16 Jan 2013

Kids Facing Despair On Manus

By Wendy Bacon
NM's contributing editor Wendy Bacon is in contact with inmates on Manus Island. The news is not good. An atmosphere of despair prevails at the centre and children are being exposed to self harm
Several days ago, a child asylum seeker on Manus Island wrote a letter in his own language. A translation of the letter by another asylum seeker reads:

"Today was very bad for me. I hate Saturdays and I like always Raining. Today is very bad and I hate today. Today was very hot. Because the hot weather I spash one bottle of water on my head. I can't go to the bath and take shower because the water gone and I'm afraid that we been thirsty. Today some people coming from a company and made up all of mother crying."

Another young person wrote:

"I want to escape out of the fence and swim in the sea and I want to be free. I get bored, all the people cries because they have nothing. Even it does not have park here. There is no telephones to talk to our families. My grandfather has pain in his legs and cannot come here. Here is only my mum and dad."

If online weather records are correct, yesterday it felt like it was 45 degrees on Manus Island. The weather is extremely humid with thunderstorms and intermittent rain. It will stay like this for months.

The children who wrote these letters are sleeping in temporary huts that have no doors because the Australian Government has made no provision for air conditioning. That is reserved for staff sleeping quarters. Beyond the huts, scores of single men sleep in crowded sodden tents with no privacy.

After considerable unrest at the facility on Saturday, the situation deteriorated further. Forty-two men were removed from Darwin to Manus Island under heavy guard. Many, if not all, of them are angry and distraught. They have signed a petition complaining of the injustice of detaining them indefinitely under such conditions, while hundreds of others who arrived since new rules were introduced for asylum seekers arriving boat in August 2012 have been released on bridging visas. They want — along with everyone who has been banished to long term detention on Nauru and Manus Island — to be returned to the mainland for their claims to be processed.

The Iranians now on Manus Island include a heavy metal artist who has seen scores of fellow creative workers arrested and imprisoned in Iran. They include Hazaras, hundreds of whom have been subject recently to massacres in Quetta, Pakistan. They include a Tamil family who suffered persecution and extreme deprivation after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Australia has handed over its responsibilities to process the asylum seekers to PNG which has no clear arrangements yet in place.

The men have declared that they will resist what they see as arbitrary punishment. Sometime after their arrival, one man placed his hand in a moving metal fan and according to one of those present, blood went everywhere.

Last week three men scaled the fence and ran into the sea. Asylum seekers say they were removed from the water and returned by guards employed by G4S, the global security company which is contracted to operate the centre. Another 10 scaled the fence and ran into the ocean yesterday.

Children have witnessed some or all of these events. As an asylum seeker wrote yesterday:

"... Again kids were scared and cried we took them to school to keep them busy. Women started screaming again. Men wanted to get down the fences but some of us did not let them to do this. After one man from PNG police and one man from G4S were recording by camera ... this place can't see the calmness at all. No one tried to do something for them."

My first news of these events came from the Refugee Action Coalition on Sunday afternoon. Their press release said that sources on Manus Island had reported that a man in his 30s with children in Iraq had been "taken down" from hanging and "looked dead". Two other asylum seekers had reportedly attempted suicide by entering the sea.

In response to an email, I posted a tweet: "Refugees allege more than 40 new arrivals yesterday. One attempted suicide last night. Two others rescued from the sea. Distressing." I deliberately used the word "allege" as I was unable to check the facts with sources on Manus Island, including G4S.

Shortly afterwards a senior manager and head of communications for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Sandi Logan, responded in a tweet: "This is total fabrication Wendy, & yet again this misinformation is posted without any checking of facts." As soon as I saw this, I tweeted: "DIAC says fabrication. Info is officials say not attempted suicide; asylum seekers say it was. Media shut out."

The original information was not a "complete fabrication". The men did go into the sea. Detainees on Manus Island in contact with the men believe this action was intended as attempted suicide. A number of men have cut themselves since they arrived on Manus Island. Detainees insist a man did attempt to hang himself and another has been prevented from doing so since the first incident.

