Manus Island: Indefinite detention pushing refugees to suicide and self-harm

Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, October 2017
Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, October 2017 © Jason Garman / Amnesty International

Amnesty and the Refugee Council of Australia report paints stark picture of a traumatised refugee population hit hard by health and counselling cuts

“Australia and regional countries must end the hell on Manus Island and prevent such suffering” - Claire Mallinson

Refugees have suffered violent attacks with screwdrivers and a machete

125,000 people have signed a petition opposing Australia’s harsh offshore detention policies

The misery of indefinite detention in Papua New Guinea is pushing increasing numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers into making suicide attempts and self-harming, a major new report by Amnesty International and the Refugee Council of Australia finds today (20 November).

The 54-page report - Until when? The forgotten men on Manus Island – paints a stark picture of a traumatised refugee population which has been hit hard by Australia’s recent healthcare and counselling service cuts, as well as continued threats to their safety.

Since August 2017, three men have killed themselves, driven to despair by years in an open-air prison, and in the last two months at least five others have attempted to end their lives, including one man who swallowed razor blades and nail clippers.

Claire Mallinson, Amnesty Australia’s National Director, said:

“The worsening health and safety crisis on Manus Island demonstrates that Australia’s offshore processing system has failed.

“Following public pressure, the Australian government has brought some child refugees from offshore detention in Nauru to Australia for medical treatment, but the situation for the men on Manus Island is just as acute.

“Australia must urgently work with Papua New Guinea and other countries in the region to find sustainable solutions to this crisis, including by ending offshore processing and speeding up settlement to third countries.”

Waiting for months

Over the past year the Australian government has halved the number of mental health staff available to the refugees and asylum-seekers it sends to Papua New Guinea. It has also terminated torture and trauma counselling services. As the report outlines, it is extremely difficult for refugees to access healthcare in Papua New Guinea. There is now just one small clinic to serve the over 600 refugees and asylum-seekers remaining on Manus Island, as well as the local hospital which is severely understaffed and has no interpreters and often no ambulance available.

Dr Joyce Chia, Refugee Council of Australia's Director of Policy, said:

“For the men on Manus Island getting proper healthcare has never been harder. Only a handful are transferred to Australia, and those in Papua New Guinea increasingly have to pay for their own healthcare and navigate the healthcare system without interpreters.

“In July a coroner found that the death of Hamid Khazaei, who died from sepsis after cutting his foot on Manus Island, was the result of a catalogue of delays and errors. We do not want to see another preventable death.”

If they cannot be treated on Manus Island people are transferred to Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby, but specialist treatment is often not available there either. For many people the best hope of recovery is to be sent to Australia for treatment, but over the past year there have been virtually no medical transfers to Australia, with only nine transfers in the last 18 months.

As of October, Refugee Council of Australia and Amnesty have documented 70 cases of people with serious health conditions, including hernia, stomach and gastric issues, vision impairment and severe mental health issues, who had been transferred to Port Moresby for medical treatment. Many had been there for over six months with little improvement to their condition.

Disturbingly, media reports suggested that many of the men in Port Moresby were returned to Manus Island ahead of last week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, some allegedly before finalising their treatments, to free up hospital space for delegates and conference staff.

Fear of attack

There is also little protection for refugees and asylum-seekers against threats of violence and many people fear leaving their housing or moving around alone. In the past year a refugee has been stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver in a robbery; two intoxicated men made death threats to those in one of the ‘transit centres’; and one man was attacked twice, once with a machete. Very few of these incidents are investigated.

Amnesty and Refugee Council of Australia are calling on the Australian government, to urgently ensure people with serious physical and mental health conditions and those whose safety cannot be guaranteed are settled in Australia or a third country.

The organisations have together collected 125,000 signatures from people opposing Australia’s harsh offshore detention policies.

Claire Mallinson, said:

“We need to see a complete overhaul of the way that Australia, Papua New Guinea, Nauru and other countries in the region respond to people on the move.

“From opening up safe and legal routes for travel, to committing to hosting more refugees, and processing asylum applications quickly to reduce the chance that asylum-seekers will make dangerous boat journeys, there are many things Australia and regional countries can do to end the hell on Manus Island and prevent such suffering in future.”

Joyce Chia said:

“The Australian government wants us to forget the men on Manus. They have done everything they can to suppress the truth, but these brave men there have kept speaking up. They are still Australia’s responsibility, and what has happened to them is still Australia’s shame.”

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