Refugee Council of Australia
Jetty on Manus Island

Until when: The forgotten men of Manus Island

Why did they want to stay?

Why did they want to stay?

The men wanted to stay for different reasons, including fears for their safety outside the centre, uncertainty about what lay ahead, and fears of being abandoned by the Australian Government.

They feared for their safety because events over the past few years had proven again and again that they were not safe, and would not be protected by the PNG government. The infamous attack on the centre by locals and contractors in February 2014 led to the murder of Reza Barati, an Iranian man who was seeking asylum, and the injury of many others. In April 2017, the PNG Defence Force fired shots at random into the centre. Although nine people were injured, so far there has been no independent investigation of the incident.

They feared for their safety in the local community, as the new centres were much closer to Lorengau, the main town on Manus Island. The local Manusian people had not been consulted before the RPC had been constructed. They were never offered an opportunity to understand or engage constructively with refugees and people seeking asylum. As a result, both refugees and local residents believed in stereotypes about each other. As one local put it, “the access to know the refugees, to know them in a humanitarian way, is not there.”

The presence of the refugees and people seeking asylum has also led to increased pressure on the facilities on Manus Island, such as the hospital. There is also resentment because locals believe much of the profit from offshore processing is not flowing to their community, but to the well-connected:

… a good number of Manusians know the centres in Lorengau only benefit a few and who are they, maybe people in higher circles.

— A local Manus Island resident, May 2018

Local residents understandably also resented the way they had been treated by the Australian Government and the resulting bad press:

They [Australia] did not respect the sovereignty of PNG and operating here on Manus under the veil of secrecy. The Manusians are getting the brunt of everything. Everyone comes to dump our friends here and forget about them and they think we, Manusians, can come with a magic wand and solve everything.

— A local Manus Island resident, May 2018

The response of the local community is, however, complex. Some in the local community have welcomed and bonded with the men. According to one of the locals:

Some of them came to church on Sundays and that’s how we met them. The church always welcome people, it is universal. They came around, we saw them as one of us …. they come to visit a common God and some are not even Catholic but came in reverence of Catholic culture but the good thing is they extended their hand, gave gifts, food, exchange of gifts became cordial and sealed a kind of bonding and hold it to this day.

A few refugees and people seeking asylum are now in relationships with local women, and have even married and fathered children with them.

Despite the welcome of some, there remain tensions which have led to violence. There have been many incidents of assault and robbery of refugees and people seeking asylum both on Manus Island and in Port Moresby, so people fear leaving their housing or moving around alone.

In the past year, for example, a refugee was stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver in a robbery; two intoxicated local men made death threats against those in one of the ‘transit centres’; and one refugee was attacked twice, once with a machete and another time in the face during a robbery. Table 1 in the appendix details a number of recent incidents.

Very few of these incidents have been investigated. Many refugees and people seeking asylum do not trust the police to take action or to protect them. The appalling treatment of Benham Satah, a witness to the murder of Reza Barati, demonstrates why (see box). In other cases, people have even been asked for bribes when they reported a crime, or were extorted by people who posed as police officers.

Their fears for their safety are not misplaced. In June 2018, the police imposed a nightly curfew on those in the centres, apparently to protect them from local retribution for the death of a woman in a car crash allegedly caused by a refugee.

Refugees and people seeking asylum who spoke to RCOA in 2018 reported being worried about the future and sustainability of the current arrangement. Many are worried about what might happen if their small weekly allowances are cut. This would mean they are not spending money in local markets to the benefit of the local community, creating tension with the local residents.

The closure of the RPC also removes one of the major employers on Manus Island, although there is news that Australia and PNG have recently committed to a joint naval base on the island.

This account is based on RCOA’s interview with Benham Satah in October 2018, unless otherwise stated.

Benham Satah, a Kurdish Iranian man, was one of the five witnesses to the murder of his friend and roommate, Reza Barati, during the attack on the RPC in February 2014.28 They provided statements to the police about what they saw. Benham’s life since then has been one of fear for his safety. He was singled out because, a month after the incident, a photo of him speaking to a judge was published on the front page of PNG’s national newspaper. As his witness statement was the most detailed, he was also the primary witness for the purpose of the trial.In July 2014, when Benham and another eye witness to the murder (who has since returned to Iran) voiced their opposition to a new policy about phone and internet access, they were taken to Chauka compound, the RPC’s Behavioural Management Unit. They were cable-tied to chairs by security services, beaten, forced to sleep on a muddy floor, and repeatedly threatened with rape and murder if they did not retract their witness statements. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, concluding that there was substance to their accounts of mistreatment in custody, found that the Australian Government had violated the right of these men to be free from torture by failing to provide any extra information or details of the investigation into these allegations.

In January 2015, Benham participated in a mass hunger strike. He was the first person to be arrested and was taken to Chauka compound again before being transferred to a local prison. There he saw the men who murdered Reza Barati, and they threatened to kill him if he did not retract his witness statement.

In September 2015, he was forcibly escorted to Manus Island court to give evidence in the Reza Barati murder case. Initially refusing to give evidence because of his fears for his life, he eventually did so after being promised protection.

Despite this promise and despite being put in a special isolated area at the RPC, the guards managed to reach him. He asked to be moved to another compound, but became subject to daily intimidation and threats by guards in that compound as well. He felt too afraid to leave his room as the guards monitored his room throughout the day, some sitting outside the back of his room for hours. He received many threatening text messages to pressure him to withdraw his evidence. One read: If you don’t withdraw your affidavits against us in trial. We kill all of you. Don’t forget you live in Manus.

Benham Satah remains in PNG. Only two of the 15 men he believes were involved in the murder have been convicted. Those two were sentenced to 10 years in jail, five of which were suspended. He believes some of the other guards from Australia and New Zealand who were involved were flown off the island quickly. He reports that on multiple occasions he has written reports about the expatriate officers involved but never received a response and no follow up was made.

In March 2016 and ahead of his sentencing, one of the convicted escaped. No one noticed until he failed to appear in court. He was on the run for two weeks. He escaped again in February 2017 and remains at large. In reaction to the earlier escape, a local MP said:

It’s a case of a young man that is homesick. He has absconded several times accumulating six months each time. He will hand himself in and get another six months.

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