Trying to confirm the facts, New Matilda put a series of questions to DIAC.

One of these read: Yesterday, Manus Island asylum seekers say that a man taken to the medical centre had attempted suicide. What does DIAC say was the cause of the man's need for medical treatment?

A DIAC spokesperson responded: "A man was treated for minor injuries sustained when he banged his head against a fence. He was stopped from further banging his head, taken to the clinic, treated and returned to the reception facility."

While the answer confirms that, in addition to those cases reported above, there was a person who received medical attention after banging his head on the fence (itself a sign of severe distress), it did not clarify the issue of the man who a number of asylum seekers believed tried to hang himself and was cut down.

So New Matilda followed up: Is it possible that this man was a different one from the one who the asylum seekers allege was cut down? Who is DIAC relying on for this account of events? Is it possible that DIAC itself is being misled? Is it possible that the man identified [in your answer] was unconscious or appearing unconscious when he was removed?

DIAC also confirmed that some men are refusing food and that single men will remain in tents while "alternative" arrangements are considered for a more permanent processing facility. This means there are no firm plans in place for better accommodation on Manus Island.

Yesterday, DIAC was unable to answer the further questions because of other commitments.

As Nick Riemer wrote in New Matilda yesterday, asylum seekers claim that their internet communications are being further restricted since they successfully sent photos of facilities out of the island and have been writing letters to advocates, the media and government about conditions. The department denies the censorship allegations but confirms that as numbers increase on the island, the detainees are allocated less time on computers during the high use period. No mobile phones are allowed on Manus Island or Nauru.

DIAC's Sandi Logan has not visited the Manus Island detention centre since it reopened. Most of DIAC's information comes from G4S and other groups contracted to work inside the centre. It was not possible to declare the allegations in RAC's press release a "complete fabrication" as quickly as Logan did on Sunday.

Events are bound to remain unclear when journalists are not allowed to visit the detention centre or easily contact asylum seekers or staff directly. Eventually, official inquiries or court cases may be needed to establish events on Manus Island.

We can certainly state that the atmosphere is one of despair and at times hysteria. Many asylum seekers are distraught and have been calling out in the night. Others are weeping during the day.

Yesterday Amnesty refugee spokesperson Graham Thom confirmed that the organisation is optimistic that its application to the PNG Government to inspect the facilities in February will be accepted. He told New Matilda that Amnesty is "particularly concerned about the children who are in detention." He pointed out that as well as their obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention, the PNG and Australian governments also have obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. He described the situation of mixing distressed single males with children as "a recipe for disaster". "Where are the rights of the child? It has not been thought through, to put it mildly," he said.

The PNG Opposition leader Belden Namah is still planning on taking action in the PNG Supreme Court to have the operations in the centre declared illegal.

Meanwhile, messages continue to come from the new arrivals. One of them reads:

"We are five Iranian, 15 Afghani and 25 Iraqi who transfered to PNG illegally. We are started hunger strike and protesting. We don't use any facilities of here because we are not Asylum seekers of PNG. We migrated to Australia. Two of us tried to drown themselves in the ocean. One hung up himself and the others don't feel well. Three man collapsed and pass out. We are waiting for one of the Austrailian authorities to answer our questions."

One of these men is 19 years old. Another asylum seeker described him as "very disappointed and depressed" and said that he had said: "here is end of my life. I had lots of dreams but now all hope is gone. I am suffering from this situation and I became crazy. There is no Light in this Darkness .There are no justice and fairness. If there is a law it should be for all, not only a 220 unlucky people." He is "drowning in a deep hopeless land because of the nasty game of policy. As human being he has to right to know about his future. Who is really a human being and brave to be their saviour."

As Thom says, Australia has not learned the lessons of damage caused by its previous immigration policies. Some refugees, now Australian citizens, who spent time on Manus Island and suffered similar despair are still receiving mental health treatment due to the harm caused by their experience on the island under the Howard government.

The current asylum seekers are still waiting for a response from the Gillard Government to their latest letter asking for equal treatment with other asylum seekers and complaining about the conditions in which they are being kept on Manus Island.

