Trapped by a Country that
– By Kirrily Jordan| November 22, 2016
IN PHOTO ESSAY
Protesters in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre demanding justice, August 2016. Photo credit: Eli Shakiba, Facebook.
Resistance to the policy of offshore detention is strong and growing in Australia, with long-term campaigners now joined by thousands of individuals protesting against the abuse of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. This year has seen some of the biggest rallies in more than a decade and an increasingly coordinated campaign to ‘Bring Them Here’, bolstered by the further growth of sympathetic associations: doctors, teachers, churches, academics, mums and ‘grandmas for refugees’.
The mounting public pressure in Australia is inspiring, but in many ways it is the people being detained on Nauru and Manus Island who have led the charge.
For over three years now they have protested their inhumane treatment in myriad ways, from personal demands for better care, to mass hunger strikes, public protests and determined efforts to circumvent media restrictions by posting evidence of their mistreatment online.
Successive governments have tried to keep us from their stories, strategically dehumanising asylum seekers so most Australians see an anonymous, ill-defined threat instead of relatable individuals under our care. For Peter Dutton this has extended to obscuring their political agency, suggesting that when they protest against their mistreatment—and resist the enormous pressure being applied on them to return home—they are doing so only because Australian refugee advocates have put them up to it.
But I have recently visited Manus Island, where Australia’s refugee policies have imprisoned more than 800 men. And there I heard about their appalling treatment in detention, and active resistance to it, first hand.
It’s impossible to convey the full impact of what I saw on Manus Island, and the stories that I heard. Writing seems to reduce it to simple snapshots. But I was deeply moved and often made speechless when gentle, funny, caring men described the daily humiliations and deliberate brutality they have endured.
Having read the Nauru files and subsequent reports by Amnesty International I was prepared to hear stories of overt abuse. What shocked me more were the many stories of a ubiquitous culture of cruelty. The insistence on calling people by their boat numbers not their names. The regular confiscation of harmless possessions for no apparent purpose other than to denigrate already vulnerable men. The inadequate food that leaves many people hungry despite the huge sums of money pocketed by private companies to provide for them. And medical care that is not just insufficient, but seemingly actively denied. Perhaps I was naive, but until now I had thought we were so much better than this.
What follows are brief introductions to nine men being detained on Manus and some of the ways they have challenged their mistreatment. In powerful ways, every day, they exercise their agency to stand in defiance. Some have chosen to use their real names here for the first time. ‘Let the world know who we are.’ ‘My name is much better than a boat number. I’m a human. I have my name.’* There are hundreds more stories like theirs on Manus. They are stories of tragedy and incredible suffering, but overwhelmingly they are also stories of resilience and peaceful, powerful resistance against the violence of the detention regime.
Right now, imprisoned on Manus Island, is a fiercely intelligent and funny young man who I now consider to be my good friend. For over three years, Abdul Aziz has had to lie to his mother about where he is. There had been too much tragedy in his family before he was forced to flee, and he worries that his mother could not cope with knowing the fate that has befallen him. She has already lost one son to an emerging genocide. So Aziz makes up stories about where he is to try to keep her strong.
At the same time, Aziz’s actions have moved beyond reassuring his mum to also trying to lift the spirits of his friends. He is all too aware of the enormous toll indefinite detention is having on their mental and physical health, and circulates positive messages to help them resist giving up. ‘Life has thrown so much at you, and you’ve survived. Trust that you can survive this too.’
Aziz is constantly communicating between the men detained in Manus and the outside world, providing important updates to his fellow refugees about political developments and legal cases. And when some of the men have ended up in the run-down Manus hospital he has gone out of his way to visit them, providing personal support and helping to lobby for appropriate medical care. He rarely has time off from all this work, and says that although he seems happy his smile hides deep sadness, and he is sometimes so tired that it is almost too much to bear. Nonetheless he continues to reassure his friends: ‘Don’t give up my dear friends our time is coming soon.’
Also in Manus is a beautiful, kind man who, like many others, struggles daily with the poor quality of food he is served. Many try to eat what they can, but Nadir* has eaten very little of the food on offer. It is so poor, he says, that he can usually only eat the rice. When the PNG Supreme Court ruled in April that detaining asylum seekers who had committed no crime was unconstitutional, the response of the Australian and PNG governments was to allow detainees access to the town in Lorengau if they travelled there and back on a designated bus. Nadir saw his opportunity.
Finally able to visit the town market (effectively on day release), he bought a handful of fresh fruit and vegetables to add to his rice. It came as a shock to me—but not to him—that these were confiscated by Australian guards when he was searched on his return to the detention centre. Others relayed to me that many items bought in town—including multivitamins, milk powder and antibiotics—were also routinely confiscated. On one recent occasion, two Afghan men were attacked by locals in Lorengau while attempting to bury multivitamins in the sand. They had bought them at the pharmacy but knew they would be confiscated by guards if they took them back to the detention centre. They had hoped to hide them safely at the beach until their next visit. Not to be deterred, Nadir has tried again to bring fresh food into the centre, finding more ingenious ways to hide it even with the odds so stacked against him.
For more than two years, Zanko* has waged a personal campaign to lobby IHMS (the health services provider in the detention centre) for appropriate care. He has had very worrying symptoms including abdominal pain and vomiting and wanted a diagnostic test. Nine months ago that was finally granted. Although he was told not to worry, his medical records showed the doctors queried whether he had a life-threatening condition. They could not determine this conclusively with the limited medical facilities in PNG. Following his test, they recommended he be transferred to Australia within a month for surgery to make sure it would not progress.
