In my day job in the construction industry, I specialise in alternative dispute resolution in the thriving gas pipeline sector in Western Australia. By night, I get to follow my true passion as a human rights advocate. I work with the men, women and children interned in the Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island detention centres. I speak with them daily, organise lawyers to represent them and co-ordinate complaints on their behalf (complaints are taken more seriously if an Australian lodges them). I sometimes put them in touch with journalists.
More than half of the people I work with have suffered torture and/or trauma before seeking asylum in Australia by boat. They are then detained indefinitely, without having committed a crime, in conditions unduly harsh for even the most despicable murderer or paedophile; conditions that lead about a third of asylum seekers to attempt self-harm and/or suicide during their time in detention.
Those who speak with me send me photos and testimonies and beg me to have them published. They tell me they are under constant threat of reprisals: from locals who taunt them by making the sign of slitting their throats, and guards who they allege encourage them to commit self-harm. Many feel a return to their homeland and the prospect of being killed there is better than the uncertainty of indefinite detention and possible death on Manus Island.
Over the past week, I have relived a dozen times the trauma of the February attacks on the Manus Island detention centre. I travelled to London, Paris and Geneva for eight days to tell the world about what is happening on Manus. I organised interviews and meetings with media, non-government organisations and international human rights specialists.
'They can’t believe we do this to pregnant women and newborn babies. But we do.'
Every day, as I explained the circumstances of detention at Manus, and as I showed photos sent to me by the men interned there of the horrific injuries they sustained in the attacks, I felt like I was there. I have read their testimonies so many times they are committed to memory and I experience the scenes vividly. I see the attackers (I know their faces from social media), I see the men being pulled from under their beds and hacked with machetes or beaten with rocks and boots, and it brings tears to my eyes. Every time.
After these meetings, I would often walk around aimlessly for a while, staring into the distance. I rode the London underground from Victoria to Walthamstow before realising I had gone seven stations too far. I went to the theatre on my last night in London, but don’t really remember the show.
The people I met were shocked and disbelieving of my version of events. Until they saw the photos. Until they heard the voices of asylum seekers speaking over the telephone from Manus Island about what happened to them. Until they saw that everything we have reported since one day after the attacks has been verified by the media and, to a large extent, admitted by the government. Then they were horrified.
An audience of millions tuned in to engage with our BBC Radio 4 Today show package – the most listened-to news program on English radio. Journalists, when they had the full situation explained and saw the evidence for themselves, were eager to write about the Guantanamo Bay of the Pacific: Australia’s national shame.
The meeting with the United Nations was the most important but the hardest of all. The people I met with are hardened human rights specialists who spend their days sifting through complaints alleging serious crimes including extra-judicial killings, and even they were shocked at what they heard and saw. The UN wanted more details than the journalists and advocates I met with, I spent hours taking them through the minutiae.
I can’t bring myself to listen to my own interviews, and I don’t really read the news about asylum seekers any more. I skim the headlines and know what’s happening. I speak with other advocates, with sympathetic politicians and asylum seekers themselves, but reading the news is too distressing.
The government has brought about a siege mentality in asylum advocates. We’re always on the back foot, always reacting rather than anticipating. Always reassuring people they’re going to be OK, hoping beyond hope our words are true.
I’m now working closely with the UN, human rights advocates and non-government organisations to take the next steps to shame Australia for its actions at the international level. I am working with journalists around the world to make sure their readers and listeners know what our government does to people who ask for our assistance. Because when people hear the truth, they are outraged.
They are aghast that Australia has institutionalised mental torture on a massive scale, and facilitates the physical abuse of asylum seekers by sending them to places with inadequate medical facilities and an unacceptable risk of contracting malaria, dengue fever, cholera or infectious diarrhoea. They can’t believe that we do this to pregnant women and newborn babies. But we do.
Australia doesn’t have a bill of rights. The only constitutional rights protections that we have are about voting, religion, and equality before the law. But the Abbott government recently removed access to legal aid for asylum seekers, so the last guarantee has become ineffective.
What can we do? We can speak out. We can write to our local members. We can tell our friends in Australia and overseas the truth about what is happening at Manus. The same truth that has been reported by Amnesty, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and countless advocates. The truth that is communicated by brave men in detention at great personal risk. The truth that the government denies and is trying to suppress. The more we talk, the more pressure we place on the Abbott government to act in accordance with international human rights obligations.
Until then, the men at Manus will continue to sleep in shifts, because they are afraid of being attacked again. Like me, and all of us with a conscience, we are unlikely to get a good night’s sleep until we put an end to mandatory detention in this country.
Ben Pynt is the director of human rights advocacy at Humanitarian Research Partners.