One year ago, the Regional Processing Centre (RPC) at Lombrum Naval Base (located on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea), where refugees and people seeking asylum were being detained, was closed. The centre housed hundreds of men – refugees and people seeking asylum – that Australia had been sending there since July 2013. Some in the centre refused to leave. Some feared for their safety in the local community. They also feared what would happen to them once the centre had closed, and the Australian government washed their hands of them.
Those men were forced out brutally, first by the withdrawal of services, then by the withdrawal of food, water and other necessities, and finally by force. They were sent to live in three ‘transit centres’ on Manus Island, two of which did not meet basic standards, all of which feel and operate like detention in another guise.
Their fear that they would be forgotten is being realised. No longer technically in ‘detention’, their plight has dropped off the radar. They are less visible, more dispersed, and have been cast into a different kind of limbo. The only real prospect of getting out for many has been the United States (US) resettlement deal, but this has become an increasingly faint hope with a high rate of rejections of some nationalities, and an extremely slow pace of application processing. The pace of people being forcibly returned home is also accelerating.
Prolonged and indefinite detention, combined with bleak future prospects, is breaking many of these men. Since August 2017, three men have killed themselves. Many more have tried. In recent months, one man tried to hang himself, another tried to set himself on fire, and a third swallowed razor blades and nail clippers. Yet the Australian government has cut mental health support in half and ended torture and trauma counselling that was previously a lifeline to many.
Other refugees and people seeking asylum are in severe, prolonged and unnecessary pain, as they try to deal with their increasingly complex and chronic medical conditions with reduced support. After the closure of the RPC, there has been a significant reduction in availability of health care. The current health clinic on Manus Island is much smaller and harder to access, meaning many people have to rely on an overstretched and under-resourced local hospital.
Now, refugees often have to pay for their own medications, medical reports and health care after hours. They must do so out of their meagre allowances or by relying on the generosity of ordinary Australians who have fundraised for them and organised money transfers. It is increasingly impossible for refugees and people seeking asylum in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to be transferred to Australia for medical care, even when they have physical or mental health conditions that cannot be treated in PNG.
In spite of the cloak of secrecy that surrounds offshore processing, the men on Manus have been bravely speaking up for themselves. They have written books, made films, drawn cartoons, and taken photographs, highlighting their daily abuse. They have asked us, again and again, to treat them as humans, to understand what is happening to them, to understand why it is wrong, and to speak up for them in ways that they cannot.
At a time when the tide finally seems to be turning on the brutal and illegal policy of offshore processing, we must make sure that these men, both the brave and the broken, are not forgotten. We can never give them back what they have lost, but we can and must give them a way to get out of the hole that we have put them in.