the com­pound in a hos­tile at­mos­phere.”

Cur­rently, lo­cal lawyers – aided by Aus­tralian coun­ter­parts – have lodged an in­junc­tion ap­pli­ca­tion with the PNG Supreme Court that would ef­fec­tively force the gov­ern­ment to re­open the camp and pro­vide wa­ter and elec­tric­ity. It is an odd sit­u­a­tion, given its clo­sure was on con­sti­tu­tional grounds and was cel­e­brated at the time by refugee ad­vo­cates. Then, it was as­sumed that the camp’s clo­sure would force the men’s re­set­tle­ment in a third coun­try. New Zealand, which has long agreed to set­tle the men – a po­si­tion reaf­firmed by the new prime min­is­ter, Jacinda Ardern – was one op­tion. While the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment has con­sis­tently de­ferred re­spon­si­bil­ity to PNG, The Satur­day

Pa­per un­der­stands our gov­ern­ment qui­etly pres­sured PNG to re­sist New Zealand’s of­fer for fear it would re­vive the in­cen­tive to travel by boat to Aus­tralia in or­der to ul­ti­mately seek asy­lum.

Re­gard­less, this con­tra­dic­tion was the source of Dut­ton’s pique. In a state­ment, the min­is­ter said: “They have long claimed the Manus re­gional pro­cess­ing cen­tre was a ‘hell­hole’ – but the mo­ment it was to be closed they de­manded it be kept open. They claim to fear for their safety if they leave the RPC – but held no such fears for a long pe­riod of time as around 200 of them each and ev­ery day trav­elled to and from Loren­gau township, some stay­ing in the town for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time.”

Then there is the mat­ter of “al­ter­na­tive ac­com­mo­da­tion”. There are three sites, each with prob­lems.

The orig­i­nal site – the East Loren­gau Refugee Tran­sit Cen­tre – is too small to ac­com­mo­date all of the men, and there are ques­tions re­gard­ing the con­sti­tu­tional va­lid­ity of keep­ing them there any­way. The PNG gov­ern­ment has ar­gued that the Supreme Court’s rul­ing ap­plied only to the Manus RPC – lawyers and the

PNG op­po­si­tion party say that this is a con­ve­niently nar­row in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the rul­ing.

Then there are the other two sites. West Loren­gau House, for those men deemed refugees, and Hill­side Haus, for those neg­a­tively as­sessed. One fa­cil­ity is in­com­plete – ho­tels would be pro­vided in the in­terim – and they are both un­der­staffed. An of­fi­cial from the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees in­spected two of the three sites this week and said they were plainly “not ready”.

Lo­cals have re­cently pe­ti­tioned against con­struc­tion of the sites, ar­gu­ing they’re un­safe and that there was no com­mu­nity con­sul­ta­tion. Their anger is re­in­forced by Manus MP, and speaker of the PNG par­lia­ment, Job Po­mat, who has de­manded con­struc­tion stop. He has also ac­cused the lo­cal po­lice force of bul­ly­ing his con­stituents into ac­cep­tance. Po­lice say they’re sim­ply warn­ing against lo­cal “in­ter­fer­ence”.

Af­ter on-the-ground in­ves­ti­ga­tions, the UNHCR re­leased a state­ment this week: “UNHCR has met with gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties, in­clud­ing the Po­lice and the Im­mi­gra­tion and Cit­i­zen­ship Ser­vice Au­thor­ity, who have noted that ten­sions within the lo­cal com­mu­nity are on the rise, partly due to the lack of con­sul­ta­tion prior to the move­ment of refugees and asy­lum-seek­ers out­side of the ‘Re­gional Pro­cess­ing Cen­tre’. Lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials point to a lack of case work­ers and in­ter­preters as well as in­ad­e­quate lo­cal hos­pi­tal fa­cil­i­ties as par­tic­u­larly wor­ry­ing. UNHCR staff have spo­ken with lo­cal com­mu­nity lead­ers and landown­ers who de­scribe set­tle­ment of refugees and asy­lum-seek­ers in the com­mu­nity as ‘in­ap­pro­pri­ate’.

