'Never been more traumatised': 72-year-old nun recounts Manus Island visit

'Never been more traumatised': 72-year-old nun recounts Manus Island visit

A neatly-made bed sits in a sunlit room, empty and waiting for visiting refugees at the house of 72-year-old Jane Keogh.

The nun and former school principal has often welcomed desperate people into her home in Downer. Four weeks ago on Manus Island, she visited theirs.

As the island readied for the closure of its detention centre on October 31, she flew to Papua New Guinea for the second time this year to see its asylum seekers.

"What I couldn't believe this time was the deteriorated health of the men," she said.

Jane Keogh has been flying to Manus Island to assist asylum seekers.

Jane Keogh has been flying to Manus Island to assist asylum seekers.

Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"I've never been more upset or traumatised in my life."

Sister Keogh and another Canberran, St Vincent de Paul member Tim McKenna, have funded their own flights to Manus Island to support refugees and help them navigate the path ahead as PNG closes its detention centre.

Mr McKenna, now visiting PNG, has sent updates to Canberra's refugee advocates waiting to hear about life on Manus.

His reports from a local community meeting last week bode poorly for the asylum seekers on the island, where authorities have been pushing them into transition accommodation closer to the centre of town by turning off electricity and water at some of the compounds.

"The first key message from the community was that they didn't want a camp with several hundred refugees and asylum seekers in their ward in a residential area on or near their land," Mr McKenna said.

"The second key message was that they were angry that they hadn't been consulted. Their third key message was that none of the refugees should be settled in Manus."

Asylum seekers are reluctant to move closer to the island's town, where there has been historic tension with locals. Sr Keogh describes why advocates fear what could follow the processing centre's closure.

"You have to go there to understand how PNG doesn't cope in so many ways," she said.

Manus Island people were caring and generous, and many were supportive of refugees, however a small group would get drunk and had access to knives. Sometimes, they would put a knife to the throat of an asylum seeker, Sr Keogh said. One video phone conversation she had with an asylum seeker was interrupted by an attack.

Of the triggers for worsening mental health among asylum seekers, the authorities' decision to move them from the processing centre by cutting access to cigarettes had a critical effect.

One refugee she spent time with had been a friend of 32-year-old Tamil man Rajeev Rajendran, who left Sri Lanka and died in October apparently by suicide after experiencing mental illness.

The refugee was gripped by paranoia and told her how he had seen Mr Rajendran after he had cut himself in an apparent suicide attempt.

Her notes, written while she was on the island, showed the limits to the help she could give: "Suddenly from a short period of calm he got up and ran wildly away. Friends followed in the car for a few kilometres and were with difficulty able to bring him back. We realised he was too ill for us to handle."

Sr Keogh said Australian Border Force via another company referred her to PNG Immigration when she tried to find help for him. A PNG Immigration official witnessing the refugee in a disturbed state refused to get involved. She remains harrowed by the response.

"I can live next to suffering, but I can't live next to people who refuse to help," she said.

When asked about the incident, the Immigration department said it was a matter for the PNG government.

Despite the efforts of locals to be helpful, their medical services didn't have the psychiatrists or facilities needed by many traumatised asylum seekers, Sr Keogh said.

"The hospital had nowhere to house them."

The Immigration department said refugees would continue to have access to medical services from IHMS, including for mental health, following the closure of Manus Island.

Sr Keogh would like to return to PNG to assist asylum seekers, but fears her attempts to help could be blocked.

"I can't see what I saw on Manus and go back to normal life," she said.

Unsure how to act next, she said refugee advocates just needed to keep the issue alive in Australia.


"You can't hope to get any changes with the government."

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Doug Dingwall is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service and politics.

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