“I do not want your understanding, I want you to do something,” - detainee on Manus Island
This is the sentence that changed everything for Carol, a former counsellor and caseworker that had been recently mandated to work with asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore detention center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG). Carol had applied to the job for humble reasons: she wanted to experience working abroad. The experience on Manus turned her life around.
Manus Island is one of Australia’s offshore asylum seekers processing centres. From 2001 to 2008 and now again since 2012, all incoming asylum seekers arriving by boat are to be detained in these offshore centres while they wait for their application for refugee status to be processed.
As Carol got to know the men detained on Manus Island, seeking asylum from countries like Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Somalia, she felt increasing unease with how her government was treating them. Their living conditions were dreadful: insufferable heat and humidity in the tents that housed them, fences around the compounds, limited access to drinking water, very little health care, loss of personal property, violence perpetrated by staff, but most importantly, a cut-off date for resettlement in Australia that left them without hope and with a decreased sense of dignity. Anyone who had arrived after July 19th 2013 was to be processed for PNG Resettlement, and unbeknownst to the men, the PNG government wanted the men to be able to speak fluent Pidgin and English before they were considered for their refugee status– which meant, at least, a good 5 more years in detention.
Carol was on Manus Island in early 2014 when a riot broke out – just after the announcement from the Australian government to the men that they would certainly not be resettled to Australia, and that their detention was indefinite. The riot left one detainee dead, and many horrifically injured. Carol saw the blood on the ground; she held IV bags for the injured men laying on the floor. She felt prompted to write about her experience, to share the stories of the men detained, so that their lives and experiences would not be forgotten or silenced.
Franciscans International invited Carol to share her experience and the stories of the men at the UN Human Rights Council on September 15th, 2015 in the context of a debate organised with Edmund Rice International, Destination Justice, The Refugee Council of Australia and Human Rights Law Center, to highlight the human rights situation for asylum seekers to Australia, seeking international protection. Carol was able to bring the voices of the men on Manus Island to the United Nations, which is one among many other steps she is taking to heed the call of one detainee who challenged her during her first rotation to Manus Island: “I do not want your understanding, I want you to do something.”