MANUS ISLAND, HUMILIATION AND DESPAIR
By Fr Giorgio Licini
Catholic Reporter PNG
The General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands (CBC), Fr Victor Roche SVD recently visited the centre for asylum seekers set up by Australia and Papua New Guinea in Manus Island. Here he answers a few questions by Catholic Reporter:
Fr Victor, what prompted your visit to Manus Island on 17-20 March?
I went as an observer of the Catholic Church to the hearings initiated by Justice David Cannings with the specific purpose of establishing if there was any violation of human rights in the refugee camp. Justice Cannings decided to take the initiative after riots took place on 16-17 February when a young Iranian refugee, Reza Barati, was killed and more than sixty others were injured, some seriously. Thanks to Justice David Cannings, for the first time members of the public and the media were able to visit the asylum seeker centre and see the facilities
Where are the asylum seekers originally from?
They are basically from very troubled Middle East and Asian countries. The highest number is from Iran (533), followed by Afghanistan (134), Pakistan (104), Iraq (94). There are also 90 Sudanese, 47 Somalis and a handful of North-Africans. There are 74 Bangladeshi, 69 people coming from Myanmar, 37 Lebanese, 27 from Sri Lanka, 5 from Syria. Almost forty people are stateless. The official total number at the time of our visit was 1296; all men; 56 of them in hospital. Women and children are reported to be held in the other centre of Nauru also in a remote part of the Pacific. During our visit some of the refugees tried to talk to us and to complain about their detention, but they were gently ushered away by security personnel.
Did the detainees have a chance to speak to the court?
On 19 March the court hearing began at 9 o’clock. Seventeen affidavits of detainees were submitted. Then eleven detainees were brought into the court room over a couple of days. They basically testified that they were forcefully taken to Manus from the remote Australian Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean and were told that they would never be allowed to settle in that country. They complained about the harsh conditions in the camp: one mentioned bread with worms; others cramped rooms, lack of privacy, deprivation of liberty and uncertainty about the future. They said that they left Iraq, Somalia or Afghanistan, because of threats to their life. They would like to be resettled in Australia or in a country that can guaranty their safety. From the camp they can communicate by phone or via internet with their families; but some are frightened by security personnel at the camp.
What do people in Manus think about the camp?
On Wednesday, 19 March in the evening I had a meeting with the leaders of the Catholic parish with local parish priest Fr Dominic Maka. There were about fifty men and women. They think that only the two governments of Australia and PNG took the decision about the asylum centre in Manus. “We were not consulted – they said -. We were forced to accept it whether we like it or not. This is our place, but we do not know what is happening. We are angry and sad about the situation of the detainees in the centre. The detainees feel that Australia is heaven, but Papua New Guinea and Manus is hell. They feel that they are not safe in the centre and in Manus. “
What do you think will happen?
It’s very hard to predict. On 20-23 March Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot was in Papua New Guinea. The issue of the asylum seekers was indeed in the agenda, but Papua New Guinea reiterated its commitment to “help” Australia and carry on with the Manus centre. People in the camp are made scapegoat of global political and economic problems. They are harshly treated just to discourage others from sailing to Australian shores. But in the process they are highly disregarded and humiliated beyond any acceptable level. (G.L.)