Who is responsible for asylum seekers on Manus? Terrifying Evacuation.

There has been an earthquake in the Pacific which has killed people in the Solomom Islands. I heard on the news that there was a tsunami warning for PNG. It did cross my mind to wonder if the Australian, PNG or Nauruan governments had given any thought to the extra responsibility of caring for asylum seekers if a natural disaster should occur on Manus Island in PNG or Nauru.

I was just closing down for the night when this email arrived from asylum seekers on Manus Island.

Red Cross arrived on Manus today.

It was around 1p.m that Salvation army received a fax from Canberra. It was written that tsunami may is coming to manus around 4p.m and you should evacuate the center as soon as possible.

All people were scared. the staffs only took their passports and cellphones. All the families were stressful and scarred. they took some clothe and left by bus. Some of the families went by walk to the topest place. Some of the SAMS didn’t left the camp. Most of them were Iranian. Poul moulds stayed with SAMS in detention center.

Some people were crying and kids terrified. They all thought that’s the end of their life. There were PNG police around people. They were waiting for Tsunami.

At 3:30 they said that everything is fine and nothing will happen and we are safe! All people went back to detention by walk.

Who is responsible for asylum seekers on manus? What would have happened if tsunami came? 34 kids may died!


Asylum seekers on manus island


Note: Paul Mounds works for the Salvation Army.  The SAMS are single men, many of whom are very depressed and have been refusing food at times.

This terrifying incident meant that the asylum seekers were forced to leave the camp. This was their first visit onto the rest of Manus Island since they arrived. Up until now, they have been locked up inside the camp 24 hours a day.

If you want to know how they were feeling before today, read the letters that we published today on New Matilda.



The story of Hediye, an Iranian girl our government has locked up on Manus Island

Several days ago, 18 year old Hediye, who has been detained/imprisoned on Manus Island by the Australian Gillard Labor government, posted this story on an asylum seekers facebook site. I am reposting it here on my blog so it can easily continue to be found.

Many women in Australia and other Western countries take for granted freedoms that are denied Hidaye and other Iranian women who are harrassed, arrested and imprisoned when they resist strict dresscodes and other forms of patriarchal discrimination. Hidaye has committed no crime. She has made a bid for freedom. She deserves the support of feminists and human rights activists everywhere. Instead she is locked up with no information about how long she will be detained or even how she can pursue her refugee claim. Yet, she continues to bravely send news of fellow detainees who self-harm, traumatised women who wail and cry out in the night, and children who ask their parents ‘why did you bring me here?’

Here’s Hediye’s story – please help make sure her voice is heard.

Patriarchy is alive and thriving in Iran where Iranian authorities take a hard-line approach to women, who don’t abide by the strictest rules set out by Islamic law. Women are not allowed to go to the stadium. Women are not allowed to drive a motorcycle. After divorce women are not allowed custody of their children. Lots of women are hit by their husbands but they don’t have any rights to complain about it. In comparison, a man and a woman with the same education, opportunity and skill, the woman has no chance at all and also they don’t get paid the same as males. If a woman cheats on her husband the government can stone her. Sometimes when they arrest girls they abuse them. In Iran, police charge you because of long nails. Men are allowed to have four wives. Women are not allowed to be a singer.

There was always something in Iran that stopped me from achieving my goals. Women have no rights in Iran. They are all dying slowly. Morality police travelled around in green cars, checking for boy/girl’s behaviour, making sure boys didn’t have western hair styles, etc. I was arrested in Tehran because I was not wearing my hijab correctly. They fined me many times. I paid lots of money. Whenever I saw a green car I ran away from them.

During my high school years I got into trouble. The teacher was always monitoring me and made me pray, read the Quran and appear in Islamic ceremony. I’m agnostic; I didn’t want to do those kind of things. My teacher told me “you are getting in trouble, Hediye”. Then I felt unsafe. The husband of the principle at my school worked for the SEPAH (Iranian Military branch that protects the Islamic systems and revolutionary guards) so I just felt unsafe and scared. I didn’t want to be separated from my family. I didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t want to be hung. I didn’t want to be abused by the government. So I left everything; my friends, family and lot of things.

