I have received the following report from Manus, just a couple of days ago. As you read it, remember this is YOUR government, spending YOUR taxes, doing things to innocent human beings that would horrify most Australians.
The Australian Government is trying coerce the 600 or so inmates of the Manus Regional Processing Centre (RPC) to leave the Centre.
It is doing this by slowly reducing services to the Centre, each one either more extreme or each one resulting in a more extreme environment for the men in the Centre.
For example, in the most recent examples the Centre management reduced medical services on Monday and this morning has reduced the access of men to the town, allowing only a maximum of 30 per day to visit the town using the Centre provided transport. Before that hourly buses were available to transport up to 150 men to town daily.
The Centre is located within a PNGDF naval base 30 mins drive from the main town of Lorengau.
Our Government wants the men to leave the Centre by 31 Oct, when it will close.
Our Government has paid to establish three new centres in the town to house the men.
Significantly, while Australian Immigration officials and officers have a very important role in the management of the RPC, Australia will have no such role in the new centres.
I have been told that all Australian ABF and APS will return to Australia shortly after 31 Oct.
As detention of the men in MPC has been declared illegal by the PNG High Court, the men, when housed in these new centres, will be free to move around the town as they please.
Lorengau is a small town of around 7000 people with many people living in poverty and with no knowledge of the culture of these men who are from many countries which they know little about.
So it is not surprising that a significant portion of the Lorengau population is opposed to this move.
They are also upset that they only found out about the details of this plan on Sun 8 Oct.
They were told in public announcements by a PNG Immigration Officer after church services in the town.
My wife and I witnessed the meeting outside the Catholic Church on that day.
The opposition to this move is universal in the community of Ward 1, one of seven or eight wards or districts of the town, where one of the centres is being built, and where I am staying. I was invited by the ward councillor to attend a meeting on Monday which I did.
But, for some of my Australian readers, it may be surprising that after four and half years in detention in RPC none of the men there want to leave the camp to live in the town under the conditions proposed. The want to leave, but only to go to a safe place where they can begin to re-build their lives.
Again, for some it may be surprising that after a similar period of advocacy for their freedom, many refugee advocates, including me, agree that they will be worse off in town than they were in RPC before the services started being cut at the Centre several months ago.
In short, the‘cure’ … is worse than the ‘disease’ itself.
The primary concern of both the men and the community is that after 31 Oct Australia will abandon the men in PNG. Certainly the US settlement will continue, albeit with numbers and time frames unknown, but otherwise the Australian Government is taking no further responsibility for the men.
We already know hundreds of them cannot or will not be accepted by the US, with their only choices being:
• remain permanently and involuntarily exiled in PNG, a country that cannot support them safely and where the community does not want them; or
• return to the country from which they fled in fear for their lives. The refugee assessment process, (in declaring them to be refugees) has found that the vast majority of those remaining have both:
– been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence, and
– (still) have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group (if they return to their country).
Both these two dot points, of course, match the UN endorsed definition of a refugee.
[I note as an aside that some politicians in Australia have taken to using the term ‘economic refugee’ to describe these people. This is not a legitimate term. People are either refugees according the above definition or they are not. Economic issues are not considered in assessing refugee status – both rich and poor people have equal right to protection under the Refugee Convention.
People who leave their country purely for economic reasons are not refugees but are economic migrants.
To clarify this further. Under the UN convention signed by Australia, any person leaving their country and arriving in a country which is a signatory to the convention has the right to seek asylum by applying for refugee status in that country. If a person leaving their country for economic reasons seeks asylum in a signatory country, that signatory country (Australia in this case) must still assess the refugee status of that person and if found not to be a refugee and this determination is so considered by an appropriate and fair review process, only then can that person be treated as a migrant and then will be subject to consideration of deportation to their country of origin if it is safe to do so and if the country will accept a deportee. Some countries such as Iran will not accept the return of their citizens unless they return voluntarily.]
But now back to the other concerns.
The second major concern of the men is that their medical and health services will be reduced under the new arrangements. In the latest stage of the coercive action taken at the RPC, that level of service was imposed on them on Monday and today so we already know how bad that will be.
As an example, from now on they have no access to torture and trauma counsellors, a key need for the hundreds of men with psychiatric disorders resulting from torture and trauma and for all of the men, all whom now have some degree of long term depression. This service was available to all the men up until last week. and I met one of these critical people looking very distressed to be at the end of their appointment, knowing that they would not be replaced.
Also, as the medical service winds down, the men with current prescriptions have been given a month’s worth of their medication. However, for any new prescriptions and for ad hoc requirements even such as Panadol, it is unclear what the situation in RPC actually is at the moment.
