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Bearing witness on Manus Island

Meg Quartermaine

Palm trees and pain

Written by Meg Quartermaine, Oxfam Australia’s Humanitarian Lead.

Azure blue sea, white sand beach islands. This is what you see from the plane window as you begin the decent into Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

While I have been to PNG before, this was my first time to Manus Island. It was hard to believe that on the ground below were more than 700 men from all parts of the globe, who have fled their homeland for fear of persecution, violence and death.

I had traveled there as part of an Australian delegation of international non-governmental organisations to explore and understand the situation of refugees and asylum seekers detained on Manus Island. As part of this, I heard firsthand from Islander communities about the impact the Australian Government’s offshore detention policy is having on their lives.

We spent our first few days in Port Moresby, speaking to refugees and asylum seekers who have been evacuated from Manus Island for the medical treatment they so sorely need but cannot be provided by the International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), nor is the  small hospital in Lorengau, the main town on the Island, able to provide the treatment they need.

While the men showed us scars, documentation and medicines for their different conditions, one thing was clear: they had little or no information on about what was to happen with their treatment going forward. This uncertainty, and the anxiety that flows from this, has been significantly exacerbated since the formal closure of the detention facility on 31 October.

I spoke with a refugee who had been a teacher before being seriously assaulted and threatened during the conflict in his homeland. He told us how he had received a medical assessment, and how the specialist told him he needs further treatment. But he has absolutely no idea how, where, or even if, that will happen. The confusion and worry caused by the uncertainty is plain on his face for all to see. His distress is further compounded by the fact that he has a family – a wife and four children – who are also refugees but in another country because they became separated when fleeing the conflict.

This has to stop. Australia is responsible for the safety, health and wellbeing of these men, which means it must immediately ensure access to appropriate medical care and resettlement pathways. Whether those pathways are in Australia or in a third country, the various processes in play need to be expedited so that resettlement happens now. The physical and mental health of the men in Port Moresby and Manus Island must not be allowed to deteriorate any further, under the watch of the Australian Government.

For interviews or more information, please contact Dylan Quinnell at or on 0450 668 350.

You can help fight for the rights of asylum seekers with a donation to our friends at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Video: Nick Ralph/World Vision Australia