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Posted Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 04:18

More than twenty years ago mandatory (and indefinite) detention of asylum seeking boat arrivals was made part of Australia's immigration law. Both major political parties have supported this policy. In a series of cases stretching back over the last two decades, the High Court of Australia has upheld the Government's right to detain asylum seekers. So long as detention is "administrative" and not "punitive" in nature, it is legal under Australia's constitution to detain these people indefinitely. The court's position is understandable, the constitution allows the government to legislate with respect to "aliens" (section 51 xix), and "immigration" (section 51 xxvii).

And legislate they have, enacting draconian laws to deprive a tiny group of people of their liberty for an unspecified length of time. Why do Australian Governments do this? To be cynical, it's because they can, and the High Court agrees. More importantly, however, because boat arrivals have no standing in Australian politics, they (and their transporters) are easy to demonize (and thereby victimize) in order to frighten more votes from ignorant or torpid voters in swing electorates. Recall that the first duty of Government is to remain in power, while it is the duty of the Opposition to gain power. If this means using cruel and unusual measures against defenseless asylum seekers as a propaganda device masquerading as secure borders policy, then so be it! After all, the end justifies the means, right?

Every time I see an article decrying Australia's treatment of maritime asylum seekers, I think it's Groundhog Day (deja vu all over again, as Yogi said). I see the same humanitarian arguments, the same arguments over Australia's responsibilities under the Refugees Convention and Protocol,the same invective hurled at Australia's political leaders (deserved, IMO) and each other, and the very same chest-thumping rhetoric about border security, "queue jumping", "people smuggling", etc. Unless something fundamental changes, I expect Australia will still be locking asylum seekers up 20 years from now, and we'll still be having these acrimonious debates. Mandatory detention for maritime asylum seekers is simply too important a political tool for those bent on governing Australia to renounce.

Let me now be constructive and propose a solution to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers problem as some IA readers have requested. Politicians won't help, but yes, we the people can do something about it. The solution requires a fundamental change in the way we govern ourselves. I'm talking about adding a Bill of Rights to the Australian constitution. Like the U.S. example, Bills of Rights circumscribe a constitution just like the shell of a nut encases and protects the kernel. The kernel enumerates the areas in which governments are permitted to legislate (like section 51 of Australia's constitution). Bills of Rights, when written in proscriptive language, prohibit laws that abridge, abrogate, or infringe upon human rights or civil liberties that the people people drafting the Bill agree need to be protected against government intrusion. If we agree that everyone, citizen and non-citizen alike, is to be treated equally under the law, and that incarceration without due process of the law is a violation of rights, then so-called "administrative" detention would be outlawed. This is clear because asylum seekers have committed no crime and Australian citizens would not consent to being locked away without due process.

Admittedly, changing Australia's constitution in the way I've described is a formidable task. The constitution is the highest law of the land, but it is also the people's document. It was drafted by proto-Australians, and was approved directly by the people in referendums. Whether Australians have the will, interest, or intestinal fortitude to change the constitution remains to be seen. If they do, we should get on with it, and hope it will not take another 20 years.

Posted Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 10:50

JKUU is proposing that Australia should have open borders. We can see how that is working in Europe.
The asylum seekers are free to leave any time, to any place in the world that will take them. I hope that they will go back to where they came from.

wendy bacon
Posted Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 13:35

JKUU - thanks for that great comment. When such actions become lawful, we need to think of policy solutions. I agree with that. We still need to keep investigating and pushing for immediate policy change, however.
Earth Fan do you really suggest that Hazara should head for Quetta where at risk of being massacred? Do you think Iranians musician should return to where can be rounded up, arrested, and even tortured. Try to think of what you might feel like in that situation. I simply cannot see where JKUU mentioned open borders.

Posted Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 14:27

It's deplorable.

But this is a political rather than policy issue. All the endless discussions by advocates and activists won't come up with policies or principles, or protests or any kind of action that will change this.

