Manus refugees: 'Death is better than this slavery'

With the Manus Island detention centre slated to close, Al Jazeera speaks with four refugees about planned relocation.

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    Manus refugees: 'Death is better than this slavery'
    Refugees in the Manus centre protest against their detention by holding up signs [Courtesy @ManusAlert Telegram]

    On Tuesday, Australia will close the offshore camp on Manus Island after the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea (PNG) ruled last year that the detention of refugees there was unconstitutional.

    Food, water and electricity will be cut off, leaving more than 600 refugees fearful for their future. Most have lived on Manus for years, after Australia decided it did not want the refugees on its mainland; now, they will be relocated to the PNG town of Lorengau.

    Al Jazeera spoke with four refugees about how they ended up on Manus, their treatment by Australia, and their thoughts about the future.

    Persia: 'We are like lab rats'

    Persia arrived in Australia in 2013, in a boat with 80 other refugees fleeing from Indonesia. It was his second attempt; his first boat, carrying about 60 people, sank. Shipwrecked on a small island, Persia and the other survivors were eventually saved and brought back to Indonesia.

    Despite almost dying the first time, Persia was determined to make it to Australia, and he tried again.

    Upon arrival on Australian shores, however, the group was immediately arrested by Australian authorities and sent to Manus.

    Refugees in the Manus detention centre protest against the way they are treated by crossing their arms [Courtesy @ManusAlert Telegram]

    "All people were brought by force, in handcuffs, to Manus Island," said Persia, who spoke to Al Jazeera under a pseudonym for fear of repercussions. "I thought Australia was a country which applied human rights, but I was totally wrong."

    His treatment over the last few years has led Persia to distrust anyone acting on behalf of the Australian or PNG governments.

    "We are like lab rats," he said. "I have been monitored by the Australian government for 4.5 years. They know what I like and dislike, and what colour is my underwear, and my family, and my weaknesses, and all details.

    "I don't see any future," he added. "Honestly, death is better than this slavery."

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    In recent months, parts of the Manus detention centre have been prepared for the removal of the refugees. Fox Camp, the largest living area, was the first to be closed, with residents forced to crowd into other areas. Facilities and services such as the gym, library and access to English classes have been cut off.

    "We all are in extreme stress," Persia said. "The situation is extremely horrible ... There is no future for me, because the cruel government doesn't want me to live like a human being."

    In the days leading to the closure of Manus, several signs were placed around the camp, warning the refugees that other facilities would gradually be shut down as well. On Sunday, the mess was closed, and food packets were distributed among the refugees - two packets per person, barely enough to get them through the two remaining days. 

    The meals are to be prepared on a microwave or stove, but neither is available to the refugees in the camp. A small salad is provided as well, but the refugees do not have refrigerators to keep it from going bad. 

    Moving to Lorengau is not an option for Persia, he said, as other refugees have done so only to face abuse at the hands of an unwelcoming local community.

    "They said they would cut everything off to push people to move out, but we will stay inside, because inside is safe," he said. "We don't want to move out. [We will stay] until they shoot us."

    Boochani: 'Living in a war zone'

    Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani arrived to Manus in 2013 after fleeing the city of Ilam in Iran for fear of imprisonment, after the offices of the newspaper where he worked were raided and 11 of his colleagues arrested. In a first attempt to reach Australia, his boat sank, and he barely survived; the second time, his boat was spotted by the Australian navy.

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    Even in captivity, Boochani has remained true to his profession. One of the most outspoken people in Manus camp, he says he hopes that talking about the abysmal conditions will make others listen.

    "The situation in Manus prison camp is like we are living in a war zone, because the refugees are ready for something bad to happen," he told Al Jazeera. "At any time, soldiers could attack the prison camp."

    The option of relocating to Lorengau is a bad one, Boochani said.

    This food packet is supposed to last each refugee for two days [Courtesy @ManusAlert Telegram]

    "The local people are very angry with the Australian government, because they feel that the government humiliated them and did not care about their wants," he said. "They are ready to send their message to Australia through beating up the refugees. They already did that a lot of times, and a lot of refugees were beaten up and robbed by local people.

    "This place is not a safe place for the refugees, because there is not any protection for them."

