Two years ago, Reza Mollagholipour, a civil engineer from Iran, was on a boat crammed full of asylum seekers and migrants bound for Australia from Indonesia. Mollagholipour fled Iran after receiving threats for uncovering corruption at his company. It was the second boat to arrive on Christmas Island after the Rudd government in July 2013 reinstated a policy of mandatory offshore processing for “unauthorised maritime arrivals” to Australia.
The Australian authorities sent Mollagholipour on from Christmas Island to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Although given legal recognition as a refugee, Mollagholipour remains stuck on Manus two years later. Not a single person has been resettled or integrated into PNG two years on, and more than 900 men are still locked in detention.
This is the human cost of Australia’s “stop the boats” policy. Australian officials love to laud its “effectiveness” but the policy has come at an enormous human cost for the hundreds of men, women and children still detained on Manus Island and Nauru.
I met Mollagholipour in Lorengau, the main village on Manus, when I visited the island in June as part of a joint Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Law Centre team to better understand the situation for refugees and asylum seekers held there.
Mollagholipour spent the first 18 months locked up in detention. Since January, he has lived in a transit center, which currently houses 40 refugees. “This is still like being in detention, island detention.” he told me. “I want to start my real life. They need to clearly tell us what are the steps to resettlement, how can we move on with our lives?”
He and seven other refugees have been issued PNG identity documents including a work permit. But when Mollagholipour lined up job interviews in the PNG capital, Port Moresby, back in March, officials prevented him from leaving Manus Island, saying there was no formal integration policy in PNG.
“This document is absolutely useless,” Mollagholipour said. “I think it was just for the chief migration officer to take a picture with me. I was used by PNG immigration.”
Despite the restrictions on their lives, Mollagholipour and others have tried to stay positive and make the best of island life. Some have tried to get jobs or voluntary positions in the local school or hospital. But PNG immigration has thwarted these efforts at every turn by prohibiting even casual or voluntary work.
Other refugees have grown despondent, fearful of venturing into the local community. They recall the night in February 2014 when another Iranian, Reza Barati, was beaten to death and local residents, police and guards allegedly injured more than 50 asylum seekers after protests at the detention centre. So the men spend their days in their rooms glued to their mobile phones chatting with family and friends far away.
One of the refugees tried to explain to me what life was like in the transit centre after long periods in detention: “You become domesticated, like an animal inside a cage. You think they are fine. They look normal, they seem healthy but they could not survive in nature, and that is like us now. We become like that. Mentally, we are not fine.”
An ethnic Rohingya refugee told me, “In Burma, the government shoots us. Here, they kill us mentally.”
Meanwhile, more than 850 asylum seekers and 87 refugees remain locked up in poor conditions in the detention centre on Lombrum naval base. PNG authorities deny them access to visitors and mobile phones. Media and human rights groups are prevented from visiting them. These men have committed no crime; their only mistake was to think Australia would treat them fairly and decently when they boarded a boat headed there two years ago.
The refugee agreement between Australia and PNG signed on 19 July 2013 states, “What is unique about this Arrangement is that persons found to be refugees will be resettled in Papua New Guinea.” Yet two years on, that “uniqueness” remains unfulfilled.
After two years, it’s clear that the transfer policy of “boat people” from Australia to PNG needs to stop. Refugees still stuck on Manus Island need to be allowed to move freely, get jobs and be productive members of PNG society – that is, to get on with their lives. If PNG can’t or won’t allow that to happen, then Australia needs to act and give these refugees a future – preferably in Australia – instead of a perpetual life in limbo.