By Charmain Mohamed, Head of Refugee and Migrants Rights
Since 2013 Australia has been sending refugees who attempt to reach its shores by boat to be ‘processed’ on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. On this remote island thousands of people have endured years of detention and abuse while their refugee claims are assessed.
The Australian government has gone to great lengths to hide the magnitude of the suffering it has caused on Manus Island.
Between 2015 and 2017 there were strict secrecy laws in place, designed to stop staff from speaking out about conditions in detention centres. Details about contractors and the determination of refugee claims are kept tightly under wraps. There is very little public information about how refugee status is determined.
Despite this climate of secrecy many stories about life on Manus Island do make it out. This is thanks to the incredible bravery of the men detained there, some of whom are talented artists, writers, cartoonists, storytellers and musicians.
Despite the trauma and indignities they face on a daily basis, they have committed to telling the truth about what Australia is doing to their community of refugees and people seeking asylum. Their actions are essential. Without documentation there can be no accountability, and these men will go down in history as people who stood up for the truth.
Some of the men who report from Manus Island are internationally recognized, with Twitter followings and newspaper columns. Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist who has been on Manus Island since 2013, has co-directed a movie and published a book about his experiences.
Abdul Aziz Muhamat, from Sudan, has painstakingly documented life on Manus Island through a podcast compiled of thousands of WhatsApp recordings, and was recently nominated for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights. In 2017 Aziz was briefly imprisoned and held without charge for participating in a hunger strike – a clear attempt to silence him.
Others have a lower profile but are no less brave.
Since we began documenting the abuses on Manus Island, many people have given hours of their time to tell us what is happening to them. They have shared personal and difficult stories, relived agonizing moments and spoken out for others who are even more vulnerable or isolated.
These are stories Australia would rather we forgot. In 2017 the Australian government chose to pay $70m in compensation rather than let a court hear the appalling details of life on Manus Island, in a case centring on abuse and medical neglect. But thanks to the men who speak out, human rights organizations like Amnesty International have been able to piece together a picture of these abuses anyway.
Recently the government struck a new blow when it drastically reduced the healthcare available to the men on Manus Island. As a new report by Amnesty International and Refugee Council of Australia highlights, counselling services have been all but eradicated over the past year, despite the prevalence of mental illness among the men Australia has sent to Manus.
Benham, a Kurdish Iranian man, was a key witness to the murder of his friend by local men in February 2014, and has since faced harassment and death threats. Throughout this ordeal Benham has been a regular spokesperson in the media and also acts as an interpreter. However, the withdrawal of counselling services has presented a new challenge for Benham. Benham described the counsellor he used to see as “the only person who was treating [me] as a human” and said that many people’s conditions have deteriorated since this service was stopped.
For some of the men stranded on Manus Island, telling their story has been the only respite from the grinding boredom and frustration of prolonged detention.
Samad Abdul, a writer from Pakistan, described in a blog post for the website Writing Through Fences how keeping a diary was like a lifeline for him.
“In that tough situation where I was separated from my happiness and my dreams finally I found a best friend in my diary,” Samad wrote.
“My diary was my only friend with who I could share my pain.”
In November 2017 the PNG authorities, armed with sticks and knives, forcibly transferred everyone in the detention centre on Manus Island to new accommodation. When the guards entered Samad’s room they destroyed his clothes, books and diary.
“I cried and begged them please not to destroy my diary,” Samad recalls.
Samad’s loss is about more than his own experiences. The people who record what happens on Manus Island ensure that this shameful chapter in Australia’s history will not be forgotten. The Australian people have a right to know what is being done in their name.