Out of Sight Out of Mind

28 Apr 2016
Out of Sight Out of Mind

Editor's Note: The apostle James has something odd to say. Rather than pure religion being about elaborate services or even particular rituals, he tells us pure religion is about helping the vulnerable in their time of need (James 1:27). We might be tempted to disregard his counsel, but we find Isaiah says the same thing (Isaiah 58). And then there’s Jesus’ description of the sheep and the goats, which is pretty hard to ignore (Matthew 25). However, all of that turns into irrelevant aspirations if we don’t apply the principles to our world today. But how can we?

 Australia and Papua New Guinea are, at this very moment, holding innocent people—accused of nothing other than seeking refuge—in deplorable conditions. Surely, as Christians, we cannot in good conscience turn a blind eye. Surely, if the words of the gospel are to have any meaning at all, we cannot be silent. “Do not forget to entertain strangers,” Hebrews 13:2 tells us. But our societies aren’t entertaining strangers; we’re brutalising them. And if we have any doubt, Josh Dye’s confronting piece below lays out some of the facts that are leaking out of Manus Island.


Jungle covers most of Manus Island, which is just 100km long and 30km wide. Currently a PNG naval base and previously the site of an Australian World War II base, Manus is home to about 50,000 people. The island is also home to one of "Australia’s Regional Processing Centres", used to detain asylum seekers who arrive by boat. This centre, resurrected under the Labor government in 2012, is the same one that was used between 2001 and 2004 during the Howard government’s Pacific Solution.

Recently, the centre went under the microscope following the death of 23-year-old Iranian man Reza Berati in February.

Mr Berati was killed during violent confrontations between locals, camp staff and asylum seekers. It is alleged that Mr Berati was thrown from a balcony before being beaten to death. According to PNG police, he died from a blood clot in his brain following multiple blows to his head.

Liz Thompson, a whistleblower and former Manus Island migration agent, said there had been protests every day for months leading up to the tragedy, including demands for a resolution to the indefinite detention.

Ms Thompson’s role at the centre, where she worked in August 2013 and February this year, was to assist detainees putting together claims for asylum, a process she described as "fake". She was the first person to publicly resign from Manus Island following Mr Berati’s death.

According to Ms Thompson, asylum seekers became upset on Sunday, February 16 after being told by Australian Immigration officials they would be resettled in PNG, despite PNG having no provisions for resettlement. "Protests started up again on Sunday night and were brutally suppressed by the riot squad," she said.

Contrary to reports that the asylum seekers initiated the violence, Ms Thompson believes otherwise: "What has been described to me by detainees is that on Sunday they were attacked . . . On Monday, many of my young clients had broken hands, defensive wounds from shielding their heads from rocks thrown by guards."

Ms Thompson described the incidents as "a coordinated assault by security staff and locals". "Monday night has been described to me as an organised attack: the attackers went room to room in some compounds; guys were attacked in their rooms as well as outside of them."

Azita Bokan, an Iranian translator working for the Australian Immigration Department at the centre, was the first person to speak out about the attacks, leading to her suspension by the department. She described the scene as "horrific" and alleged that PNG locals, including employees of security contractor G4S, initiated the attacks.

"There was blood everywhere. The number injured was horrific; people with massive head injuries, at least one with a slashed throat," Ms Bokan said, adding that detainees had only plastic chairs to shield themselves.

Since the outbreak of violence, Ms Thompson holds grave concerns for the asylum seekers remaining at the centre. "People are in despair," she said. "They are frightened and sleeping in shifts, keeping guard over their sleeping quarters in fear of another coordinated assault."

Another source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said eyewitnesses to the murder had received death threats and were fearful for their lives. Some detainees have asked for protective custody, but are yet to receive it.

Ms Thompson concurs: "Those who witnessed Reza’s death fear reprisal. The killers know the witnesses very well. While [the witnesses] live with no protection from reprisals from outside the centre and under the threat of being resettled in PNG, they don’t feel safe to speak."

The anonymous source described the mental health of detainees as "absolutely dire" and said there had been multiple suicide attempts, instances of self-harm and mass hunger strikes.

While the Australian Government is conducting an inquiry, it has refused to make the results public and Australians will be denied the opportunity to learn the truth about the violence.

At the time of writing, no arrests had been made in relation to Mr Berati’s death. Two human rights inquiries into Manus Island, set up by PNG judge Justice David Cannings, have been blocked. Ms Thompson said the level of interference by the Australian Government into the inquiry was "extraordinary".

"Australia is responsible for what happened," she said. "The [detainees] want that acknowledged and they don’t want to stay on PNG."

Ms Thompson is not only concerned for the detainees' safety but also about their living conditions. "The conditions are extremely hot and humid, disease spreads easily [and] whole compounds have zero internet access so they can barely keep in contact with family. Guys spend hours every day lining up for everything in the hot sun."

Detainees are stripped of their dignity, too. “They don’t have a change of clothes—they met with us in their pyjamas, which some people found deeply humiliating,” Ms Thompson said.

The conditions described mirror those detailed in an Amnesty International report into the detention centre from November last year. The report asserted that asylum seekers in one compound were denied sufficient water, with each detainee receiving just 500ml per day.

In an example of the punitive rules in the centre, detainees are only allowed to go on excursions outside if they are wearing covered shoes. But despite requests for covered shoes, no-one receives them.

However, the issue is not the conditions the asylum seekers endure; it is the existence of detention centres in the first place. "Those inside the camps don’t want nicer cages—they want freedom,” Ms Thompson said.

Refugees are entitled to Australia’s protection under the Refugee Convention, which Australia was one of the first countries to ratify in 1954. Consistently, over 90 per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat are found to be genuine refugees in need of protection. The fact that just one asylum seeker from Manus Island has been processed since the centre reopened in 2012 is both a travesty and a disgrace.

Successive government policies of mandatory detention have created a system where people are simultaneously punished and denied their rights. "Offshore processing is inhumane, deliberately cruel and a breach of our obligations under the Refugee Convention," Ms Thompson said.

The tough, uncompromising policy on asylum seekers only exists because a majority of Australians either support it or don’t make enough noise criticising it.

Ms Thompson’s advice on how to achieve change is simple: "[Find] a way, where you are, to do something practical to dismantle the camps."     


Interview with Liz Thompson & interview with anonymous source (identity protected)
Amnesty International Manus Island report pdf

Josh Dye is currently studying for his Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney.


Josh Dye