It comes down to the fact that we effectively have a two-party system. As long as one or other of the major parties clearly intends to run this as a wedge issue (collation I am looking at you), the other will either be driven to adapt and defuse the "market differentiator" with draconian policies - or get creamed in the next election.

Those who will change their vote on this issue are overwhelmingly in favour of the current punitive approach. Those who want to see a more human set of policies are less likely to move their vote even if they do have a more (small l) liberal candidate on the other side. That's why it is a wedge issue.

If the politics can't be changed the policies will never be.

Posted Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 15:00

Dear Earthfan
I have rented rooms in my house at various times. Three of the tenants were refugees and all were wonderfully pleasant, neat, and considerate people to live with.
However, if you could convince Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott to go back to where they came from I would be most obliged.

Posted Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 16:19

The Refugee Lobby just does not give up. Whom are they trying to convert? The already converted?

I propose to put an end to permanent resettlement visas. In fact, I propose to put an end to any permanent resident visa on arrival.
Only protection/temporary/probationery/provisional visas should be issued on arrival (after assessment in the case of asylum seekers and provided they managed to get themselves classified as 'refugees'), depending on the type of visa required; each cateogy of visa coming with their own conditions and limitations.

A permanent visa with all its rights must be earned over many years(at least 5). A citizenship should not be attainable under 10 years of permanent residency.

We are heading into a brave new world and cannot afford to extrapolate the past into the future; neither the environment nor global demographics permit that.

Posted Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 21:25

Wishful mention (by JKUU) that Australia's adoption of national human rights legislation could provide a basis on which to take legal action against present government refugee policies (of both major parties) has little chance - it was opposed by most conservatives when last mooted in 2010, and despite widespread public support (via Brennan consultations) the courage and resolve of then-PM Rudd and his attorney-general McClelland suddenly evaporated, and they shelved it to reduce contentious issues facing their next election.

So one side's obstructive, the other gutless - so don't expect any progress on this path in the near future. Don't forget that Australia approved the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights - but never ratified it into our laws.

Posted Thursday, January 17, 2013 - 22:13

Thankyou Wendy. I am a member of Labor for Refugees to speak up against mandatory, prison island detention et al. Persecuting the persecuted to send a deterrence message is despicable and proven not to work.
It is vital good journalists keep finding out the truth and exposing it.

Posted Friday, January 18, 2013 - 10:43

Wendy is right. The attempts to swim away from the detention centre were covered in the PNG media.

From yesterday's PNG Post Courier newspaper.

WE wonder where that Manus-based asylum seeker who tried to break free by swimming across the Seedler Harbour was heading. We sympathise with your situation but staying put on Los Negros Island, which is where the Lombrum naval base and the asylum seekers processing centre is based in Manus province, is your best option. We doubt the asylum seeker would survive swimming for freedom in waters renown for various dangers including sharks."

Posted Friday, January 18, 2013 - 16:52

Soon, quite soon, when Global Warming is in absolute control of Earth, the number of refugees will number in the billions, and most of them will die from starvation, thirst, heat exhaustion, drowning (hundreds of millions) so this whole argument will become moot. I agree that the Mindless Millions here in Australia will not change their ignorant punitive actions against Refugees until such time, and it is coming, when they look down and see that their feet are in water, rising water, and they panic and start screaming for pollies to help them, to save them, take them to higher ground, whether it is now occupied or not. Or they will be flooded out, starved out, burnt out, and maybe, just maybe, then they will understand that they also are refugees. And no one wants them! Who indeed would want these ar#@holes. Schadenfreude.
In the meantime, we can just hope that in any coming election, just about the entire Gillard Ministry is dumped, (the list of HORRIBLES is endless) , plus all who associate with the Mad Monk. Bliss!? Maybe then a chance for intelligence and compassion to come to the fore. I dream, of course. But the Immigration Dept. by whatever name, would have to be scoured, lock, stock and barrel, and new staff obtained from somewhere not totally corrupted by the Mass Media and Horrible Pollies.

