The truth about Australia’s Guantanamo by Rachel Morris

Rachel Morris is a radical believer that all people and their experiences matter and enacts this in her hometown of Geelong near Melbourne, Australia. With personal experience in chronic illness and the impact of mental illness, she has been inspired to bring hope to others experiencing pain, loss, illness and struggle in their lives. As a Social Worker, she recently completed her Masters in International and Community Development at Deakin University. Rachel is a passionate advocate for human rights and has spent time working with Aboriginal Australians and those in culturally diverse communities across Australia. Co-founder and Director of the charity “Hope Movement AU Inc” for 6 years, Rachel has traveled throughout Victoria as a mental health advocate, partnering with community groups to connect young people with the resources and help they need. She now works at as a Child and Youth Counselor in Geelong, Australia.

 Illustration by Amil Barlow

Illustration by Amil Barlow

The truth about Australia’s Guantanamo

It was 18 February, 2014. I walked into my social work internship. There was a candle burning in the waiting room, with the picture of a man propped behind it. Oddly, it was quiet. “New Hope”, as I’d come to know it, was normally a bustling little community center, full of people from different cultures, finding their home in Australia. Today, there was but one sound, a muffled sobbing. I made my way to the back office, where I found my workmates crying.

As I sat down, they told me the story of Reza Berati. Last night, there had been a riot in the Manus Island Detention Centre. Known by some as “the Guantanamo of the Pacific”. It was one of two islands where the Australian Government was indefinitely detaining asylum seekers. The locals had been threatening the men imprisoned there for months, and last night it had spiraled out of control, as the men were ambushed. The fences had been thrust down, machete’s used and rocks thrown, while guiltless men hid under their cots praying for their lives. Amongst the chaos, Reza Berati, an innocent bystander, was beaten to death.

On hearing the news, my workmates and I cried together. Although we had never met Reza, we felt we knew him. He was 23, my age at the time. He was Kurdish, like so many of the beautiful people who visited us at New Hope. I wondered what his hopes and dreams were? What terror had caused him to board a boat and seek safety on Australian shores? By that afternoon, we knew more. Reza was an Iranian Kurd; part of a minority group that was routinely persecuted, terrorized and killed in Iran. No wonder he had fled for safety, his life must have depended on it! Because of his ethnicity, Reza was denied basic human rights in Iran, and wouldn’t have been able to take routine pathways to seek asylum. Jumping on an unseaworthy vessel was his only option to survive.

On 19 July, 2013, the Australia government implemented the PNG Solution. The Policy meant anyone travelling to Australia by boat without a valid Visa, would not be allowed to resettle there, but would be detained on Papua New Guinea. Reza Berati arrived in Australia on 24 July 2013. He was 5 days late. The Australian government locked him in offshore detention on a small island called Manus, just near the Papua New Guinea mainland. He was given no timeline for when his application would be processed, and was given a serial number, identifying him among almost 1,300 men who had also fled for their lives and arrived by boat.

In the days that followed Reza’s arrival, Asylum seekers were labeled “illegals”, and “queue jumpers”, although they never once broke international law. In fact, Australia was a signatory, identifying itself as a safe country for asylum seekers according to Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And so Reza, along with 2,453 women, men and children were kept in poverty on Manus Island and the tiny island of Nauru, and were treated worse then criminals. Each paying for the sins of a corrupt government that refused to process their requests as legitimate refugees, and gave little hope of any form of settlement.

Numerous aid organisations were sent in to care for the asylum seekers. Yet they found that many workers were unprepared, uneducated and unable to work with these people—especially in a camp that was never designed to facilitate human life. Mark Isaacs, one such former support worker re-encountered his experience working on Nauru in his book, The Undesirables, saying, “The camp was built around destroying men, grind[ing] them into dust.”

Less than a year after his arrival in Australia, Reza was brutally murdered. And that night I lit a candle, along with tens of thousands of Australians, as we petitioned the government to give our brothers and sisters imprisoned on the islands human rights. Surely, we believed, this had to end soon.

Fast forward to the 7 August, 2015. Asylum seekers were spending record amounts of time in Offshore detention. There had been two more deaths, and it was becoming obvious that there was a lack of medical expertise on the islands. News was leaking daily, and the camps were labeled, “a crime against humanity”, with mental illness, poverty like conditions, sexual assault, violence and self-harm at record levels.

Yet while life had stopped for these women, children and men, mine continued on. I was at a music festival in Darwin, the top end of Australia. I was on my last social work internship before graduation. It had been a rough few months without my family, and I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of my sister that night. My phone buzzed. A name blinked on the screen, “Firouz”, my friend on Manus. I answered to static, unsure of what I would hear. Then came his voice, “Rachel, I do not want to live anymore.” My heart sank.

