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 Weeklyto 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 fifth part of a multi-part series and covers November 2013 to January 2014.
* * *
Many men on my caseload told me they were missing property from Christmas Island that had not come with them. I checked it out first with welfare who told me they had signed paperwork from Christmas Island advising that all of their property had been accounted for.
Upon further investigation, some of the men said they had felt threatened and were told by Serco: “You’re going to Manus. You just have to sign this and we’ll send your property after you leave”.
An interpreter who was working with me one day, confirmed that he had acted as interpreter for Serco on Christmas Island and the refugees were told this. Missing items included gold necklaces, money, clothing, passports and a gold and ruby wedding ring. I reported all of this to my supervisor, who informed security. They said they were waiting for a response from Serco but no answer ever came.
I still find this hard to reconcile. Maybe my standards are too high, but I thought that out of respect for vulnerable people, things should not go missing. The men never saw their property again.
The saddest thing was when the men apologised for coming by boat. They would say: “We know we have come illegally”. Some of the staff would correct them and say it is not illegal to seek asylum. We would try to convince them that they had nothing to apologise for and sometimes I would apologise for them being in detention.
One man told me how a bomb had landed on his house which killed his immediate family, his mother and brother. He still had shrapnel in his leg and head from the explosion and had to be careful how he moved. He was also prone to intense headaches.
His wife gave birth to a son in his home country. This was common for the men on Manus who had left wives in the early stages of pregnancy.
One particular man was very angry. He said he had been living in Syria and had to leave his house on business for a couple of days. When he returned there had been unexpected fighting in the area and his family home had been destroyed. His wife and three children were no longer there. After searching for them without success he eventually got on a boat to come to Australia. He said he just wanted to know if his family was alive or dead as he had not heard from them for two years.
After hearing his story I contacted the Red Cross to see if they could trace his family. During that rotation no information was received on his family. But when I returned for my next rotation I heard that the Red Cross had found his family. He was told that his family had been accepted as refugees and had been living in a safe country for the past two years.
When I next saw him he was a totally different man. He was glowing with happiness and thanked me profusely for helping him locate his family. He gave me his son’s Facebook page and from this I printed out some pictures of his family for him. I set him up with a Facebook account so that he could see other pictures of his family. He was also given his family’s phone number by the Red Cross and he spoke with them.
Another man had gone to Indonesia with his wife and three children. He said the whole family was meant to make the trip. On the day they were meant to make the journey the sea was very high and looked dangerous. He decided not to let his family come and sent them back to his country. His last memory of his youngest son was of him crying as he left his father.
He had often been reported by his neighbours to the police, for not complying with Islamic rules, such as observing daily prayer times and attending the Mosque. He said he had chosen not to, but was continually harassed for his decision. He arrived on Manus 10 days after the cut-off date.
After being on Manus for about 18 months he decided to go back home. On Manus he suffered from depression, migraines and would sleep most of the day in a dark, mouldy, air-conditioned room. I am still in contact with him and he told me recently that fighting was near his city. It has been difficult to keep in contact with him as the internet has been restricted in his area due to the fighting. He only wanted to bring his family to Australia so they would be safe.
I had arranged for family photos to be given to another man. When I told my supervisor that I had done this she advised me not to do it again. If I could not do it for all of the other men I should not do it for this one. I never agreed with this and would have been quite happy to do it for all the men. Even prisoners are allowed to have pictures of their loved ones.
The next time I saw this man he had already put the pictures up and was looking at them and crying. When he saw me he kissed me on the head and thanked me profusely.
Impact of Syria war
When the Syrian war escalated in 2013, some of the Syrian men were quite distressed. Due to the war, they could not be sent back to their country as it was considered unsafe for them.
One man sat at a compound gate with all of his belongings wanting to go home to protect his family. His eyes were expressionless, dead. After another man heard that his brother had been killed by a bomb blast in his country he was on his knees screaming, in great distress.
Some Iranian men identified as being gay. These men had hoped to come to Australia as homosexuality in Iran is a crime punishable by death. In Papua New Guinea it is also a crime and the use of condoms is not permitted. Eventually negotiations with PNG immigration were successful and condoms were allowed into the compounds.
Two of these men decided to return home to Iran. They planned to let their friends know they were safe in Iran. Not long after they returned, I saw a report that said two homosexual men had been hanged. To this day the truth of the report has not been determined, but we never heard from the men again.
Some of the men said they had family in Australia. It is sad to realise that through their bad luck, as one man told me, they did not make it to Australia. Some of the men were ashamed to tell their families that they had not made it to Australia. They would be considered to have failed. A couple of the men even went so far as to tell their families that they were in Australia.
Many of the men were quite resourceful. One day hats were being given out to the men in Oscar compound. One of the men found a way to get to that compound. When I saw him he was so happy he had got a hat. After he had been in Oscar compound for a few days he said he was ready to go back to his own compound.
On my way home from rotation, as I was waiting at Manus airport, a plane carrying refugees arrived. For the first time I saw how they were processed to go to the detention centre. Immigration, welfare representatives and interpreters first went onto the plane to talk to the men. There were security guards at the top and bottom of the stairs.
Each man was held in turn at the top of the stairs. They then walked down the stairs to be met by two security guards, who were much taller and more solid. They were walked the 20 or so steps to a waiting bus and then told where to sit. If they sat in a seat of their choice they were quickly told to sit in the seat they had been allocated. I watched the unloading of this plane for a little while, but I became too emotional and could no longer witness the process.
When I got home from these rotations I really struggled with the thought of being complicit in what was happening on Manus. One person put it to me that because I did not agree with the government policies I was not complicit.
But it was not as simple as that. I struggled with being powerless and not being able to do anything to help these men. I struggled knowing that they were not getting the medical attention they needed, that in one compound it was difficult to get water and that the men felt they had let their families down.