    The looming prospect of PNG security forces swooping in to clear Manus camp is a frightening one for Boochani. Earlier this year, nine refugees were injured after a small dispute with security forces escalated and shots were fired, he said.

    A deal between the United States and Australia, under which the US has promised to take in an unspecified number of people from Manus and Nauru, has raised hopes for some, while others remain sceptical.

    "Why is it that Australia and the world don't want to understand this simple thing - that the refugees did not come to this country and don't want to be here?" Boochani asked. "Why don't they want to understand that these people have been tortured for more than four years?"

    Abdul: 'An animal in a zoo' 

    Abdul arrived on Christmas Island, an Australian territory, in July 2013 after fleeing from the conflict in Afghanistan.

    He was unaware that Australia had just struck a deal with PNG and Nauru for offshore detention centres, and that he would be sent to Manus. Several others who had travelled on his boat were sent to Nauru, which houses single women and families.

    A year later, in June 2014, Abdul, who declined to provide his last name, was officially recognised as a refugee.

    "I was offered to resettle in Papua New Guinea," he told Al Jazeera. "I'm resisting it to this very day, afraid I will be attacked by locals. Most of the locals do not want us here."

    Reports of refugees being beaten and robbed after moving from Manus to Lorengau have been rampant, with some later opting to move back to the relative safety of Manus.

    Ronny Knight, a former representative for Manus in the PNG parliament, said after two refugees were beaten on New Year's Eve by Lorengau police: "[They] deserved what they got". And now, with the Manus detention centre closing, the governor of Manus has threatened to block the transfer of the refugees to a new facility, saying he could not guarantee their safety.

    Abdul says he has no plans to leave the detention centre.

    Refugees hold up signs to protest against their treatment by the Australian and PNG governments [Courtesy @ManusAlert Telegram]

    "We're staying, because we want a solution to our endless suffering. We are in danger," he said. "Everyone in detention is so scared. The mood is very down. We have fear that we will be removed forcibly to Lorengau."

    After more than four years of staying quiet, Abdul said the pressure has built to the point where he had to speak out.

    "Australia treats me like an animal in a zoo. I have experienced trauma, depression, stomach problems ... I've never been scared like I am now," he added. "I have lost everything, so I'll speak against injustice. "

    Abdul and some of his peers pooled their money to buy a few mobile phones, with credits provided by sympathetic Australians. Using these phones, they have posted photos and statements about their deteriorating conditions on a public Telegram channel called Manus Alert. It is their only real connection to the outside world.

    Still, as the closure of the detention centre approaches, Abdul has no faith in the future.

    "I don't see any future here. My hope is crushed," he said. "In Afghanistan, I had a way out. Here, I do not see any way out."

    Amir: 'Death is waiting for us outside of this centre'

    Amir fled Iran at the age of 15. After spending several years in Malaysia, he left for Australia with the goal of applying for political and religious asylum.

    He eventually arrived on Christmas Island, but was sent to Manus in 2013.

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    "Imagine being in a prison on a tropical island, thousands of kilometres away from home. No lawyer, no sentence and no rights. No nothing," Amir told Al Jazeera.

    Amir, an aspiring writer and actor who studied literature and humanities, says the already bad conditions that the refugees have been living in for years have recently deteriorated.

    "Dirty food, dirty conditions, malaria, terrible treatment by the guards and in some cases, assaults and insults," he said. "And now, they want to cut running water, power, food, drinking water - and they want to remove the fencing that protects refugees from attacks by the locals."

    The announcement of the mess hall closing was posted in the Manus detention centre earlier this month [Courtesy @ManusAlert Telegram]

    As a result, he says, the mental and physical health of the refugees has greatly been affected, especially after part of the centre was closed down earlier this year. 

    However, like the majority of people living there, Amir does not plan on moving from the camp.

    "East Lorengau is another limbo, and if we move there, the Australian government can claim they have closed Manus detention [centre], which is false. That place can't hold more than 400 people and is a mental illness factory," he said.

    With only hours left before the camp shuts down and the refugees are forcibly moved, Amir says that a bleak future awaits him.

    "Right now, the only thing we can do is to resist the move, as we know death is waiting for us outside this centre," he said. "We know that without food and water, we are dead too, but at least we don't walk to our death with our own feet."

    Interviews for this story were conducted via WhatsApp and quotes were edited for grammar and clarity.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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