What was I meant to say? He was alone in a foreign place, cut off from his family with no means to make a living. Days earlier, Firouz had harmed himself considerably in his desperation and depression. Looking back, I see that he embodied what Amnesty International had meant when it stated that Australia’s indefinite detention system was "Breaking People”, and was tantamount to torture. My heart broke for this brave soul, I didn’t have any answers, but I had compassion. So we talked, and in that moment, it was what my friend needed. I don’t remember what I said, except that by the end of it, we had agreed that we would work together to get him some necessities, so he could dress himself and shower. I sent him a package a few weeks later with items my friends had gifted him.

By now, The New York Times and other international voices were backing the call to “Close the Camps”. Surely, I hoped, now that the world was watching this would end soon.

It’s 21 August, 2018. I’m home now safe and enjoying life as a social worker. It has been 5 years since the PNG Solution, and during that time 3,127 women, children and men have been locked up on Manus and Nauru, living in hell for on average, 826 days each. 12 have died, either by their own hand, untreated medical conditions, the harsh living conditions, or due to violence perpetrated against them. Still, the current Australian government insists they’re not locked up because the fences of these camps have been torn down, and people are allowed to walk freely around the island as long as they get to the center by curfew.

Manus and Nauru still seem to be island prisons to me though. Like I said, there have been 12 deaths now. Firouz wasn’t one of them. The media isn’t allowed on the islands anymore, and support staff was eliminated from the picture in 2016. Today it is estimated that indefinite detention has cost Australian tax payers up to $4.89 billion. The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea and United Nations have both ruled the detainment of these refugees and asylum seekers is illegal, and the centers must close immediately. 1,534 women, children and men are still imprisoned on Manus and Nauru, and the children have acquired “Resignation Syndrome” where they almost become unconscious, unable to react to any stimuli, eat, drink or go to the toilet.

811 people have “voluntarily” (and 20 involuntarily) returned to their home countries, with the possibility they may face death upon arrival. 372 people have been accepted in the USA under former president Barrack Obama’s policy signed a week before his term ended. Seven refugees left for Cambodia, costing the government $55 million. And still, the Australian Government refuses to act.
In light of the current immigration situation on the border of America and Mexico, it seems telling that President Donald Trump told our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, “You are worse than I am.”

It is overwhelming to find out about this situation. But what I have learnt over the past five years is that once you know, you can never unknow it. And in our knowing, we are called as fellow human beings, to stand together in suffering. For when one suffers, we all suffer.

I asked one of my friends locked away on Manus if they wanted to share a message with you. However, they have chosen to remain silent due to fear of what the Australian government or the authorities may do to them. So, on behalf of these people, I’m going to let you know of a few things you can do for our brothers and sisters.

STAY INFORMED

- Read articles from a variety of news corporations. I recommend The Guardian, and the ABC (Australia).

- For more about Nauru, watch ‘The Forgotten Children’ here:
http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/the-forgotten-children:-four-corners/7930052

- For more about Manus, watch, The Manus Solution’ here:
https://youtu.be/ug3is264iaE

- Read ‘No Friend But the Mountains’ by Behrooz Buchani, the ‘The Undesirables’ by Mark Isaacs, or ‘Offshore:
Behind the wire on Manus and Nauru’ by Madeline Gleeson

- Check out Refugee Council Australia for up-to-date details about the situation on Manus and Nauru here:
https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au

GET ACTIVE

- Sign the petition for the #kidsoffnauru campaign and join Australian non-profits to tell politicians we want these
children off the island in 100 days! Sign it here: https://www.kidsoffnauru.com

- Visit the Asylum Seeker Resource Center online for tangible ways you can support refugees here: https://www.asrc.org.au

- Do you live in America? Sign up for https://www.ads-up.org to connect with a refugee who has been settled in the US
after being detained on Manus and support them as they start a new life.

- Contact Australian politicians. Go here:
https://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members to let them know you are concerned for these women, children and men.

- And lastly, remember those gone too soon at the hands of the Australian government’s bipartisan offshore detention policy:

Reza Berati, 23, Iran – Head Trauma, cardiac arrest

Sayed Ibrahim Hussein, (minor), Pakistan – Drowning off the coast of Nauru

Hamis Kehazaei, 24, Iran - Sepsis, heart attack due to lack of medical help

Omid Masoumali, 23, Iran – Self Immolation

Rakib Khan, 26, Bangladesh- Suspected Suicide

Kamil Hussain, 34,Pakistan – Drowning while swimming on Manus

Faysal Ishak Ahmed, 27, Sudan – Fall caused by seizure due to lack of medical help

Hamed Shamshiripour, 32, Iran –previous violent attack on him, suspected suicide

Rajeev Rajendran, 32,Sri Lanka – Suspected suicide, found on hospital grounds

Jahingir, 29, Bangladesh- Road Accident

Salim Kyawning, 26, Mynmar, (Rohyngan)- Suicide

Fariborz Karami, 26, Iran - Suicide

Marisol de Jesus