The Long Journey To Manus


Asylum seekers sent to Manus Island two weeks ago are continuing to refuse food and are self-harming in a desperate protest against their selection for forced transfer from mainland Australia to PNG. They have said they will not stop until they are told how and when their refugee applications will be processed.

One 19-year-old man attempted to hang himself over the weekend. This is the same man who was quoted by New Matilda last week as saying, “Here is end of my life. I had lots of dreams but now all hope is gone. I am suffering from this”.

Two other men, one of whom had attempted to hang himself, according to detainees, have been transferred back to Darwin suffering from health conditions unable to be treated on the island. DIAC insists there was no attempted suicide, and that the asylum seeker had hit his head.

One asylum seeker told New Matilda that they had been told they could not speak to the men or offer them cigarettes.

Whereas the other asylum seekers are allowed to access the internet for one hour a day, the new arrivals have been denied access to the internet.

The Manus Island asylum seekers have welcomed the court action by the Opposition Leader in PNG, Belden Namah, to have the centre declared unlawful under the PNG constitution and court orders releasing detainees or at least halting transfers.

In a media release, Namah said that his main objection would be that the centre is illegal under Section 42 of the constitution which lays down the limits under which people can be deprived of their liberty in PNG.

He will “challenge the right of the Government to force people seeking refugee status in Australia to enter Papua New Guinea to be illegally and indefinitely detained under inhumane conditions” and the “manipulation of PNG migration law by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration in illegally allowing asylum seekers destined for Australia to come under the jurisdiction of PNG refugee laws and exempting them from immigration status”.

Yesterday, the asylum seekers wrote to Namah telling him that they were concerned that after they arrived “physically and psychologically exhausted” at Christmas Island in an “atmosphere of intimidation and fear”, they were asked to sign documents that they did not understand. They are seeking translated copies of these documents which they say were signed “under great duress”.

Their allegations of being taken to Manus Island against their will are similar to those they made on 23 December when they wrote a letter to media organisations and refugee advocates explaining the circumstances in which they were transferred to PNG.

This letter was written after the first group of those transferred to Manus Island gave up an initial decision to refuse food after being told that “in Australia people are free to protest and speak out and voice discontent about decisions and policies that they feel are unfair and unjust”.

In the hope that processing of individual claims would begin, they wrote, “We have decided to use our intellect and our humanity to appeal to all people who care for justice and fairness to hear our stories and support our cause. We have given up voluntary starvation as a sign of our respect for the democratic processes of Australia, and we put ourselves in the hands of these processes”.

In the letter, they describe being forcibly removed to Manus Island.

One woman wrote: “At 6.30 in morning they came to take us to a ‘meeting’. I didn’t have time to brush my hair or change my sleeping clothes. We were taken to a room where there were a large number of Serco officers. They were big, muscular men who looked intimidating, carrying sticks and spray. They were different to the officers we had come to know while at Christmas Island. They told us nothing, but did body checks and then put us on a bus.”

The asylum seekers were then taken to another area where they were separated into ethnic groups and told by a man with a “big smile on his face” that they would be transferred to PNG.

The asylum seekers say they knew nothing about PNG and they were “not allowed to ask questions”.

Another asylum seeker wrote: “This was such bad news for us. We were told Serco [the company that manages the centres]would pack all our things and they would be sent with us to PNG. We waited a long time. Later, after about two hours someone came and spoke to us individually in family groups. Several guards were with us. We were told because we were healthy and had no family in Australia we were being sent to another country. We were not allowed to see any of our friends to say goodbye. I was asked if I had any fears about going to PNG, I replied I was very scared about this.”

The same woman said she was “searched again, even under my tongue, my hair, behind my ears, our belongings were packed. We never returned to our room … Our property was not treated with respect. Clean things were thrown in with dirty things. Some items, important to us, were lost, and never arrived in PNG”.

After waiting for many hours, they were put on another bus and taken to the airport, “feeling like criminals”.

They were accompanied by guards and federal police on the trip. “Even if we went to adjust our belts to make them more comfortable we were told not to. The temperature was very cold. No blankets were provided for the trip and when we asked for one we were told they were not allowed to give it to us. We were on the plane for many hours, and received only one small sandwich and water. When we used the toilet on the plane we were accompanied by a guard and the toilet door was not allowed to be fully shut. This was humiliating for us and again made us feel like dangerous criminals, who were guilty of some serious crime.”

“When the plane finally landed at PNG we were marched out of the plane one by one by the officers. No information was given to us on the whole trip. We became even more scared during this trip and wondered where we were being taken to.”

They concluded: “This experience was more traumatic for us than the boat trip we undertook to reach Australia. Then, our life was in the hands of nature. But here in Australia, where we expected just treatment, our lives were in the hands of people who made a choice to treat us in this cruel and demeaning way.”

Meanwhile, the detainees who have still not been allowed to leave the compound since they arrived last year, complain that they have still not received a reply to their letter to DIAC sent on 7 January. In the letter, they complained about lack of doors on sleeping huts and the impact of restrictions on their children who have “become more violent, are under severe mental pressure because they think they are prisoners. They blame us for bringing them here and this is affecting our relationships with them. The children complain about the food being provided and tell us constantly they are unable to eat it because of the heat and it is not hygienic. As parents we are so concerned and worried about the future and welfare of our children”.

In the letter they also complain that as directed by DIAC they had discussed their problems with International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), the company who are contracted to provide health services for detainees. They explain that IHMS told them “that they can’t do much about our health problems because they tell us that they have inadequate facilities and services available here. This includes dentistry, optometrist, women’s medical issues, kidney stones, asthma, reflux of stomach, thyroid, allergies, pimples, rashes and skin conditions, or any unusual, out of the ordinary condition … You also have brought us and our children to a place of high risk for malaria, the worst in the world. We have also suffered from side effects from the injections and malarial treatment we have received. Again this is something that those on the Australian mainland do not have to experience.”

There is a doctor, several nurses, a mental health worker but no dentist available for the asylum seekers.

New Matilda asked DIAC if they had responded to the detainees’ letter. A spokeperson said, “DIAC communicates regularly with the transferees at the Manus Island RPC (Regional Processing Centre).”

Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition said that “The asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru want to know why isn’t there one law for all asylum seekers who have arrived after 13 August.”

“The vast majority of asylum seekers who arrived after 13 August will live in the Australian community while their claims are processed — conditions that are vastly different from those on Manus Island and Nauru.”

“The minister [Chris Bowen] seems determined to discriminate against a small number of asylum seekers by sending them to hell-holes of Manus Island and Nauru.”

New Matilda attempted to contact IHMS, who did not reply by deadline.

Wendy Bacon is a contributing editor to New Matilda, an activist, media researcher and blogger at She is on the board of the Pacific Media Centre and a Professorial Fellow at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism.