Between heaven and hell
2013: the unseen
“As a photographer I’ve covered tsunamis, coups, terror events, riots and cyclones… but my 2013 journey to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) stays with me. Australia’s Lombrum Asylum Seeker Detention Centre had just been reopened on the island as part of its ‘PNG Solution’ – the ‘solution’ being that any asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat were to have no chance of being settled as refugees in the country, but would either be detained indefinitely on Manus, sent home or moved to a third country. Amnesty International called it ‘the day Australia decided to turn its back on the world’s most vulnerable people, close the door and throw away the key’. News Ltd sent me to Manus to try to meet those people and tell their story.”
“The problem was that the Australian government didn’t particularly want that story to be told. They had hired G4S Security to keep out prying outsiders, particularly ones carrying cameras. They detained me and the journalist I was with as we drove up to the first of the detention centre’s razor wire-topped fences – I hadn’t even attempted to take a picture. We tried to double back but they said, ‘You ain’t going anywhere.’ The detention centre is under the jurisdiction of a PNG naval base, and G4S had to answer to the base’s commander. After a couple of hours he turned up and effectively said ‘you’re very, very naughty, off you go now but promise never to do it again.’ I didn’t promise him that – you don’t give anyone promises you can’t keep. The security guards were seething, they wanted blood.
With the detention centre off the shot list – for now – I turned my attention to the idyllic and simple Manus Island lifestyle. The capital, Lorengau, was tiny – one hotel, one bank and three or four stores. There was no real industry on the island to speak of. The 43,000 islanders went out to catch turtles or fish and some would grow vegetables or betel nuts to sell at the market.
They also turned out to be the most pleasant, hospitable and welcoming people imaginable. The people of Manus have been living their own lifestyle for many hundreds of years and all of a sudden they had this detention centre plonked in the middle of them. Of course it was going to change things, but I don’t think anyone appreciated then quite how drastic that change would be.”
2016: back to the island
“I returned in May 2016 and the island had radically changed. The centre was originally open from 2001 to 2008, but when the Australian government reopened it in 2012 they started to spend vast amounts on it. The government said in May that it had spent AUS$1 billion (£766m) on the centre, but a report by parliamentary library analysts this August put the figure at $2 billion – that’s a million per refugee detained. Many more millions have been spent on improving the island’s infrastructure. Pot-holed dirt roads have been paved and a new hospital has been built. The dilapidated central market has been replaced by a larger, flashier centre paid for with Australian dollars.
“I had come back to Manus after the PNG supreme court ruled that the detention of asylum seekers at the centre breached the PNG constitutional right to personal liberty and was therefore illegal. Suddenly the asylum seekers were allowed to leave the detention centre and I was able to meet them. I first met Abdullatif Almoftaji in a guest house on the outskirts of Lorengau. He was detained on his arrival in Australia in 2013 as a seventeen-year-old and sent to Manus. Seemingly one of the luckier ones, Abdullatif was released from detention and allowed to work in the city of Lae on the PNG mainland. But he told me that in Lae he was beaten by locals, paid a pittance and feared for his life. He returned to Manus, preferring the relative safety of being near the other detainees.
A few days after our first meeting in Lorengau I saw Abdullatif again, this time in a police cell wearing just a pair of shorts. He told me he had been beaten by security personnel and arrested. I nearly joined him when I tried to pass a new shirt and food to him through the cell wire: I was caught in the act by an enraged Manus police officer and only just talked myself out of being arrested. In Lorengau, I also spoke to another 20-year-old asylum seeker, Iranian born Lockman Sawari. He told us he had unsuccessfully attempted suicide several times. ‘Sometimes I go crazy and want to go and buy petrol and set myself on fire to kill myself,’ he said. ‘My father spent all his money to send me to a better life, but it all f***ed up, and now I’ve been in prison here for nearly three years.’”
Two worlds colliding
“The detainees only got limited amounts of freedom. Most of the them were only allowed to leave to go to the town, to the beach or fishing on return bus trips operated by the detention centre.
Still, this freedom was enough to completely change the balance of the island. For the first time more than 850 men – mostly from the Middle East, north Africa and western Asia – were able to mix with the wider Manus community. The most visible friction was in the market where some asylum seekers hawked cigarettes – provided to them in the detention centre under a points system for participation in programmes – at prices that undercut those offered by the local sellers.”
“Part of the locals’ anger is that the asylum seekers appear to be more wealthy than they are. I watched as one of the detainees bought a huge flatscreen television in a local store, struggled to get it on a local bus and then walked up the hill to the transit centre, all in front of wide-eyed islanders.
Another major cause of tension is relationships between island women and detainees. On this trip I met Riaz Samadi, a softly spoken Afghan recently released from Lombrum and living in the East Lorengau asylum seeker transit centre – a halfway house on the edge of town where refugees are free to come and go as they please. He works voluntarily at Lorengau’s hotel as a cook and his ambition is to open his own Thai restaurant. Samadi had met a local girl and developed a relationship. When the topic of marriage was broached, Riaz explained that as he, for all intents and purposes was a stateless person, it wouldn’t be possible.
As I was photographing Samadi at work, a local man, who claimed to be the girl’s father, approached the tall wire fence surrounding the hotel and threatened to chop Riaz into pieces with a bush knife if he set foot outside the hotel. The hotel security staff looked on unmoved as concerned guests ushered Riaz inside the building. A colleague of mine recently witnessed two asylum seekers being beaten up by islanders with iron bars: that’s the level of animosity, the level of tension. The situation feels like it’s on a knife-edge and many detainees say they are now too scared to leave the centre.”
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