Port Moresby (AsiaNews) - The people in the Manus camp "come from very troubled countries and need special consideration; instead, they are used as scapegoats in global political and economic problems. They are treated harshly in order to discourage others from attempting to sail towards Australian shores. But in the process they are disregarded and humiliated beyond any acceptable limit". This is the opinion of the General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, Fr Victor Roche. In this interview, Fr Roche speaks about his recent visit to the centre for mostly Asian asylum seekers set up by Australia and Papua New Guinea on Manus Island.
Fr Victor, what prompted your visit to Manus Island on 17-20 March?
I went as an observer of the Catholic Church to the hearings initiated by Justice David Cannings with the specific purpose of establishing if there was any violation of human rights in the refugee camp. Justice Cannings decided to take the initiative after riots took place on 16-17 February when a young Iranian refugee, Reza Barati, was killed and more than sixty others were injured, some seriously. Fr Dominic Maka, the Catholic parish priest of Lorengau, the provincial capital of Manus Island, also attended the court hearings. We were about fifteen people in the public including media representatives from Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Did Justice Cannings eventually rule on the issue of human rights?
There was immediately an application by the State lawyers Peter Kuman and Ian Molloy to disqualify Justice Cannings on the apprehension of "bias", since he previously oversaw another challenge on the Manus centre. A few days into the hearings in fact they succeeded in obtaining a stay order to go before the Supreme Court on 26 March. If Justice Cannings is allowed to proceed, however, he is expected to deliver his ruling by the end of March
Besides any possible outcome from the Cannings inquiry, was there any advantage at all in the process?
Thanks to Justice David Cannings, for the first time members of the public and the media were able to visit the asylum seeker centre and see the facilities. On Tuesday morning 18 March, with Justice Cannings we went to the PNG naval base of Lombrum, where the centre is located about 30 minutes outside Lorengau, in a convoy of seven cars led by the Manus Provincial Police Commander Alex Ndrasal. The media, however, would be allowed inside only on Friday 21st March. Arriving at the centre we saw many male and female security personnel. Most of them were Papua New Guineans and I guess the majority were from Manus. We were given a paper with the map of the facilities in the processing centre and another with the list and number of detainees according to their nationality.
Where are they coming from?
They are basically from very troubled Middle East and Asian countries. The highest number is from Iran (533), followed by Afghanistan (134), Pakistan (104), Iraq (94). There are also 90 Sudanese, 47 Somalis and a handful of North-Africans. There are 74 Bangladeshi, 69 people coming from Myanmar, 37 Lebanese, 27 from Sri Lanka, 5 from Syria. Almost forty people are stateless. The official total number at the time of our visit was 1296; all men; 56 of them in hospital. Women and children are reported to be held in the other centre of Nauru also in a remote part of the Pacific. During our visit some of the refugees tried to talk to us and to complain about their detention, but they were gently ushered away by security personnel. We were taken to the compound where the detainee from Iran, Reza Barati was said to have been killed and two others seriously injured. In that compound Barati's picture was displayed at the entrance. He was portrayed as a martyr by some of the detainees, especially those from Iran. Mr. Alex Ndrasal, the Police Commander told a security that the picture must be removed, since in his opinion it can stir further emotion and tension.
Did the detainees have a chance to speak to the court?
On 19 March the court hearing began at 9 o'clock. Seventeen affidavits of detainees were submitted. Then eleven detainees were brought into the court over a couple of days. They basically testified that they were forcefully taken to Manus from the remote Australian Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean and were told that they would never be allowed to settle in that country. They complained about the harsh conditions in the camp: one mentioned bread with worms; others cramped rooms, lack of privacy, deprivation of liberty and uncertainty about the future. They said that they left Iraq, Somalia or Afghanistan, because of threats to their life. They would like to be resettled in Australia or in a country that can guaranty their safety. From the camp they can communicate by phone or via internet with their families. Some are frightened by security personnel at the camp. Toilets and bathrooms are being cleaned only when official visits are expected to the facilities.
What do people in Manus think about the camp?
On Wednesday, 19 March in the evening I had a meeting with the leaders of the Catholic parish. There were about fifty men and women. They think that only the two governments of Australia and PNG took the decision about the asylum centre in Manus. "We were not consulted - they said -. An Australian problem is pushed into Manus and PNG. We are forced to accept it whether we like it or not. This is poor place, but we do not know what is happening. We are only spectators. We are angry and sad about the situation in the asylum centre: angry at why they chose Manus and not any other place; sad because of the situation of the detainees in the centre. The detainees feel that Australia is heaven and PNG is hell or even more so Manus is hell. They feel that they are not safe in the centre and in Manus. They may die like Reza from Iran. We do not know what really happened in the centre. Why did the protest take place? Who are the parties that are involved in the tension? Why and who killed Reza? There are some economic benefits promised for Manus. We are happy about it. But we are yet to see the developments. These developments are at a high cost. There are many wars going on in the Muslim countries. Majority of the detainees in the centre are Muslims. We are worried about our children. What will happen if some of these detainees are settled in Manus Island? How long will the processing centre remain in Manus, a few months or a few years? We need answers. We need communication and dialogue between the community of Lorengau and the administrators of the asylum seeker centre."
What do you think will happen?
It's very hard to predict. I left Manus on Thursday the 20th of March. The next day some media people were allowed to visit the centre. But at the same time the Supreme Court halted Justice Canning's hearings accepting the objections of the State lawyers. On March 20-23 Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot was in Papua New Guinea. The issue of the asylum seekers was indeed on the agenda, but Papua New Guinea reiterated its commitment to "help" Australia and to carry on with the Manus camp. People in the camp all come from very troubled countries and need consideration; but they are made scapegoat of global political and economic problems. They are harshly treated just to discourage others from sailing towards Australian shores. But in the process they are disregarded and humiliated beyond any acceptable level.
* Missionary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Papua New Guinea