K Brown
Posted Sunday, January 20, 2013 - 19:44

Wendy Bacon
The suffering that these children are being subjected to by their parents who voluntarily put them on a boat and risked their lives on a dangerous sea voyage from Indonesia to Christmas Island and then condemned them to an indefinite period of offshore refugee processing in under the Governments “no advantage” regime that they had very clearly been forewarned about is very sad. Obviously they think that the economic dividend of Australian residence is worth to the “trauma” their children will be exposed to.

K Brown
Posted Sunday, January 20, 2013 - 22:33

Wendy Bacon
Weather records on Manus in the last week has shown that it has been 26-29 degrees which is much milder that that we in Queensland and other parts of Australia have been enduring. Why have you claimed that it "felt like it was 45 degrees on Manus Island. The weather is extremely humid with thunderstorms and intermittent rain." to generate sympathy for Manus Island refugees when this is patently bullshit?

K Brown
Posted Sunday, January 20, 2013 - 22:56

Wendy Bacon
I could not agree more that mixing distressed asylum seeking males with
families and chidren is a recipes for disaster. I hope the authorities will rectify this ASAP.

K Brown
Posted Monday, January 21, 2013 - 07:35

The values of the refugee lobby are sadly warped when we they highlight the case of an Iranian heavy metal musician subject to artistic censorship (since when has refusing to comply with censorship laws been grounds for asylum?) is highlighted and ignore the fact fact that he is displacing one of the thousands of refugees around the world in extreme need including women and girls at risk of sexual violence who the UNHCR have identified as being in urgent need of permanent settlement.

K Brown
Posted Monday, January 21, 2013 - 08:27

Wendy Bacon
The "serious suicide attempts" and self harm reported by the the RAC are simply superficial stunts perpetrated to generate publicity. They are act's in a Kabuki dance orchestrated by the RAC and the Australian refugee advocacy groups for their own policitical ends. Reporting these stunts as facts encourages the very behaviour that distressses the children on Manus Island.

K Brown
Posted Monday, January 21, 2013 - 10:49

This article states that no mobile phones are allowed on Manus or Nauru but Nick Riemer's NM article mentioned above complains about the MSM failing to publish fabricated reports of "serious suicide attempts" and he says that "No journalist, to my knowledge, maintains regular phone contact with detainees, even though, as DIAC has acknowledged, it would be easy to obtain detainees’ mobile numbers either directly or from advocates."? Whose facts should we believe?

Albie Manton
Posted Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - 17:39

It saddens me deeply that children sent here suffer so badly with psychological & physical traumas. I lived at Lombrum as a child and the happiest memories of my childhood are from this period in my life. I can only pray that decency of human spirit, the hard works of Julian, wantok Namah, and others prevail. Manus is not evil, the Manusians a decent and beautiful folk, but the politics are hurting everyone. In peace and hope...lukim u pela.

Posted Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 16:20

Excellent article by Wendy Bacon. Shocking personal testimonies of refugees.

Shame on the heartless, child-abusing, mother-abusing, refugee-abusing Lib-Lab politicians and voters.

The shift of the Australian Labor Party to the human rights-violating racist right has all but destroyed a major centrist alternative to the Liberal-National Party Coalition (apart from the Greens and Malcolm Fraser, that is).

What can decent people do?

Many of my Green and Labor friends will vote 1 Green and give their second preference to Labor. However if Labor is returned we will still have extreme right-wing, racist, pro-war, pro-coal, pro-gas, pro-iron ore, anti-environment, pro-Zionist, human rights-violating , anti-democracy, anti-education, anti-equity, refugee-violating, child-violating policies - the Australian Labor Party has become an Alternative Liberal Party, Another Liberal Party, an American Lackey Party, an Apartheid Israel-supporting Labor Party, an Australia Laboral Party and an Australian Lying Party.

I think that the correct strategy for decent Green and Labor voters is to follow the long-suffering NT Indigenous Australians who were grossly betrayed by Labor and dumped Labor in the recent NT elections. Decent Labor and Green voters should vote 1 Green and put Labor last until it reverts to decent human values - the Coalition are just as bad as Labor but (a) don't know any better ("God forgive them for they know not what they do" and (b) they have not actually betrayed traditional Labor values or voters.

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.