Despite this recommendation from medical professionals and continued written requests from Zanko, he was kept in Manus and told by IHMS after nearly six months that he could not yet be transferred to Australia. ‘There are certain channels we need to go through … Please be patient … If you are concerned about this issue we encourage you to fill out [another] medical request form and await your review.’
Never giving up, Zanko continued to lobby for medical treatment. He suffered increasingly debilitating pain and anxiety and, when he managed to sleep, often woke with terrible nightmares. He was told to keep waiting and take Panadol. Many men told me this has been the standard response on Manus, and that hundreds of people now line up for doses of pain relief or sleeping tablets every day. Some said they don’t even ask for treatment because they believe medical concerns will only be used to increase the pressure on them to return home. A short time ago Zanko tried to bypass IHMS and asked a Border Force officer for help. He was outraged by the reply, ‘Yes, I can help you. I can help you go back to your own country.’
Just in the last few weeks a specialist surgeon was flown to Port Moresby to conduct Zanko’s surgery. This after almost nine months of lobbying including from Zanko and more recently Australian doctors and the AMA. Still, though, he has not been given results of a test to show if his condition has become life-threatening, which would necessitate additional urgent treatment. In Australia results would be available within a few days. Again, he is forced to fight for his appropriate medical care within a detention regime that has repeatedly denied it.
Esmaiel Saiedi’s running shirt. Photo credit: Behrouz Boochani, Facebook.
There are several talented athletes who have been detained in Manus for the last three years. Esmaiel Saiedi—a champion in jujitsu and marathon running—recently staged a protest to bring more attention to the profound mistreatment of all the men imprisoned there. Inside his small compound he ran 25 kilometres every day until he had clocked up 500 kilometres. Using his talents in the best way he could, he wrote a slogan on his T-shirt to make his purpose very clear: ‘I am still alive running for justice.’
Despite the inability of outside journalists to access the detention centre, Esmaiel’s actions succeeded in getting the attention of the Australian media. Esmaiel said he wanted Australians to know that the men in Manus are victims of violence; they are not criminals. Nor are they the threat to the Australian people that the government represents them as. For his friends in Manus prison Esmaiel’s peaceful protest has become a symbol of resistance.
The stories of Esmaiel and many other men in Manus have come to us in Australia because of the tireless efforts of another man imprisoned there. A journalist before he sought asylum in Australia, Behrouz Boochani has continued to work inside the detention centre by using every available means to tell the world what has been happening behind the fences. Although mobile phones were banned until early this year, within his first few months in detention Behrouz managed to buy a phone with cigarettes and have it smuggled in to send messages to media around the world.
Spending long hours on his work, Behrouz has provided information for countless stories written about Manus by other journalists over the last three years, as well as publishing many stories under his own name. Now known to many Australians through his writing and regular Facebook posts—and his very public challenge to Malcolm Turnbull on Q&A—he has entered Australian civil society even though he has not yet set foot on mainland soil. But his work has come at personal cost. His first phone was confiscated after a raid on his room and he was punished for his activities. He has spent several weeks in solitary confinement and Manus jail.
Undeterred, he repeated the same process to get another phone and send out messages on WhatsApp while hiding under bedcovers. For him there is no other option. His concern is not just for the people imprisoned on Manus Island and Nauru, but also for Australians whose liberal democracy he sees as being threatened by a budding fascism and eroding of human and civil rights. Always, his work continues. ‘This is my duty. It’s like a mission. I must fight. I must write.’
Behrouz was recently recognised with the Social Justice Award from Sydney’s Diaspora Symposium. In his acceptance speech (sent via WhatsApp), he also acknowledged the inspiration of women detained on Nauru: ‘I have profound respect for them as role models … [they are] pioneers in a new form of resistance. I hereby dedicate this award to all the women imprisoned on Nauru.’
Protesters in the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, August 2016. Photo credit: Drake Nathan, Facebook.
Now that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus has been ruled illegal, all the men can carry phones. That also means more photos from inside the centre can reach us here. One group have determined to use that in an ongoing social media campaign, now protesting publicly against their mistreatment for the 126th consecutive day.
Mustafa, Abdul, Sher and Houssein say they will protest every night until they are safe and free. Like many in Manus they see themselves as political hostages, suffering at the hands of a country that preaches freedom when they have committed no crime. They are protesting, too, at the inequity of treatment, with some people arriving on the same boats sent to Australia while they—apparently randomly—were sent to languish in prison. This despite the Australian government’s insistence that no asylum seeker arriving by boat after 19 July 2013 would ever be resettled here. These men know people who arrived after that date who are now living in Australia, so also know that statement to have been a lie. They want more Australians to hear their voices. ‘We all have family – sisters, brothers, mums, dads, wives, children,’ ‘Enough is enough. Have some mercy on us please. Australia is not like that.’
These men of Manus continue to suffer the unimaginable torment of indefinite detention. What happens to them from here may be out of our control, but we all have the choice to join them in seeking justice. With their limited resources they do what they can, but here in freedom we can do so much more to help. As they tell us with their slogans, we have two alternatives: ‘sit and watch while their lives waste away,’ or demand that our government stops ‘committing crimes against humanity’ and ‘ends this prison please.’
* Others wished to include their names but could not for legal reasons.
Kirrily Jordan is a Research Fellow in the College of Arts and Social Sciences. She has a longstanding interest in social justice which recently took her to Manus Island in a personal capacity. She was privileged to meet some of the men being detained there and hear their stories first hand. In her spare time Kirrily volunteers with the ANU branch of the Canberra Refugee Action Committee and is a member of ANU Academics for Refugees