Photos taken by refugees of their living conditions in the Australian detention camp on Manus Island have led to a new round of “systematic assault on asylum seekers’ basic rights”, according to Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Nick Riemer.
About 115 people have been sent to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea from Australia since November, including 30 children. They sent photos taken on mobiles and tablets to refugee advocates in Australia on January 2. The photos show that refugees are living in refurbished containers with little protection from the weather in an area with a high prevalence of mosquito-borne malaria. They had basic water amenities and were sleeping on camp stretchers or bunks.
Refugees have said, “People are being bitten and have sores all over their arms and legs,” and the water was not hygienic.
Children were shown sleeping outside to escape stifling heat. Plastics chairs and tables appeared to make up most of the furniture. Captions for the photos say, “Is this home?” and “No, door, no window, no privacy but home for five years”.
The photos were the first genuine images of conditions inside the camp, as journalists have been refused access. They show that the Australian government's rushed return to offshore processing has landed asylum seekers in squalid and inhumane conditions.
After the photos hit Australian media, refugee advocates said communication with Manus Island was silent for three days. Later, refugees said all internet and phone access had been denied on the island. They said the tablets were confiscated and cameras disabled, allegedly by department of immigration staff.
Department of immigration media spokesperson Sandi Logan accused the refugees on Twitter of “staging” the appalling conditions in the photos. He also said there was “no truth whatsoever” about phone and internet restrictions and that disabling cameras was done to protect detainees' “privacy”.
Advocacy group Children Out of Detention (ChilOut), which has been in regular contact with refugees in the camp, said Logan's claims were “spin”.
ChilOut spokesperson Leila Druery said: "How is it possible to stage a photo of missing doors, flyscreens, no privacy, really basic washing facilities?"
Detainees have also expressed their horror over being locked in an offshore detention camp with several letters to the department of immigration.
A January 7 letter on behalf of Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers on Manus Island asked Australian immigration: “Why [did] you transfer people here before the Centre was ready for it. Things are still not complete. Facilities are unprepared and unfinished. Policies are not in place ...
“We are waiting for racks to dry our clothes on, doors on our rooms, air conditioning in our school or in places we meet. Nothing is finished or complete. Everything takes so long.”
The letter details the ways in which Australian authorities have dodged and denied refugees' questions, and it makes an appeal for immigration staff to meet with them personally.
The welfare of the 30 children that were taken to the island with their parents was also a key concern.
“You say you respect women and children and that children matter greatly to you,” the letter said. “But because of their placement here our children 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 … As parents we are so concerned and worried about the future and welfare of our children.
“Are you prepared to sacrifice children here to achieve your policy. Do you have no concern that the adults also are suffering and deteriorating mentally every day they are here. What use will we be after this is over to society if we are mentally scarred and depressed from this experience?
“How can we be good parents or siblings in this environment? We don't want the rest of lives effected by obsessions and other mental effects. We don't want to become needy or dependent constantly needing help of doctors and mental specialists.
“We don't want to feel our life is worthless and empty. We want to be healthy mentally when we go to Australia or another country and be useful.”
A hand-written letter by a seven-year-old refugee, which included a drawing of a person behind a fence, revealed some detail of the mental pressure and despair children in detention are experiencing.
“I want to escape out of the fence and swim in the sea and I want to be free,” the boy wrote.
“All the people cries because they have nothing …. not even telephone to talk to their families.”
He also wrote that he was afraid to take a shower, because the camp had run out of water multiple times.
Papua New Guinea's opposition leader, Belden Namah, has said he will take Australia to court to challenge the legality of the “regional processing centre”. He told ABC radio on January 9 that PNG could not detain people unless they had broken the law. He said his aim was, "To free the asylum seekers who are kept on the Manus Island detention centre, to declare the entire asylum seeker [centre] on Manus Island unconstitutional and have it removed."
Many of the challenges being faced on Manus Island are similar to the months of suffering endured by more than 300 men held on Nauru. After almost four months of tent accommodation, the Australian government said at the end of December that “permanent” facilities would be completed in the first half of this year.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said last month that Australia was failing to meet its “international protection standards” on Nauru.