What we do know is that the men already in East Lorengau have to get their medicines in town. Only some of the medicines are free in town at the Hospital dispensary. If it has no stock or the drug is not on the catalogue of free medicines, the men have to buy it at the local pharmacy. These men get only 100 kina (around $40) per week to live on, plus limited food. Medicines that they have to buy vary between 20 and 60 kina. All of the men will be subject to these arrangements if and when they move into the centres in town.
What I have not yet confirmed is what is happening to the men in RPC from now until the closure of the camp. The pharmacy in the camp that has previously serviced most of the refugees needs has been closed, and their informal access to a one off issue of two Panadol from the security gate for the relief of immediate pain has been terminated. However I understand there is still a pharmacy in the still open medical centre that also services Centre staff. But I do not know if that second pharmacy is open or not, and if it is, is it available to supply medicines free of charge to the men who have no income from the Centre, meaning many of them have no money at all.
My fear is that, if the answer to either of these questions is no, then those men with no money who suffer anything (from a simple headache to a serious new medical condition needing drug treatment) will have to come into town. And if the Hospital dispensary has no stock, or the drug is not on the catalogue of free medicines, the men will not be able to get the drugs at the pharmacy because they have no money. And since only 30 people a day can travel to town on free Centre transport, they will have significant difficulty in getting to and from town anyway. I am told that there is limited public transport from the PNGDF base into town, but this costs money and is so of no use to men with little or no money.
The local community is also concerned about this medical situation.
These new arrangements will put a drain on the already very limited resources of Manus. I visited the Hospital dispensary and the pharmacy yesterday to check this out. I spoke to the staff at the dispensary and they told me that the Manus dispensary now only gets a re-supply of medicines every four to six weeks, with the irregular arrival of commercial boats from Lae. Three years ago they used to have a weekly boat service to Manus and then medicines were delivered weekly. The shipping company went broke.
More importantly the staff at the dispensary had not be told that in a month’s time many hundreds of men whose prescriptions have run out are likely to turn up there to seek additional medicine.
They said they would inform their boss. But it could be all a little academic. Even if they knew what medicines were required and they could find out in a few days, the order could not be delivered for at least another four weeks at the earliest, by which time the men could be on their doorstep.
The third big issue is security.
A small number of men (around fifty I think) have already moved to one of the new camps in East Lorengau which has been open for at least a year.
There have been six deaths out of the 1000 or so refugees and asylum seekers originally on Manus, now reduced to 600 in the last four and a half years.
The two most recent of those deaths, both suicide, have been residents of the much smaller population in town in East Lorengau and they have occurred in the last two months!
The men rightly believe that they are being asked to reside in a death trap.
As a result all the men now in RPC are refusing to leave RPC as it is closed down and demolished around them. They also intend staying there until Australia has carried out its threat to close the Centre 31 Oct, whether full or empty. and whether or not all Australian officials and officers have departed in early November At this point, Australia will accept no responsibility for the welfare of the men. whether they have moved into town or whether they remain at the derelict MPC site with no access to water, health services, food, power, communications, shelter or transport. The men have also given no indication if or when they will leave that derelict site after that date. Indications are that they may intend to seek to stay there indefinitely.
On a personal note, for eighteen months my group has taken specific responsibility to support 23 men on Manus. As of today one has been deported, one living in East Lorengau committed suicide two weeks ago and the other resident of East Lorengau is living at a hotel with … two of his refugee friends. He is mentally unstable and on daily medication. He was the room mate of the man who committed suicide. The Sunday before I arrived he had a serious psychotic incident in town in which he had to be restrained by three of his friends assisted by my colleague J, who was in Manus at that time. On that day despite numerous efforts, they were unable to find any one at the hospital, the East Lorengau centre or anywhere on Manus to help him. They eventually returned to J’s hotel (the same one I am now staying in) and he has been here ever since, initially under the care of his friends and J. I have replaced J in that role as she has returned to Australia.
Since then I have been negotiating with the authorities to find a safe place for my sick friend to stay. Their only offer is for him to return to East Lorengau where he has no friends and where he witnessed his roommate’s first suicide attempt, before being moved to the hospital for treatment where he subsequently committed suicide. Furthermore none of his friends at RPC are allowed to visit East Lorengau. My sick friend is prepared to go back to RPC and stay with his friends and leave when they leave. The authorities have so far refused this request as they are trying to get everyone else out of RPC. The only other suggestion from the authorities is that his friends now move permanently to East Lorengau, leaving RPC, as Australia is trying unsuccessfully to get them to do. And of course his friends are not prepared to move there permanently for the three reasons outlined in this background, but particularly because, of the two members of their community who have moved to East Lorengau, one is now dead and the other has been made seriously mentally ill.
Negotiations and advocacy continue to protect my friends. I am not leaving Manus until late October, when another Australian colleague will have arrived to take over from me.