“UNHCR urges the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment to work with the Pa­pua

New Guinean au­thor­i­ties to im­me­di­ately de-es­ca­late an in­creas­ingly tense and un­sta­ble sit­u­a­tion. Aus­tralia re­mains re­spon­si­ble for the well-be­ing of all those moved to Pa­pua New Guinea un­til ad­e­quate, long-term so­lu­tions out­side the coun­try are found. UNHCR urges Aus­tralia to take re­spon­si­bil­ity and pro­vide pro­tec­tion and safety to these vul­ner­a­ble hu­man be­ings.”

There are al­ready un­con­firmed sto­ries of vig­i­lan­tism. “There were two at­tacks on the se­cu­rity of the new com­pound last night,” I was told by one refugee ear­lier this week. “We are told that guards at Hill­side Haus were just now at­tacked by lo­cal peo­ple. We don’t know about in­juries. Yes­ter­day we were told of a sim­i­lar at­tack at West Haus, when a lo­cal man at­tacked an­other lo­cal with a heavy chain.”

An­other told me: “Here, were more than 200 lo­cal peo­ple. Big, big protest against refugees… Peo­ple very an­gry. I visit to­day morn­ing with three lo­cal friends. I’m shown how lo­cal is an­gry.”

Added to this la­tently ex­plo­sive en­vi­ron­ment is the de­ploy­ment of PNG’s Mo­bile Squad – a no­to­ri­ous paramil­i­tary group, re­cently funded by the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment, who have tor­tured, raped and mur­der­ously beaten lo­cals. These squads have been sub­ject to mul­ti­ple in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Most Aus­tralian staff have left the is­land, and the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment says it is all now a mat­ter for the PNG gov­ern­ment. Our off­shore pol­icy has riven lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, cre­ated ten­sion be­tween its civic au­thor­i­ties, and es­tab­lished a par­lous stale­mate be­tween refugees, lo­cals and the PNG gov­ern­ment. As Aus­tralian staff fly home, they leave be­hind le­gal and po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty – and the most com­bustible un­cer­tainty of all, the safety of the men. “A fore­see­able mess” is how a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive of the Depart­ment of Im­mi­gra­tion and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion de­scribes it to me. “This is the in­evitable end stage of a ‘we’re mak­ing it up as we go’ ap­proach to pol­icy.”

De­spite as­sur­ances from the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment, the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is the in­evitable out­come of a pol­icy cyn­i­cally im­pro­vised by both La­bor and Coali­tion gov­ern­ments. In­de­pen­dent psy­chi­a­trists have doc­u­mented “epi­demic” men­tal ill­ness. Doc­tors have tes­ti­fied to the politi­ci­sa­tion of care. Se­nate in­quiries have found phys­i­cal and sex­ual abuses, and an ap­palling lack of trans­parency. Courts have con­victed se­cu­rity guards for the mur­der of a de­tainee. Oth­ers have taken their own lives.

It can­not be as­sumed that all asy­lum seek­ers, by virtue of their des­per­a­tion, are an­gels. Nor can it be ac­cepted that the rhetoric of refugee ad­vo­cates is en­tirely sober and ac­cu­rate. The re­porter should not aban­don them­selves to sym­pa­thetic credulity.

But the doc­u­men­ta­tion of abuse, dan­ger and po­lit­i­cal cyn­i­cism is sub­stan­tial. Our gov­ern­ment has funded paramil­i­tary squads for se­cu­rity, de­famed Aus­tralian teach­ers on Nauru, and ex­pen­sively set­tled a class ac­tion. In­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions have crit­i­cised our in­dif­fer­ence to hu­man­i­tar­ian law. When the camp was shot up on a drunken Good Fri­day, our min­is­ter re­served his most ex­pan­sive re­marks not for pro­found con­cern – but the sly im­pli­ca­tion that they de­served it, that there were pae­dophiles among their num­ber.

As I write, the par­lous stale­mate con­tin­ues. Only a hand­ful of men have vol­un­tar­ily boarded a bus bound for the al­ter­na­tive ac­com­mo­da­tion. The PNG army, paramil­i­tary or po­lice are yet to in­ter­vene. The men are sleep­ing on the ground or on plas­tic ta­bles. They draw brack­ish wa­ter from their well. We watch on.

Manus Is­land de­tainees dig for wa­ter this week.

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

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