All I want is safety, justice, freedom and honesty. I never found them in my country.

I just want a life which is the same as any other 18 year old girl. I’m full of wishes and hopes but… Now I’m here in Manus Island without any future.

Australian government risks lives of Sri Lankan asylum seekers

Yesterday, in a dramatic backdown, the Australian government agreed to allow 56 Tamils asylum seekers who were due to be deported to Sri Lanka to make applications to be granted asylum as refugees. Today, the Australian government is once again planning to deport another group of Tamils who have been subject to a “screening out” process which denies them the right to proceed with a a full refugee application.

The decision to allow 56 of those awaiting deportation to stay followed an application to the High Court to examine whether the Tamils had been given a proper chance to make refugee applications. Rather than go ahead with the hearing, the government “screened” them back into the refugee process.

On November 30, another group of “screened out” Sri Lankans were deported. On arrival, they were imprisoned outside the capital of Sri Lanka at Colombo in Negombo prison. While some have now been released, they are likely to be subject to continued surveillance and discrimination.

,Hummingbird Stories published an account of what happened to these asylum seekers at the Northern Immigration Centre before they were released.

The asylum seekers say they were taken at 4 am for brief interviews and expected there would be further interviews with case managers. They have since said that they had been constantly interrupted and accused of being liars. Serco guards then refused any further requests for interviews. Some asked for access to documents in which they had alleged persecution in their property but were refused, exposing them to further risk on their return.

On December 3, the Bishop of Mannar, Dr Rayappu Joseph wrote to the Australian government: “it is highly dangerous for the asylum seekers from the North and East of Sri Lanka to be sent back to Sri Lanka in the prevailing political situation in our regions.” According to Dr Joseph, threats, discrimination, restrictions, surveillance and questioning are routinely used leaving those who are deported living in fright and fear. It is hard to see what good reason the Federal Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen could have for disbelieving the Bishop and believing the Sri Lankan government which has got a proven record of suppressing the truth and is accused of committing and covering up war crimes.

Human rights groups have documented cases where those returning to Sri Lanka have been severely tortured. As The Independent reported in September, Human Rights Watch has detailed 13 credible cases where failed Sri Lankan asylum seekers from Europe have been returned and tortured since the end of the civil war in 2009. Freedom from Torture  has uncovered a further 24 cases where voluntary returnees have been tortured.

It is this sort of evidence and scrutiny that the Australian government is avoiding by its deportations and decision to avoid court action. As Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul wrote in a press release:

“This has been a victory for the 56 men who had been denied justice by the federal government. But others in detention still remain potential victims of the dubious practice … The government has lot of explaining to do. It has been desperate to avoid the court and any public scrutiny of its screening out process. It has virtually admitted that it cannot defend the way in which screening out decisions are being made. Now the government has to act to ensure that safety of those deported as a result of the dubious screening out interviews … The Australian ambassador should be instructed to attend Negombo jail to ensure that all those jailed by the Rajapaksa regime after being returned from Australia are safe and that they are immediately released and given Australian government protection.”

In a further release, Rintoul said that although deported asylum seekers had been released from Negombo prison, some still had to report to intelligence. “If the Minister was confident of the legality of the screening out process, he would reveal the details of the screening out interviews. He won’t reveal the details because they are arbitrary and indefensible.”

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre spokesperson Pamela Curr told the ABC that she had  spoken to a staff member at the detention centre who was appalled at the way in which Sri Lankan men were being interviewed. She said:

“The most serious and basic tenet of the Refugee Convention is non-refoulement, a French word meaning that people cannot and must not be returned to persecution.
What this says is that the Australian Government is breaching that most basic tenet of the Refugee Convention….When they sent people back to Sri Lanka, and they’re imprisoned and beaten – and I have contacts in Negombo who have reported to me that people are being beaten in that prison – then we are sending them home to be persecuted and we know that.”

