Sister Jane Keogh is in daily communication with several of the young men that the Australian government has trapped on Manus Island. She visited Manus in April; here she relates the fear and danger that the men face daily.
My young friends at the Manus Island detention centre are in utter fear right now, as they have been told they must live in Lorengau town, Papua New Guinea (PNG). They are afraid this means they will be left forever in PNG with no safety, destitute and hopeless.
Daily fear and danger on Manus
Before I visited Manus in April I had two previous experiences of the men’s fear.
One morning I was on a video call with two men walking near the local town. Suddenly the screen flipped. There was shouting. My friends were running. They were being chased by a drunk with a knife. The incident itself lasted about three minutes but it was at least three days before I could get one of the guys calm enough to sleep at night.
Many local people feel sorry for the refugees. A senior local PNG government official said to me, “Can you explain to me please why Australia has this policy about refugees?” Others don’t want the refugees there. The local politician has threatened to blockade Lorengau town if refugees are made to live there.
The fear of physical attack is very real for my friends. One told me, “Many of us have been attacked. If we are forced to stay here we could die here and no one will even notice”.
Good Friday on Manus Island
The second time I saw my friends terrified was on Good Friday, on another video call with a Manus refugee.
The man suddenly started shouting, “They are shooting at us. They have gun. Live bullets. Pray for us. Pray for us. They are shooting at us.”
I could see his silhouette against darkness. And then, in the background, I saw three progressive flashes in a straight line. I had never seen a gun fired before but I knew immediately the flashes showed the trajectory of bullets. The guy was terrified. The three of us on the video link couldn’t believe what we were seeing.
I had never seen a gun fired before but I knew immediately the flashes showed the trajectory of bullets.
Manus shooting’s aftermath
A few days after the shooting, I made it to Lorengau on Manus to meet my friends. They were still scared. None of them would consider walking alone anywhere. Some wouldn’t leave the camp at all.
The guys couldn’t understand why Mr Dutton did not condemn the shootings. One guy said, “They shot real guns at us and Mr Dutton makes up a story about fruit and tried to blame us”. The men have no way to protect themselves from the Australian government’s misinformation; and this ongoing misinformation makes it even more dangerous for them.
The local Police Commander David Yapu talked to us, saying he’d watched the CCTV of the shootings and seen the bullet holes. His subsequent public statements acknowledged the truth of what happened.
Stress levels at crisis point
In my two years of friendship with the men on Manus, I have never seen their fear and stress levels at such a crisis point.
One man said to me, “How will we protect ourselves? When we are in danger the guards here run away. In the town, where can we hide?”
Another said, “We are all very afraid. One week now I have not slept. No one in Fox [compound] is sleeping. Everything is stopped. In our home country we saw killing. Now we have the same fear and now we have nowhere left to go. Please tell all your friends to tell Australian government to help us. We are human.”
A fraught existence in PNG
What government officials don’t understand is that for these men, survival in PNG is not possible. For them there is no job security, no welfare support, no legal protection, no freedom to travel or get away from trouble, and the constant threat of violence.
To survive in PNG you need community; these men have none. Some have tried to settle in PNG or Lae but have ended up back on Manus or in Moresby, afraid and almost destitute.
None of my friends blame the local people. They realise the PNG people do the best they can in the light of the Australian government offloading its responsibilities to them.
What government officials don’t understand is that for these men, survival in PNG is not possible.
A plea to Australia
Australia is a successful multicultural country. We have the infrastructure, the finances, and many Australians have the heart to welcome these people in search of safety. All we lack is the political will.
Our friends on Manus are living in great fear right now. People like me who know and support them recognise their fear is well founded. We cry for them. We cry for Australia’s lost humanity. Every day I get several messages, desperate calls for help. They say, “Do not leave us here to die.”
Every day I get several messages, desperate calls for help. They say, “Do not leave us here to die.”