Inside immigration detention on Manus Island — Part 3

September 10, 2015
A secretly photographed shower block in the Manus Island Detention Centre.

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 third part of a multi-part series and covers September and October 2013.

* * *

Oscar compound was opposite Delta with a one lane “road” between them. To get to our office staff needed to walk down this road. Some staff referred to this as the “walk of shame”. At staff meetings we were told not to talk to or look at the men behind the fences. However, some of us could not do this and we would often stop to have a chat.

One day a man called me over to tell me that he had missed his medication round. I told the medical staff what had happened and they brought him his meds. I often talked to the men behind the fence, but it disturbed me to do this as I thought that we should not have to talk through fences.

In Foxtrot compound counselling groups and other activities were held in the back of the mess. When groups were conducted a security guard and an interpreter were always present. It was a nice space for groups and had a view of the ocean and palm trees.

Foxtrot had a gym, which was under cover. There were some personal trainers among the men who helped with the physical fitness of the detainees — and gave tips to the staff. There were also staff activity officers who oversaw some formal training with those who wanted to work out. Some men were keen to keep doing this to maintain their physical fitness. Others would just run around the compound. There was a volleyball area and needless to say it was very competitive. This was when the men seemed most alive.

Cigarettes as currency

There was only one formal canteen in the centre and this was in Foxtrot. At the time, Delta and Oscar had mobile canteens where the men could “buy” things like soft drinks, chocolate and chips if they had enough points.

The men were allocated a certain number of points each week. Extra points were allocated if they attended any scheduled activity, such as counselling, exercise or English classes. Points could also be exchanged for cigarettes.

Men who didn’t smoke would collect cigarettes as they were used as currency with the security guards and local people. The cigarettes were exchanged for goods such as portable head phones. Some deals were negotiated through the fence with the locals, who had easy access at that time.

Razors were given out regularly but strictly on an old for new basis. Foxtrot also had computers for internet use and telephones. There was a roster for men from all the compounds to ring home but the internet was reserved only for those in Foxtrot.

At this time some men were caught making alcohol. The pure alcohol that was being made was considered dangerous to the men’s health. To combat this, security removed all sugar from all compounds. The men had to ask security for sugar when they needed it. They were not allowed matches or lighters in the compounds so they had to ask the security guards to light their cigarettes.

Staff were advised not to walk to the wharf in the dark. However the one time that staff members did this at dusk, one was bitten by a dog. This was the only time that I had heard of a dog attacking a person on Manus. In response to this, “Operation Shoot ‘em Dead” was implemented to shoot local “stray” dogs.

When they heard of this, the locals hid their dogs. Staff were advised when dogs were to be shot. Many of the men were traumatised by this as most of them knew the sounds of shooting.

Mood of the men

The general mood in the camp had changed since my last rotation. When I first went into Oscar compound the most common question I was asked was: “What do people in Australia think about us?” I told them what I had seen in the news and what people thought — emphasising the positive aspect of welcoming refugees.

Even though these men had arrived after July 19, they still hoped to be resettled in Australia. They would often ask us if we thought the new [coalition] government would change the cut-off date so that they could be settled in Australia. We could only tell them that we did not know.

Most of the men had fled persecution and said that they had wanted to give their families a better life and future. Some had spoken out about the injustices of their government, making themselves marked men. Their families had urged them to leave so that no harm would come to them. They could make phone calls home and their families often reported that the local police were harassing them to find out the current location of their son or husband.

Scott Morrison visit

Scott Morrison, the then-immigration minister, visited the detention centre in September 2013. The road outside the compound was flattened and the pot holes filled in for his arrival. Morrison hosted a lunch for the management of the providers and Immigration officers and the staff mess was done up with tablecloths and decorations. But the other staff members were not invited to the lunch. The Minister stayed on HMAS Choules, for one night, but not in the accommodation reserved for ordinary staff.

I accidentally met Morrison when he was inspecting the facilities on the island. I was coming out of a staff room on my way to a meeting with two other colleagues, a mental health nurse and psychologist. In this brief meeting, the Australian head of immigration on Manus was giving the minister details on how many men had chosen to return to their countries.

Morrison asked us if the men wanted to be resettled in PNG. I said some refugees were happy for this to happen. Although they would prefer to go to Australia, they just wanted to be somewhere safe. Morrison then asked us what would happen when he told the refugees that they would not be coming to Australia. The psychologist advised him that there may be more attempts at self-harm and suicides. He said he would still be giving this message.

Not coming to Australia

Morrison first went to Bravo compound to tell a group of newly-arrived men and then to Oscar compound to give the same message to the community leaders. During this meeting he warned that they should continue to demonstrate good behaviour. He said family members in Australia would be found and prosecuted if they helped men get to Australia by boat.

I was told by a security officer that during the meeting with the community leaders, Morrison refused to take any questions from the men, despite their eagerness to ask questions. He was quickly hustled out of Oscar as the atmosphere became volatile. As he walked out of Oscar, the men began chanting something at him sounding angry and frustrated. I later asked a security officer what the men were chanting and was told that it was: “You’re treating us like animals, we’ll act like animals”.
Hopes crushed

After this visit an Immigration worker told me that it would be 5 to 10 years before refugees were settled in PNG. He said the PNG Government wanted the men to be able to speak fluent Pidgeon and English before they were considered for release. The men did not know this and my heart just sank.

It was left to staff to enforce the message that no one would be settled in Australia. For a long time the men did not believe it was true. They would often ask us if we thought they would still be able to come to Australia. It took a long time before it sank in that they were not going to Australia.

It was distressing to see the men deteriorate mentally as their hopes were crushed. Near the end of my rotation, permission was given to a few men to go to an oval in the community close to the centre. They were waving and looked happy, but more importantly they looked free. It was encouraging to see their happiness.

My rotation was over and I was ready to go home. When I was working I tried not to think too much about what was happening or what I was seeing. But when I returned home I needed a week to process what I had seen and heard. I cried for nearly the whole week.

Seeing the men housed in Delta made me think of animals in a cage. Delta was so overcrowded and there was not a lot of room for the men to move around or exercise. I was disturbed at having to speak to them through a wire fence with them holding onto the fence. It did not seem right to me to speak to another human being through a fence. The words of the man in the group who wanted action not just words from me, stays with me to this day.

But after four weeks at home I had recovered enough to return.

[Part 4 of Carol Hucker’s account will appear next week. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.]

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