Manus Island refugees are ‘political hostages’

Greens Senator Nick McKim tals about his experience on Manus Island, at a meeting in Sydney on April 29.

“Political hostages” is an apt term to describe the situation of the several hundred men on Manus Island, Greens Senator Nick McKim told a forum hosted by the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney on April 29.

McKim gave an insight into the siege on Manus Island detention centre in October and November last year. Aziz, one of the refugee leaders on Manus Island, spoke via video, detailing the desperate situation the men are living in today.

Aziz said those still on Manus Island face a severe crisis, which is affecting them mentally and physically. Six months since the closure of the detention centre, the men are now housed separately in three facilities. He spoke of a rapidly deteriorating medical crisis with International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) pulling out of Manus Island and forcing hundreds of refugees, many with serious medical conditions, to use the Lorengau hospital. They do not know who will replace IHMS and there are no medical services for the seriously ill refugees.

Ten refugees have attempted suicide because of the harsh conditions and insecurity they face. A number have cut contact with their families because, after five years on Manus Island, they see no hope for their situation.

McKim visited Lorengau hospital last year and what he described is a disaster. He spoke of a building where the roof was falling in, with no psychologists or psychiatrists and only one doctor who is rarely available. He described medical equipment the Australian government had provided still wrapped in plastic as no one had been trained in how to use it.

McKim said the state of siege late last year, as the Papua New Guinea and Australian governments were trying to force people to “voluntarily” leave the centre, constituted a new level of torture. Detainees were given food for one day, access to medication was removed and water and power were cut.

About 15% of detainees were taking prescribed psychotropic drugs. McKim said, as he walked around the centre he could “hear the moans of sick and traumatised people, who [the Australian government] had cut off their medication cold turkey”. McKim is convinced that the decision to cut off supplies came from immigration minister Peter Dutton’s office.

The resistance to this siege is inspiring. It began, McKim said, with the men on Manus Island holding meetings daily at which they collectively decided to resist being moved to “another prison”, while supporting the decision of the few who agreed to leave.

McKim believes: “A large part of [this decision] was regaining their agency which had been denied them for so long … regaining some control over their futures … it was a brave act by these guys.”

For two weeks the men withstood the siege. They organised methods to collect rainwater and also rigged up a makeshift electricity supply. When the centre was vandalised the men set about restoring order. Local Manusians smuggled food and water in through the military blockade on land and on small vessels through the naval blockade at sea.

During these tense and traumatic months, none of the refugees showed any violence to each other or the authorities. McKim said: “it was one of the great triumphs.”

On the final day, when the PNG mobile squad went in to viciously break the resistance with metal bars, they asked for the leaders, such as Aziz and Behrouz Boochani. Everyone put up their hands and said: “I am Behrouz and I am Aziz.”

The men are now living in accommodation sites on Manus Island that have serious hygiene and safety issues and lack running water and food.

Aziz said all they hear from authorities is “US, America, US” but the refugees ask “Where is US? We want freedom”. Only a handful of people have been offered safety in the US — there will still be people on Manus Island when the deal is concluded.

With Labor and the Coalition walking lockstep on this inhumane policy, it will take a mass political movement to break it. The protests and support given by people across Australia to the men on Manus Island during the siege show it can be built. McKim said his office is constantly receiving calls from people supporting him for standing up for refugees and asking how they can help.

McKim said he considers the Liberal Party a lost cause, but there are sections within Labor who do not support the current policy.

He went on to criticise left-leaning Labor MPs such as Ged Kearny who use pro-refugee rhetoric but fail to take any action or vote against their party’s refugee policy in parliament. McKim argued that the movement needs to put pressure on these MPs to cross the floor to create a wedge.

He said it was only a matter of time before present and previous governments would be called to account for their role in what he termed one of the darkest chapters in Australian history: the exile and torture of what amount to political prisoners, people who had legally sought refuge in Australia

Many of the men on Manus Island now say they want to be resettled in countries other than Australia, such as New Zealand, which has offered to take some. However one man is reported by McKim to have said he still wants to come to Australia as he is “Peter Dutton’s worst nightmare”.