Eyewitnesses tell of refugee camp ‘hell’

Ravi reading one of his poems. Photo: Marziya Mohammedali

Two asylum seekers who had been detained in Australia's offshore detention camps spoke at a forum organised by Refugee Action Collective Victoria on April 22.

Ravi, a Tamil asylum seeker from Sri Lanka now living in Australia, told the forum how he spent two years on Nauru after surviving a 22-day boat journey. He said he had left one "hell", as a former political prisoner in Sri Lanka, only to be sent to another "hell" on Nauru.

Ravi said that freedom is "oxygen for human beings" and described how prolonged detention leads to a loss of hope. He said that "this policy is killing people", giving the example of his friend Omid who set himself on fire on April 27 last year, and died two days later.

Ravi described the dehumanising treatment of asylum seekers in detention, who are called by a number and not their name. This continues in Australia, where Ravi had to quote his number to his case worker.

Ravi expressed a desire to contribute to Australian society, saying: "We are not your enemies. We are your friends. Together we can make a great Australia."

Aziz, a refugee from Sudan, spoke to the forum via skype from Manus Island where he has been held for four years. He said: "We are not treated as human beings. The guards push, slap and handcuff us. Our names are taken away from us." He said the system is "designed to destroy people mentally and physically".

Aziz described an incident on April 14 when Papua-New Guinea Defence Force personnel fired on refugees in the cenre. He said the shooting began after a drunk soldier abused the refugees and was asked to go away. Aziz said that Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton had lied about what happened.

Lynne Elworthy, a mental health nurse who worked on Manus for four years until she was sacked after speaking to the New York Times, spoke about the conditions in the camp. Men are sleeping in tents or containers with no air conditioning. If they are sick they have to wait for approval to be taken to hospital.

Following a PNG court ruling that their detention is illegal, the gates of the camp are now open during the day, but Elworthy said the asylum seekers are "imprisoned by the shores of Manus Island".

She spoke of the billions of dollars spent on keeping people on Manus Island and Nauru, but also about the waste of the talents of the people kept in detention.

Both Ravi and Aziz spoke of inadequate health care, with panadol given as the treatment for every ailment. Ravi joked that panadol is a "magic cure for all diseases".

Audience members, including a number of nurses, discussed what they can do in their workplaces to defend refugee rights.

[Ravi (S. Nagaveeran) has written a book of poetry and art, entitled From Hell to Hell published by Writing Through Fences, Castlemaine, 2015.]

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