There is no way that the Australian government could not be well aware of what can happen to forcibly returned asylum seekers. In July this year, a SMH investigation uncovered instances where of both Sinhalese and Tamil asylum seekers sent home from Australia, or stopped by the Australian government from ever reaching the country, have been sent back to systematic state-sanctioned abuse including beatings, imprisonment and torture. As one man told SMH’s Ben Doherty:

“They hung me upside down with ropes and put a pole behind my arms, then they hit me with batons. They hung me upside down at 11am and they took me down at 3pm. They hung three of us up, but only two of us came down alive. The other man died.”

Reports by several Australian journalists  have provided strong evidence that there are economic migrants amongst the Sri Lankans who have arrived on boats. But they also acknowledge that others are political refugees who will be in danger of being killed, imprisoned or denied work if returned to Sri Lanka.  By punishing a whole group, the Australian government, urged on by the Opposition puts innocent lives of persecuted people at risk. There is a long history of suppression of dissent and persecution of those who do not support the government in Sri Lanka. We deny their rights and risk their lives if we discriminate against asylum seekers, just because not everyone is a political refugee.

Refugee policy – a dangerous lottery for Sri Lankan asylum seekers

Today, the Australian government released more than 500 men, most of whom are Sri Lankan, from detention on bridging visas into the community. Most of these men have arrived since August when the Gillard government reintroduced its harsh new policy aimed at deterring people from traveling by boat to seek asylum.

The men were flown from Darwin to Melbourne and Sydney.They will be expected to live on an allowance which is less than the dole, which scores of community groups recently told a Senate Committee was not enough to cover basic needs. Their current visas will expire in June and until then they will not be allowed to work or study. Although Australians who offer voluntary help to asylum seekers will do what they can, these asylum seekers will be at risk of becoming homeless. But at least they will not be imprisoned or tortured in Sri Lanka.

But while these men were being flown across Australian, 45 less fortunate people, including seven Tamils who also arrived recently on boats were being flown from Christmas Island to Darwin and then back to Sri Lanka. They were accompanied on the airforce plane by a team of Federal police who will deliver them to authorities in Sri Lanka.

As a spokesperson for the Refugee Asylum Resource Centre put it:

No names, no evidence of refugee determination, no access to advice. It is reported that there were 7 Tamil men among those returned. Australia engaged in the dirty business of re-foulement.Who will ever know what happens to these men and who will care?

Refoulement is a French word which, in the context of refugees, means returning asylum seekers to their country of origin where they may face human rights abuses. Non- refoulement is an important principle of refugee rights which as a signatory of the United Nations convention on refugees, Australia is supposed to follow.

These men are only the latest of hundreds of Sri Lankans who have been deported. Many have had no chance to make proper applications for asylum. The government initially claimed that whole groups of arrivals were failing to claim refugee status. But this week, the government withdrew from fighting a High Court case in which lawyers acting for asylum seekers would have argued that the Immigration department had failed to provide a proper opportunity to make an application.

Over recent weeks, Sri Lankan refugees have been involuntarily and quietly spirited out of Australia with no legal or other independent advice. Usual procedures were not followed. On November 23 for instance, approximately 15 Sri Lankans including two women were escorted onto a plane parked behind an airport building. Security was provided by Federal police and private Serco guards. Each person was taken from the bus and ‘escorted’ by two men onto the plane. The whole process took a long time as some were reluctant to go and were physically ‘assisted’.

