Inside immigration detention – Part 9

Issue 

Carol Hucker worked in Manus Island detention centre as a counsellor for International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) and as a case worker for the Salvation Army from June 2013 to July last year.

She has allowed Green Left Weekly to publish her account so that people can become more aware of what is happening in Australia's offshore detention centres.

She said: “It is my hope that through this brief account the men on Manus will not be forgotten.”

This is the last part of a multi-part series and covers her time there in June and July 2014.

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Many men suffered from mental health issues and these seemed to become more severe the longer they were detained. Self-harm behaviours were common, even among men who seemed okay. One man who self-harmed required 72 stitches. He was always active, exercised, looked after himself and had, for most of the time, maintained a positive attitude.

Another man I knew well had made three attempts at suicide in the past year. When I was last on the island there was a man who was so mentally unwell that he was isolated from the other men, so he could have personal care and be watched over. He kept his head down and could be seen muttering to himself constantly. It was rare for him to make eye contact with anyone. He was in his own world most of the time.

Distressing stories

One young man told me how his boat had nearly sunk on the way over from Indonesia and that they had to use buckets to bail the water out of the boat so it would not sink. They had to do this for many hours and just as the boat was about to sink the Australian Navy rescued them. He had been through last February's riot and had now decided to return home to his country.

He spoke about his fear of returning as people could be taken from the airport and arrested on their return. He told me that he had a plan with his friends for getting through the airport and said if he made it through he would be safe. He is in contact with a colleague who says he did make it safely through the airport, but he continues to suffer from depression because of his experiences on Manus.

Among the other men I met was a young professional who had to escape persecution by the Taliban. His family encouraged him to leave, as they greatly feared for his safety if he stayed. This man spoke many languages fluently. He still had career hopes. He spent his time studying, mainly from books sent to him by his friends. He still had hopes of settling in Australia.

A man whom I knew on Manus asked me to visit his family who have resettled in Australia and are now Australian citizens. He said that the anniversary of his wife's death was coming up and he wanted to make sure that his family was okay.

When I visited his family, they showed me a photo of him prior to his incarceration on Manus. The man in the photo looked completely different to the man I knew on Manus, as he had lost a significant amount of weight.

Family members told me he had been persecuted for his Christian faith in his country, had been beaten by the authorities and put in jail. They told me he was crammed into a cell where the inmates had to take turns at sleeping on the beds provided, as there were not enough beds.

He told me that his family had come to Australia but he had stayed behind as his wife was dying. He stayed with her until she died. The thing that struck me about this man was that, although he was detained on Manus and had suffered many things, he still wanted to look after his family.

A young man told me that he was from a minority group in his country and his family had a prosperous business. He told a story about his father being kidnapped by the Taliban. He said that this was a common practice that could happen at any time.

He said that one day the family found a bag outside their house and when they opened it, it contained a hand. The family recognised it as the father's hand as it still had his rings on it. They were told that they would never see him again and, to this day they have not. As a result they could only bury the hand.

During his refugee interviews with Papua New Guinea Immigration it was determined that the fighting he had described could not be confirmed and therefore he was denied refugee status. When I left he had decided to appeal the decision.

He was upset that he was unsuccessful and worried about his future. His main concern was that he had not been understood during his interview, as there appeared to be inconsistencies in the transcript he was given.

Behaviour modification

I was in Mike compound one day talking to the men when all of the staff were removed from the compound due to some trouble that was happening in Delta. The camp went into lockdown.

When I returned to my employer area, one man was unconscious and in a neck brace and another was moaning. When I could, I went into Delta to find out what had happened.

A community leader told me that the security company had come in because some of the men were asking questions about some procedural matters. These men were to be taken to Chauka for behaviour modification. The community leader told me that when he asked the security team what was happening, he was pushed and told to be quiet or he would be next to go.

This happened often when I was on Manus with the new security company, Wilson's. They did not like to be questioned by the men. They said it incited discontent among the others. As a result men would frequently be sent to Chauka. Usually there was no aggressive behaviour, just asking questions.

One evening I was having dinner with local staff members who were working at the centre. They told me in no uncertain terms that they thought most of the men were not real refugees. I told them some of the stories that I had heard and they responded: “Well we should keep those ones”. I was shocked by their attitude and I did not ask them where they had formed their opinions.

Detention fatigue

Returning home I reflected on the deterioration of the men. For a lot of the men, detention fatigue had set in. General tiredness from being in detention was evident. It became more difficult to know what to say or do for the men. I felt helpless. I was left with a sinking heart. I did not know at the time that this would be my last rotation on Manus Island. An unexpected illness and a cancelled contract from my employer, meant I was unable to return.

I have been in contact with some of the men who have returned to their countries. They and those who remain on Manus are never far from my thoughts. I liked working with the men on Manus. Most of the men were warm, engaging and respectful.

I consider myself lucky to be an Australian and live in Australia. I am lucky that there is no war here and I am not from a minority race or religion and I don't have to flee to ensure my safety.

It is often said that Australia is a free country and that Australians in general like to give people a fair go. When I look at this situation with people in offshore detention, I wonder where these values have gone. Is it just for people living in Australia?

I am just an ordinary Australian but I believe in showing kindness to anyone who crosses my path. I find it difficult to understand any reason for keeping people in cruel and inhumane environments. If you are like me, you write letters, attend protests, meet with refugees already in our community. Keep doing it. Pray for them. Fight for them. Kindness has to prevail. Don't forget these men.

Thank you for reading this. If you would like to ask any further questions you can email me.

[This is the final part of Carol Hucker's account of her time on Manus Island. Earlier parts of her story can be found at Green Left Weekly.]

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