101 East

Strangers in Paradise: Australia’s offshore detainees

We travel to remote Manus Island in Papua New Guinea to investigate Australia’s refugee detention programme.

“It’s like a prison, like Guantanamo Bay, the one America built in Cuba,” says Faisal. As he sits in a refugee detention centre on an island in the middle of the Pacific, his dream of starting a new life in Australia is fading.

Many refugees fleeing war and persecution dream of starting new lives in Australia, but recently any who try to travel there by boat instead end up on shores far away in Papua New Guinea.

More than 3,500km away from Faisal, his sister Samar waits by the phone in her Sydney home. When he calls, he tells her he has no news of when he will be released.

This is the life of more than 1,000 men detained behind the barbwire fences of Australia’s refugee processing centre on PNG’s remote Manus Island. Most of them are fleeing countries like Iran, Iraq, and Sri Lanka. They are detained for months or years while their claims are being processed, after which they are either sent home or to a third country.

It is difficult to gain access to the detention facility – where refugees live behind high fences and appear to be housed in shipping containers. Tensions are high. Detainees are frustrated over long waiting and processing periods.

Earlier this year, frustration at the camp exploded into violence. Riots broke out over two days and were brutally put down by PNG police. At the height of the violence, Reza Berati, a 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker, was killed.

The Australian government insists sending asylum seekers to Pacific Islands for processing deters refugees from risking their lives on dangerous sea journeys. For the more than 60,000 Manus islanders, hosting the refugee processing centre
promises job opportunities and increased Australian aid.

But at a nearby village, angry locals are calling for the detention centre to be shut down. According to Ruth Mandrakamu, the mayor of the provincial capital, Lorengau, the centre is breeding resentment and animosity.

“We are not benefitting in the way we should be,” she says. “I just want to make sure the governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea bring something permanent here for the local people.”

The Australian government recently announced that their resettlement policy in PNG will be revised. But it provides little information of its plans for the Manus Island detention centre or the refugees held inside. What is clear is that many locals staunchly oppose accepting refugees into an already impoverished nation.

101 East travels to the remote Manus Island in Papua New Guinea to investigate Australia’s controversial detention policy and the lives it continues to affect.

This film was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in October 2014.


By Aaron Fernandes

It was late 2013 when I first visited Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and watched plane loads of asylum seekers arrive at the island’s tiny airport. The plane bringing them had an Australian flag on the back tail fin but was otherwise unmarked, filled with people escaping countries like Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka.

I wondered what the refugees’ impression of Manus Island might be. In good weather, they might see it as an idyllic tropical paradise: long stretches of turquoise water, palm trees and locals walking barefoot along the roadside. In the rainy season however, winds howl off the Pacific Ocean and bend palm trees sideways, as monsoonal rains flood unsealed roads for days.

But the refugees didn’t have long to form an impression. They were taken straight to a detention camp for background checks that can take months or even years. Their intended destination was Australia, but the government has made it clear they will never get there.

Why should I go there and clean up Australia's rubbish? Give us proper training so we can participate. I would rather live my life fishing and hunting, not working for Australia's loose change.

by Manus Island local

Immigration policy is a hotly contested issue in Australia. Elections have been won and lost based on a political party’s ability to articulate a clear and increasingly tough set of policies. Efforts to “stop the boats” resonate strongly with an increasingly fearful electorate.

But in my years as an Australian living in Papua New Guinea, I seldom heard about how my country’s policies were impacting local Melanesians living on Manus Island. One woman told me how difficult it was to find a job on Manus before the refugee centre opened. Even though they are paid only $2-$3 per hour, in poverty stricken Manus island, it is better than no job at all.

But as I delved deeper, I found a growing sense of agitation among locals. “Why should I go there and clean up Australia’s rubbish?” one man told me. “Give us proper training so we can participate. I would rather live my life fishing and hunting, not working for Australia’s loose change.”

It was extremely difficult to find out what is happening inside the detention centre on Manus Island. Everywhere I went, I encountered a strict culture of secrecy imposed by the administrators of the camp. Officials from the Australian department of immigration followed me to communities and warned locals about speaking to journalists.

But the signs of growing tension are inescapable. In February, riots at the camp left 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati dead. Two Papua New Guinean nationals were charged with his murder.

The death of a second asylum seeker, Hamid Khazaei, after his leg became infected in the detention centre, only added to the difficulty of reporting there.

The Australian government has not sent any refugees to Manus since January; yet it continues to build facilities on the island. Exactly what it intends is anyone’s guess. Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s office refused to answer questions for this programme.

In the meantime, the Australian government has found another developing country willing to resettle refugees in exchange for increased aid – Cambodia. But it might look to Papua New Guinea as an example, where the arrangement is increasingly causing resentment due to unmet expectations.