Carol Hucker worked on Manus Island 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 on Manus Island. She said: “It is my hope that through this brief account the men on Manus will not be forgotten.”
This is the fourth part of a multi-part series and covers November 2013 to January 2014.
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For these rotations I worked as a case worker with the Salvation Army. As a case worker I conducted physical, emotional, spiritual and mental health assessments of the men. I learned more about the men and their stories.
The staff accommodation at this time was within walking distance of the centre but security warned us not to walk alone to the accommodation in the dark. They strongly advised the female staff to walk with men. There had been reports of local men carrying machetes and being drunk. There were reports of confrontations but no injuries to staff members.
Staff were consistently told by the Salvation Army manager that no one would employ whistleblowers. We were told that we could have an internet search done by any prospective employer. We were warned not to say anything about Manus. We were told that the Coalition government did not take kindly to staff disclosing information and they would make sure that we would not be employed again.
On this rotation a lot of men told me about their hopes and dreams for the future: to marry, have children, work or study. They also told me their fears of being in detention indefinitely and never attaining their goals. As they spoke I could hear the grief in their voices. For most of the men, going home was not an option as they feared being killed.
As a case worker I found out a lot more about the men’s health. I met men who needed to see an optometrist. Some men had glasses with cracks down the centre, others had broken, irreparable glasses. Some had difficulty seeing but nothing was done.
It was not until June 2014 that an optometrist visited the camp for the first time. Finally, people were given proper eye examinations. Some were given glasses and other eye problems were treated.
Another health problem prevalent throughout the camp was dental pain. There were many men who needed dental attention, but the dentist on Manus would only pull teeth out. The dentist was reluctant to treat the detainees and gave preference to the local people. Sometimes men missed meals because it was too painful to eat. When I left Manus in July 2014, there were more than 300 men on the dental register for treatment and the list was continuing to grow.
There were other severe health problems. One man I saw had a knee support bandage as his knee would pop out when he walked on uneven surfaces. He was very bow legged because of it. I could not believe that he was in such a condition and still walking.
On this rotation a white marquee served as the mess. The old mess and the counselling group area were used as accommodation for approximately 100 men. There were no single beds, only bunks. There was no air conditioning and limited personal space. It was so hot in there that I could not help but cry when I went past to see how some men were now living. Large fans were provided but it did not seem to help with the heat in this area.
Fragile psychological state
I became aware that trivial things could cause great distress, such was the fragile psychological state of the some of the men. I spoke with one man who was very upset that the sugar had been taken away. This was due to a small group who had made alcohol during my last rotation. I made him a cup of tea with sugar which he greatly appreciated. He explained to me that he was used to having sweet tea, which included a lot of sugar.
I began to smuggle some sugar in to him because I felt it was unjust to punish the whole camp for the actions of a few. Normally the men would have to ask the security guards if they wanted sugar. This man had been an officer in the army but had fled his country due to persecution. He just wanted to live in safety with his family.
Some men in Oscar compound, in protest at being indefinitely detained, put empty water bottles down the toilets which caused them to block. Bottled water was then replaced by one large bottle with cups. On many occasions I reported to security staff that there was no water or cups and that the bottle had to be replaced. Security would often say they were too busy to do it.
I was appalled that the men could not get access to drinking water as I thought this was a human right. However, it continued unchanged for many rotations. Every rotation I would complain about it and sometimes I would “smuggle” in some bottled water for the men.
There were constant problems with the supply of basic toiletries such as soap and toothbrushes. Because it was so hot and humid it was necessary to have more than one shower a day. If the men wanted to do any form of exercise they would want to have more showers. The soap they were issued with would often run out before the next issue and sometimes it was not stocked in the canteen for them to buy.
Soap was given out about once a month and it was always a small bar. Something that should have been easy was made so difficult. Just to ask the staff who managed the toiletries when the soap would be issued again was a nightmare. We were always being told that it would be given out in a week’s time or that it would be in the canteen the next day, but more often than not it would be weeks before the soap was distributed. Most staff “smuggled” soap in to give to people as it was cheap to purchase.
It was the same experience for anyone who needed a toothbrush. I was told that one man would receive a toothbrush in a couple of days. It was more than two weeks before he finally got one.
I could never understand why it was so difficult to get supplies. They came via a cargo boat from the Papua New Guinea mainland. Sometimes all the goods would arrive, but sometimes there would be things missing.
If a detainee requested something, we would have to say “Wait until the next boat arrives”. We said this so many times that before we could answer the men would say: “We know, the boat hasn’t come in”. It often took a long time for the boat to arrive. If the detention centre was in Australia these difficulties would not arise.
There was a young man on my caseload who became very depressed. He would not go on outings as he believed that he would be eaten by the locals. I tried to speak logically to him about this but he would not change his opinion. He had a severe toothache which became infected and it made it difficult for him to eat. Over time we did see a positive change in him. He just wanted someone to tell him that he mattered and was important.
A young unaccompanied minor told me that his mother had urged him to come out to Australia with his uncle. When I asked him how she could afford it, he said that the people smugglers dropped the price so he could get on the boat. Initially he had been accompanied by his uncle to Indonesia, but the uncle married an Indonesian woman and stayed leaving him to make the journey alone.
In the detention centre young men who were identified as being under 18 were either segregated in a separate area or sent to Nauru as an unaccompanied minor. When they turned 18 they would then be integrated into the adult population.
I also spent a lot of time with Tamil refugees. The men in this group were very committed to each other and bonded well together. They discovered that their families were being persecuted and threatened by the authorities in Sri Lanka. The families were constantly being questioned and extorted for money.
Some of their families had gone to another country as refugees. Most said that if they were to return home their fate would be certain death.
Some were quite happy to be resettled in PNG as they did not want to return to their country. Nearly all of the men have been persecuted and imprisoned in their home country. One man told me that after he had served his time in prison, government officials did not know what to do with him so they returned him to jail.
There were many other stories from men from many countries — Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan — who talked about persecution as the reason they had fled their homelands. Most said that their parents encouraged them to go as they feared for their lives.
One man had witnessed a murder in his country and lived in fear during his entire time on Manus. He feared that if he was sent back he would be murdered by the gang involved in the murder. He told me that most of the witnesses had been killed. It was difficult to reassure him that he would not be sent home as we had no idea what would happen to him.