No one knows what has happened to this group but this week, Fairfax’s Ben Doherty visited Negombo prison where those deported are sometimes held on their arrival. Megaraj Suresh, a returned Tamil man from Batticaloa, told Doherty he had been harassed and beaten by Sri Lankan “government people” because he campaigned for the Tamil National Alliance party. He has previously been jailed for his political activity but said Australia government officials did not listen to his claim. “I had only one interview to determine my case, they had already decided to send us back,” he said.”They didn’t do proper research, they didn’t care about my circumstance, or even look at my documents, they were not honest in their assessment.”

A spokesman for the United Nations in Canberra said the agency was “troubled” by the way Australia was processing people’s claims. While people not found to be refugees can be returned, the first step must be a fair and accurate process to assess any protection claims that are raised.”The current procedures raise troubling questions as to both fairness and accuracy, which we have raised with the Australian government, ” the spokesperson told Fairfax media.

Other Sri Lankan asylum seekers are on Nauru which was visited yesterday by Opposition Immigration Shadow Minister Scott Morrison. According to the asylum seekers facebook page, he told Sri Lankans to return home ”as you have no problems back home and it is wise for you to go back or rather you have not problems to return.” Morrison’s other suggestion is for Australian to provide more support to the Sri Lankan government to develop their navy so it can more effectively turn back boats.

While the Gillard government and Opposition compete with each other to see who can be toughest on asylum seekers, they continue to  ignore the advice of large human rights organisations. In the last two months alone, Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group have raised concerns about continuing extra-judicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances and the lack of judicial independence, persecution of journalists and lack of media freedom..

On November 12, the executive officer of the Brisbane branch of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission Peter Arndt put out a statement asking the government to pursue the issue of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. He said that Catholic clergy in Sri Lanka have told him that there has been no improvement in the human rights situation of Tamils since the end of the civil conflict in 2009. Unfortunately the Australian government continues to be prepared to return people to this situation without giving them a fair opportunity to explain their case.

Australian psychiatrists speak out against Pacific Solution 2

On November 30, New Matilda published a report by Adam Brereton and myself  which included the comments of Professor of Developmental Psychiatry Dr Louise Newman who explained  how detention centres like the ones on Nauru and Manus Island produce feeling of abandonment, despair and psychiatric disorders. On the same day, Dr Michael Dudley is Chairperson of the Suicide Australia Prevention Board since 2001 spoke at a protest rally outside the Federal Minister for Health Tanya Plibersek’s office. As he spoke scores of asylum seekers detained by the Australian government on the Pacific island nation of Nauru were on hunger strike with one, Omid laying critically ill in a small Nauru hospital after refusing food for 50 days. A few hours later he was taken by air ambulance to a hospital in Brisbane.

Protestors outside Federal Minister for Health Tanya Plibersek’s office on November 30, 2012. ( photo by Peter Boyle)

This is a slightly edited version of Dr Dudley’s speech notes. A psychiatrist at Prince of Wales and Sydney Children’s Hospitals, Michael has experience working with youth, indigenous people, and refugees at risk of suicide and self harm. He lectures in psychiatry at the University of New South Wales, is on the Australian Suicide Prevention Advisory Committee (ASPAC) and the Advisory Board of Inspire Foundation’s ‘Reach Out!’ Program.

Dr Dudley told the rally:

“The Pacific Solution is in full swing again, under a different party’s banner of course, but with the same old places of Nauru, and Manus ( Manus Island is part of Papua and New Guinea).

In the wake of the somewhat obscure, cognitively challenging policy of ‘no advantage’, we have organised misery for those in these locations, by suspending them indefinitely and with a gross deficiency of ordinary goods, services and protections. Though the collective focus has shifted offshore, the bane of onshore immigration detention also continues. Many are released into the community, but many others are still indefinitely trapped. Hunger-strikes and self-harm continue, taking people to the very edge of life, because they feel that they have no other voice.

