By Jane Salmon
Festival of the Dead, Halloween, is also the literal deadline for the Manus men still at Lombrun RPC.
On that date they are to be forced out of the compounds that have housed them for 4 years, and into Lorengau.
My children will be running around lush front lawns collecting treats in fancy dress while Manus friends feel like they have an actual date with death.
They fear that PNG locals will fight them violently for every job or resource available and that, instead of liberation, their lives will become even more desperate.
Their fears have some foundation. Machete attacks and thefts have occurred during day trips on the island. Those with no tribesmen or “wan toks” to defend or avenge them are treated as fair game.
Men at Lorengau Transit Centre have gone mad and then died as recently as last month.
The kindness of some Manusians does not completely offset the fact that PNG is still a very harsh, struggling country. There has been envy and anger towards the strangers who have been warehoused by Australia.
Australia’s exercise in colonialism ended abruptly 40 years ago. This latest failed exercise in offshore detention has managed to signal to the world that we left PNG in chaos, one of the least safe travel destinations in the world.
The irony of men wanting a safe form of freedom being herded out the gates of RPC by force is acute.
There is no “freedom to thrive” waiting for them on November 1, 2017.
They see the trap. Moreover, their main strength has been their solidarity. Dispersal means disunity. What the men have achieved together through fellowship, collective action and mutual compassion across 4 tough years is also under attack.
These are real refugees. Their backgrounds have been checked and rechecked.
On paper they have been given thorough medical discharges and records. In reality, they get a bunch of untranslated words they don’t understand and a month’s supply of medication.
These are medicines they would generally not have needed if in community detention in Australia. Tropical ulcer treatments, addictive antidepressants, sedatives would have been less necessary if they had been free to work, to mix with people of their culture and to make headway in supporting wives, kids and family stuck in perilous circumstances.
The immediate risk of overdose by depressed and anxious hostages by strong pharmaceuticals is high and Manus Hospital is not resourced to help the psychotic or suicidal hereafter. Even the Port Moresby health system falls short.
There is little or no prospect of ongoing medical attention or redress once the Manus guys are forced into PNG. Their untreated fractures, malaria, ulcers, new cigarette pharma addictions and nightmares will go with them.
Refugee allies in Australia might dream of protecting them in refuges or running a hospital ship. Doubtless they would feel the need to help locals, too. The reality is that sustaining refugee hostages of the past 4 years is beyond the means of most community activists. They have done a great deal to help the men across that time. And perhaps also to delude themselves and their offshore friends that wholesale rescue was still possible.
Some lawyers have worked hard for the release of individual refugees. Deals were done with Border Force to conceal each release from publicity. The image of a boat blockade remains roughly intact.
The truth is that some boat arrivals have been admitted to Australia and others have not. The arbitrariness of the process is shocking.
So the the Halloween deadline seems ominous in more ways than one.
Activists have strong bonds with these 700 men. They fund-raised for phones, shoes, t-shirts and bath towels. They have counselled them through sleepless tropical nights and reached out to the families left behind.
As with the Rohingyans, it is perfectly clear that taking a plane back home is equally perilous. Some of the homesick have gone. They felt they could not leave their families unprotected in poverty for any longer.
Survival rates of those refouled is less clear. Some have found ways to cope. Some have simply fallen silent.
The experience of those refugees transferred to America last month is another paradox. These men took planes, were given accommodation and a chance to find jobs. They feel “lucky”, even if Dutton does envy them the odd flash t-shirts or fit-bits.
American gun violence, racism and poverty seems benign by comparison with the issues faced by PNG.
So the few handpicked, highly educated men perhaps not destroyed by the uncertainties of detention who were airlifted from Manus by America get a chance at real life.
Hundreds more do not. And children remain trapped on Nauru: a small pile of rocks with high unemployment, tents … and machetes.
Then we have the plight of mainland refugees.
What is already dead is the compassion of Australia’s right wing conservatives and white supremacists. Many others choose to affect numbness.
Their Government has spent a fortune to make an example of boat arrivals. Food, mouldy shipping containers or tents, meds and guards have cost Australian taxpayers a great deal. Sloppy accounting is worse.
Arbitrary attempts at breaking the smuggling trade has also resulted in waste of life.
My friend AR arrived on Manus after the Taliban came for him. A month earlier his father had received the Taliban’s death knock and did not survive. The family business was in repairing and reselling foreign vehicles. This was enough to incense fundamentalists.
The family had earlier tried to send AR to Japan to escape all this on a trade visa. He was refused. After the Taliban knocked, he found his way out of his country to a boat from Indonesia. There was no safe pathway. Had he obtained a tourism visa, flown in and overstayed, his life might already be back on track.
His mother and brothers have been cowering around the borders of Afghanistan ever since. His mum became catatonically depressed and eventually received treatment in a major city. The great fear was that the younger brother will be conscripted by extremists.
AR, a talented mechanic fluent in English, has used the 4 years to complete some online learning. He has also become more worried, atheist, deeply depressed and addicted to cigarettes. I helped with phones and call credit.
Will AR find a way into PNG life? Will he be safe in PNG? Will there be a job? A home? Medical care?
Australia is throwing away a stoic, resilient and talented future citizen.
His colleague Behrouz Bouchani, the camp’s famous resident journalist, is a cultured thinker who also has the makings of a great leader.
My greatest terror for these souls who naively turned to Australia for help … is the machetes. The second is a mass suicide attempt by medication overdose in the last half of this month.
Take a look at yourself, Australia.