Summer 2018-19

Manus has taught us patience

In recent months, mounting political pressure has compelled the Australian Government to remove most refugee children and their families from Nauru. While the transfer of children to Australia is encouraging, the plight of those still stranded on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea remains bleak and uncertain.

This latest update from Rebecca Lim underscores the need for urgent action to protect the health of the men on Manus and resettle them in safety as soon as possible. The people of Australia have shown action can be taken for the children in Nauru. The same must now happen for the men of Manus, and we must make sure they are not abandoned and forgotten.

Image of jetty looking out to sea. Text: Until When? The forgotten men on Manus Island
Cover of report, Until When? Click to open report.

Over 600 men remain indefinitely trapped on Manus Island. Many have been stuck on the island for years in deteriorating conditions. Seven have died and, in recent months, there have been numerous attempted suicides. Since January, our own members who have visited the Island have witnessed the toll on the men as the number of mental health professionals has halved, torture and trauma counselling has been withdrawn, and access to medical care and medicines has been reduced.

This year, I have made five visits to Manus Island.

As a migration practitioner and community engagement/educator, I have been on the ground to assist and engage with refugees on a variety of issues. It could be problems with banking, talking through their needs (health, future aspirations, day-to-day struggles), or questions of resettlement: Where will I go if the United States denies me resettlement? Why won’t Australia negotiate with New Zealand? What will happen to me? I have already been here for more than five years—will Australia abandon me and condemn me to death here in PNG? What crime have I committed in seeking to protect my life?

These are just some of the questions the refugees have asked me and, no doubt, many of their Australian friends. As at 22 October 2018, only 146 men from Manus had been offered resettlement in the United States, and for the remainder the future remains clouded with uncertainty.

I have many Manusian friends. This year, I delivered training in food safety to 25 Manusians and to a number of refugees who were keen to undertake this course. We provided resources to a St Vincent de Paul conference that supports two boys with a disability, and modest livelihood initiatives to a number of villages.

While having lunch with two refugee friends on my most recent visit, I asked them what Manus has taught them. Both replied at the same time: patience.

I asked them what they meant:

Everything takes time and sometimes we cannot control certain things. It is frustrating when we try to talk with our families and the phone connections are at best woeful. We say hello, hello … can you hear me … then we talk and talk … suddenly our phone rings and we realise our conversation has been cut off and the person on the other side is trying to ring back.

I burst out laughing because that is also my experience when the men and I are trying to talk on the phone.

On a lighter note, one of the men kindly offered to apply hair colour to cover my greys. So we did that and while he and his friend were chatting away, I went to wash off the hair colour. When I towel dried my hair, both the men checked my hair thoroughly to see if I had any more visible greys. So there I was with my head down and both men going through each strand of hair…we all cracked up—such precious moments are not to be forgotten.

Back to the serious stuff: I urge you to read the recently released report by Amnesty International Australia and the Refugee Council of Australia Until when? The forgotten men on Manus Island. The report highlights how Australia’s offshore detention policy is breaking the minds and bodies of the men stranded in PNG. It is sobering and documents the harms of this policy: the growing mental health crisis; the despair and loss of hope; the lack of appropriate health care. It is a policy designed to break even the most resilient of men. Everyone is sick. Everyone is tired. We are starting to see the strong men who have been supporting the weaker ones now break down themselves. I am tired. My Australian friends who have been supporting the men are tired.

The Manus people themselves are tired. They feel sorry for the men and are wondering why their government is not doing anything to pressure Australia to resettle the men quickly. They say the prices of basic food items have increased in the market. Their hospital cannot cope with their health needs, let alone the complex health needs of the refugees. They want to restore the reputational damage caused by Australia’s policies.

A local Manus resident quoted in the Until When report said,

They [Australia] did not respect the sovereignty of PNG and operating here on Manus under the veil of secrecy. The Manusians are getting the brunt of everything. Everyone comes to dump our friends here and forget about them and they think we, Manusians, can come with a magic wand and solve everything. The refugees are never certain of their future … they are in a hole, put a lid to a little hole to breathe some air.

What will happen to the children born to refugee fathers? There are 37 registered births and no doubt many more unregistered ones. The Manusians I have come to know and respect don’t blame the refugees or the girls. They blame Australia’s policies. What was the Australian Government thinking when it dumped more than 1000 men onto Manus Island? Did it not consider the consequences?

Dealing with the consequences of Australia’s policy was one of the issues discussed at a forum held in Port Moresby on 1 November, co-hosted by the PNG Bishops Conference and the Catholic Professionals Society PNG. As my friend, Fr Clement Taulam, remarked at this forum, ‘We now have to deal with the fifth group of refugees. These are the children of the refugees’. Fr Clement, who is Dean of Manus Province and has on-the-ground experience with the refugees, has ‘dealt with many issues, pastorally, morally and culturally’.

Participants at the forum agreed on the statement below which will be presented to the PNG government.

See: Amnesty International Australia and the Refugee Council of Australia, Until when? The forgotten men on Manus Island.

Statement from the Manus Refugee Panel Discussion

Participants at the Manus Refugee Panel Discussion hosted by the PNG Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Professionals Society today voted overwhelmingly to support the following statement:

Australia has a moral obligation to look after ALL refugees and asylum seekers.

Australia MUST take ALL refugees and asylum seekers to Australia by 25 December 2018. This is our Christmas present from Papua New Guineans and Manusians to the refugees and asylum seekers.

Papua New Guineans, including Manusians, have said we no longer support the ‘chequebook diplomacy’.

We are deeply concerned that the human rights of the refugees and asylum seekers have been breached as they were forcibly sent to PNG; and Australia’s policies have caused us reputational damage.

We, the participants, are speaking on behalf of the women and children on Manus who are the victims of Australia’s policies.

The men have suffered enough from prolonged detention. Enough is enough. The time has come to let them go.



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