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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