For those released, the myth that they are living in five-star hotels seems to persist, and therefore various parties want to make the conditions as Spartan as possible. From the Opposition, we hear talk of the resumption of temporary protection visas, and the reduction of the recently extended quota. (Compare this with the numbers of refugees in some European industrialised countries). We are currently revisiting the unseemly debate about whether these people should be allowed to work – as though there should ever have been a question about this fundamental human right. We seem still to be unable to appreciate how refugees enrich us – how they have contributed enormously to Australian culture and life: instead we build false security by excluding and disowning the stranger (and thus become strangers to ourselves).

There is little appetite for genuine exploration of real solutions from either main political party. What for example would an onshore model for responding to refugees cost? – say redirecting our misspent monies to properly worked out regional agreements with our neighbours, a properly resourced and supported UNHCR determination process, and air-lifting asylum-seekers to Australia, as Malcolm Fraser once did? Parliament and people know plenty now about the mental health impacts, but who cares?

If we can’t care about the mental health of asylum-seekers, and the nightmare that Australia creates for them, could we be induced to care about the mental health of Australians? Could excluding and creating an underclass of asylum-seekers affect our mental health– with the possibility that their nightmare may become ours? We know a lot about the social factors that underpin mental disorders – such as war, gender-based violence, abuse, poverty, racism, social inequality: and we also know a lot about the social factors that promote mental health – such as the rule of law, basic conditions of life being met, social connectedness, education, a reasonable standard of income, spirituality etc. …studies indicate that strong and connected communities with trust and cooperation across traditional divisions of ethnicity, religion, class and gender are more resilient and more effective at enhancing mental health than more homogeneous environments, while primarily competitive self-interested approaches tend to isolate people.

It seems that we need to wake up to what is really happening here. The overall effects of these asylum seeker measures are to increase isolation, stigma and a personal sense of burden, poverty, disability, and inequality. .

So we must therefore ask ourselves:

Do we want a more equal society, where all people can participate?

Do we want a rich diverse community?

Do we want a significant group of our future citizens (like those who will be joining us from Nauru) to be an underclass who are denied a productive life?

Do we want a higher quality national debate about those seeking asylum?

Our mental health and well being depend on each other. To misquote W.H.Auden, ‘we were mistaken. These faces are ours’. We cannot stand aside from what is happening: we have to stand and be counted. We not only diminish ourselves, but jeopardise our own interests, if we allow these policies toward refugees to continue, and allow the two major parties to continue to head-butt each other when there is clearly another way forward. Let us continue to press this point until the penny drops, and until sanity prevails.

Asylum Seekers protest against indefinite detention on Nauru

Earlier in the year, I prepared a timeline covering the events for the period between 2001 and 2007 during which the Australian coalition government locked-up people seeking asylum on the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru, 4000 kilometres away from Australia. I prepared the timeline because I was upset by the way the Australian media failed to inform the public about the history of detention on Nauru at the time when the Gillard Labor government decided to restart the so-called Pacific Solution by opening detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island in PNG.  After all, people who are eighteen now were still in junior high school when the earlier events occurred. This lack of backgrounding by the media makes it easier for politicians to mislead the public. By presenting the news in a very narrow frame, significant issues are made invisible. 

You can find the timeline on New Matilda here and here. The story is an ugly one of human rights abuse, hunger strikes and forced repatriation that led to deaths. After it was elected in 2007, the Rudd government shut down the detention centre.

On Friday, October 12, New Matilda reporter Adam Brereton reported on an attempted suicide by one Iranian asylum seeker.

Asylum Seeker attempts suicide on Nauru

Two days later, I attended a protest on October 14, I attended a protest outside Sydney’s Town Hall. During the protest, asylum seekers were on the phone from Nauru. I left the protest, expecting that some of this would be reported. Silly me. So when I found no report the following morning, I did this one for New Matilda

Nauru asylum seekers protest delays.

There has however been some good reporting on asylum seekers recently

For example. Kerry Brewster did this excellent report on ABC’s Lateline on the terrible situation of two Tamil detainees.

Tamils speak out against Asio Security Rulings