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My Manus Island nightmare

Punishing one group of people endlessly in order to deter others is immoral.

Michael Gordon

Two images, a few days apart, are proving hard for me to shake. The first came the day I flew to Port Moresby in September to cover what turned out to be Tony Abbott's last international engagement as prime minister, the South Pacific Forum.

After catching a taxi from our heavily fortified hotel to the opening ceremony that evening, I shared a lift back with colleagues who made a wrong turn and stumbled into an ambush.

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Iranian man Loghaman Sawari has been in transit on Manus Island for over two years.

The image is the moment we realise 44-gallon drums are blocking the road in front of us and an armed mob is running towards us and pelting us with rocks, prompting Mick, photographer and driver, to reverse at high speed.

I touched on what followed in a column at the time: how we ended up in a dark deadĀ end with our attackers closing in; how Mick reversed towards them and blew a tyre in the process; how the side mirror was blown away and the car damaged by missiles and clubs; how two good Samaritans saved us.

 Illustration: Andrew Dyson

The first anonymously removed one of the drums so we could make our escape; the second was Jeremiah, who pulled up when our car could go no further, helped change what was left of the tyre and warded off another mob from a nearby settlement when they approached.

Don't worry, he told us, he had a M16 in the back of his ute.

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When we expressed our gratitude, the humble Jeremiah, an off-duty, second-generation cop, replied that he felt bad that we had endured such an ordeal in his home town.

The second image came after Abbott returned to Australia, oblivious to the fate awaiting him, and I flew to Manus Island to investigate the plight of about 50 asylum seekers who had been moved from the detention centre after being recognised as refugees.

Refugee Loghaman Sawari last year.
Refugee Loghaman Sawari last year. Photo: Andrew Meares

It is when Loghman Sarwari breaks down while he is trying to explain, on camera, how much he misses the mother who believes he made it safely to Australia and is doing well. "Very far from here to my country," he says, his young voice breaking. You can find it on Google by searching my name and Manus.

Loghman arrived as a minor on Manus Island late in 2013, and was kept there after it was established that he was 17. Yesterday, he spent his third Christmas in PNG limbo.

The Manus Island detention centre will soon close.
The Manus Island detention centre will soon close. Photo: Andrew Meares

The difference this time is that he was hoping to transition from the mind-numbing cocoon of the transit centre in Lorengau to life on his own in PNG, a journey potentially every bit as perilous as the one he took from Iran to Christmas Island.

After initially accepting an offer of employment, Loghman had second thoughts, fearing he could not survive on the weekly wage of about $80, anxious about his safety and worried about what would happen if he became sick or lost his job.

There is a view that the situation on Manus, like that on Nauru, is unsustainable, and that eventually the penny will drop that the end does not justify the means.

Many of the refugees at the transit centre are too scared to go outside, yet they have been told their futures lie in Lae or Port Moresby, two cities where crime is random and common.

"Settlement areas of towns and cities are particularly dangerous," the Australian Foreign Affairs Department's smart traveller website says. "Bush knives (machetes) and firearms are often used in assaults and thefts. Carjackings, assaults (including sexual assaults), bag snatching and robberies are common. Banks and automatic teller machines are attractive targets for criminals. The crime rate tends to increase leading into the Christmas holiday period."

Tony Abbott at the Pacific Islands Forum in September.
Tony Abbott at the Pacific Islands Forum in September. Photo: Andrew Meares

One thing going for those desperate to leave Manus is that JDA Wokman, the company engaged by the PNG government to find employment for the refugees, is working hard on their behalf and acutely aware of the consequences of failure. But the challenge is huge.

Like Loghman, most of the refugees were denied education or training in their home country and are unskilled, so any jobs they are offered will be very low paid. If they manage to keep their jobs and stay safe, the prospect of saving enough to travel to meet family members in a third country is so remote as to be illusory.

Then there are the 926 asylum seekers who remain in the detention centre, where they exist on a diet of sedatives and pain killers, suffer a range of physical and mental disorders and where many regularly resort to self-harm.

When social justice advocate Dr Diana Cousens wrote in NovemberĀ to Malcolm Turnbull, expressing grave concern about the welfare of an asylum seeker who witnessed the slaying of Reza Barati last year, the reply said her letter had been referred to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton for a response. Weeks later, no response has arrived.

Recently, some of those in detention penned their own version of Jonathan Swift's satirical Modest Proposal of 1729, where he suggested that Ireland's impoverished might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies.

Mimicking Swift's tone, the Manus detainees suggested the drain on the Australian taxpayer from their incarceration could end if they were dumped at sea, gassed or poisoned. They signed off by wishing Turnbull and Dutton a Merry Christmas.

"This is a letter of utter despair," says Macquarie University's Joseph Pugliese, one of the academics who formed Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites to give those on Manus and Nauru a voice.

"It's amazing that they can mobilise that satire, and play on the notion of civility and courtesy, when they are experiencing the savagery of a brutal system that is killing them," he says.

There is a view that the situation on Manus, like that on Nauru, is unsustainable, and that eventually the penny will drop that the end does not justify the means, that punishing one group of people endlessly in order to deter others is immoral and that there is another way to achieve the same policy objective. It used to be my view. Now I'm not so sure.

With the government and the opposition convinced that any solution that involves a portion of these people being resettled in Australia will "restart the boats", and a seemingly untroubled electorate, I fear it is sustainable.

That is my Manus nightmare. It is why the images that trouble me are two sides of the same coin.

Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.

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