Manus – The Purgatory Made in Australia
By Tim Costello, Chief Advocate
Towards the end of last year, I travelled to two very different sites of refugee despair. The first was the vast congested refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, bloated by more than 600,000 people who identify as Rohingya Muslims who had fled their burning villages in Myanmar. In almost 15 years of international aid work, I have rarely been confronted by such misery and vulnerability.
The following month, I went to Manus Island, as part of a fact-finding mission under the auspices of the Australian Council for International Development, the peak body for Australia's aid and humanitarian sector, to witness the conditions of refugees and asylum seekers who have been stalled there for more than four years under Australia’s border protection policies.
In terms of physical suffering, fear and desperation, there was no comparison. But if Cox’s Bazar brought to mind the gates of hell, then Manus was a purgatory – made in Australia.
The suffering of the Rohingya is a question that Myanmar must ultimately answer. Manus is my government’s cruelty. So the impact of meeting those who are held there – and also witnessing the impact on the people of Manus, who have been dragged into this Australian quagmire - was more personally unsettling because their suffering has been done by my government.
It was a surreal irony to meet Rohingya refugees who have been locked up on Manus while the Australian Government simultaneously supports international humanitarian appeals to aid the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar.
In both Cox’s Bazar and Manus, I was struck by the absence of hope, the most shocking of all deprivations. Among the Rohingya, it was the hopelessness of a stateless people, stranded between Bangladesh and Myanmar, while on Manus it was the hopelessness of refugees violently cut off from the countries of their birth but unable to reach the countries of their dreams.
My first glimpse of Manus refugees was of desperate faces shouting “help us” as PNG police, doing the Australian Government’s dirty work, broke up the former detention centre and forcibly removed more than 300 men who were refusing to go to new facilities, 24 km away, in no small part because it offered no solution to their indefinite detention.
Then I met the Kurdish journalist, writer and film-maker Behrouz Boochani, who fled Iran in May 2013 in search of a place where he could write freely, but writes instead from an island prison. His 2017 Manus documentary “Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time” was shot over a period of several months on a mobile phone, sending the files one tiny piece at a time to his Iranian co-director, Arash Kamali Sarvestani, in the Netherlands. His much-anticipated autobiographical novel will also soon be published.
I met him squatting down outside a fruit stall in Lorengau central market. He rolled a cigarette and talked about his arrest the day before during refugee protests, and his imprisoned life on Manus. He is a striking man, lean and intense, acutely aware of the advocacy role he plays among the forgotten men of Manus, and the quirk of fate that landed him on Christmas Island on his 30th birthday, 23 July, 2013, just four days after Kevin Rudd announced that refugees arriving by boat would have “no chance” of being settled in Australia.
In detention, he has refused to be defined by the number he was given - MEG45. Instead, he has asserted his identity as a writer and witness in what he calls “this hell of a prison”.
Others I met on Manus included Karam, also a Kurdish Iranian whose wife was pregnant when he was forced to flee for publishing some poetry in Kurdish. He had not seen his 4-year-old son and was intermittently in tears about his loss. He said that when he Skypes his family he breaks down thinking that he should be there to protect them. I asked him why he wouldn’t just settle in PNG and at least tell his son and wife they would soon be reunited. He said that apart from the few prospects and volatility of PNG, it would be another eight-year wait to get family reunion.
Most of the refugees I spoke to had been drained of hope. They have a heaviness of spirit about them. Their struggle is existential, told that Australian public opinion is against them, detained, ignored, sent the message that they are somehow outside the scope of ordinary human kindness, out of sight, and out of mind.
Proverbs says that hope deferred makes the heart sick and many of the refugees I met on Manus had plunged into the sickness of heart that is deep depression. Many said they no longer wanted to come to Australia. But neither could most go back. They have been stranded on a remote island, far from everything they have known and loved, somewhere between their fears and dreams.
Tim Costello traveled to Manus as part of a delegation made up of colleagues from ACFID, Oxfam and World Vision.
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Published by The Guardian, January 18, 2018
Picture: Refugees on Manus Island are drained of hope, and told they are outside the realm of human kindness.