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A visit among the men of Manus



I recently visited Port Moresby as part of a delegation of Catholic leaders. We travelled there to witness the situation of the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island, to communicate and demonstrate solidarity with them, and to promise to act with them as fellow human beings deserving dignity and respect.

Carolina Gottardo (right) pictured with Behrouz Boochani in Port Moresby.I have worked with refugees and migrants for more than 20 years in different countries. I have been part of many serious and confronting human rights struggles. Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia, the organisation I lead, works with many families and men transferred from Manus Island and Nauru for medical treatment. I am familiar with some of their challenges, including their ongoing struggles with destitution and homelessness in the Australian community.

Nonetheless, I was not expecting what I saw and what I heard in PNG, and it deeply touched me. The ongoing resilience of these men against the odds also inspired me.

I saw young men with their lives ahead of them — except that many of those lives have been taken away by unfair and unnecessary policies that still continue to haunt them after seven long years of suffering, pain and slow torture.

I also saw amazingly inspiring and deeply political men who see each other as brothers and who often care more for each other than themselves. For instance, most of the men told us how the priority is to focus on the harrowing situation that their brothers in Bomana Immigration Centre are facing.

A man showed me photos of his teenage daughter and son with a mixture of pride and sadness. He has not seen them for seven years. Others mentioned that they have not talked with their families for almost six months because they do not want to make them suffer. Their families no longer believe they have been detained without doing anything wrong. This is how deeply offshore processing has impacted the men. Other men amazed me with the skills they have learnt in those long days in detention on Manus, including proficient use of languages

I found so many of these young men profoundly inspiring. They may not all be Christians, but they were examples to us Christian visitors of what it means to live the Gospels. They have turned the other cheek and have decided to look after each other in the face of harrowing adversity. They remind us of what it means to love our neighbour.


"Others with families in PNG are having to make the harrowing choice between resettling alone without their families or living together a life of destitution and homelessness and in PNG."


Around 250 men remain in Port Moresby. Many have now been resettled in other countries or been medically evacuated to Australia. However the future for some of these men is deeply uncertain. Some of them will be resettled to third countries but others are still left in limbo, despite the fact that they were only seeking safety and sanctuary.

Some men suffer from serious physical and mental health conditions. Many mentioned how the painkillers and sedatives that they have been taking for years don't seem to have any effect on them anymore. Others wonder whether they will be alive in coming months.

Others are in Bomana Immigration Centre, on the outskirts of Port Moresby. They have been unfairly detained for more than three months, unable to contact family members. Many have lost 12-15kg during this time because they receive meagre portions of food. They have no access to daylight, no pillows, no visitors, no legal advice and constant pressure to sign return papers to countries where they may be at risk of harm or worse. As some of their brothers said, the conditions in Bomana amount to physical and psychological torture.

Other men are in the hospital's psychiatry ward after years of intense suffering and trauma, and others with families in PNG are having to make the harrowing choice between resettling alone without their families or living together a life of destitution and homelessness and in PNG.

Outside Bomana Immigration Centre, I couldn't help thinking about what would the men inside the prison be thinking at that time of the day, inside their cells, and whether they would ever know that there were people outside, and in many parts of Australia and the world, who care about them and stand with them.

On the plane back to my comfortable life in Australia, I could not help but feel deep feelings of anger and sadness. I cannot unsee what I have seen or unhear what I have heard. I feel an intense desire to do something about this gross and purposeless abuse of human dignity. The status for some of these men differs but it is clear to me that they all have suffered serious human rights breaches and each of them deserve access to safe and secure pathways. One of the men said that each of their stories is a tragedy, and each is a different tragedy.

Nonetheless, I am struck by how grateful these men are for those in Australia who have been walking with them for years and those who continue walking with them in PNG, such as senior priest Fr Giorgio Licini and his colleagues. The dignity and courage of these wonderful men and families, their leadership against the odds, and their solidarity and brotherhood also stay with me and inspires me.

The many men that I had the honour to meet are fellow human beings who want nothing more than a chance to rebuild their lives in peace and safety. If we can begin to recognise that, perhaps we can all open our hearts a bit more. The ends certainly do not justify the means.



Carolina Gottardo is Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia and co-convenor of the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum.

Main image: Carolina Gottardo (right) pictured with Behrouz Boochani in Port Moresby.

Topic tags: Carolina Gottardo, refugees, asylum seekers, migration, Papua New Guinea, Medevac



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Existing comments

Thank you for sharing your story. So sad that we allow our elected representatives to treat our brothers and sisters so badly, and don't seem to care. I have just donated to Jesuit Refugee Service and encourage others to do the same. Guilt money perhaps, but i hope it helps support your work and lets you know that some of us care, and admire your commitment. https://www.jrs.org.au/donate-now/

GAP | 20 November 2019  

Hi Carolina Tks for your powerful report I’m powerfully impacted by this sorry scheme of Australiandetention centres. Yet I feel impotent. This is all done in my name as an Australian cituzan But what can I do? What’s your recommendation? Write to Darren Chester our local member for Gippsland to send my. Voice to the P M and Peter Dutton? A futile option. A novena to St Jude the hope of the hopeless. Please advise

Mike parer | 20 November 2019  

Hi Carolina, Like Mike, I was deeply moved by your experience , but I feel powerless to change it. Like many fair minded 'silent' Australians, I have almost lost hope that the Government will change its policy.

Gavin O'Brien | 20 November 2019  

“The ends certainly do not justify the means.” One aphorism begets another. The ends of stopping the Australian maritime cordon from being swamped by boats like some marine equivalent of a computer distributed denial of service attack do not justify mistreating illegal entrants in overseas detention centres. But the situation is also represented by another maxim: hard cases make bad law. The pitiable circumstances of these detainees furnish no basis for a hospitable law which releases any entrant who manages to get here by boat into the general population. Detention centres built within Australia to the standards of Australia’s first human rights-compliant prison, the Alexander Maconochie Centre in the ACT, will provide a safe and comfortable home for entrants without putting Australia into moral debt to its neighbours who, no doubt, will milk the cow by calling in the owed favours. And entrants prevented from living in the community will not be given means to create additional emotional anchors – domestic relationships with locals and subsequent ‘anchor’ children being one of them – to obscure the legal clarity of their situations. Build humane accommodation in the tropics, bear the cost of decent upkeep and let the UN resettle those who live there.

roy chen yee | 21 November 2019  

Hi Caroline I was a volunteer with JRS 2008 in Curtin 2010 -14 Christmas Isl then Nauru. Just back from SS Presently I am in Brisbane walking with so many of the men women and children that I assisted all those years ago I am visiting two detention centres here in Brisbane and visiting families in Community detention.There are no Jesuits here but I have volunteered in a parish very sympathies towards refugees and A.S I know that the Australian people do not realise that the inhumane treatment still continues here in our own country.We need your prayers. Blessings Dorothy

Dorothy | 21 November 2019  

I am in the ranks of the shamed & frustrated & disillusioned - I simply do not understand how the Australian Government - left & right - can live with this on their conscience. I am sorry that Australia is treating these men with such derision. Thank you to those who are actually helping to right this wrong & to care for the human beings caught up in it. I am sending a donation to help your work.

Helen | 23 November 2019  

Thankyou Carolina for sharing this experience. I went back to my diary notes of December 2013, taken during a phone call from a man held in the Manus Camp. He told me that at 8am on December 1st, a raid was carried out in the camp suddenly and without warning by local police with all staff participating. The men's sleeping areas were entered and their personal effects searched and dumped on the ground. They were told that the search was for suspected contraband. What distressed them most was that their photos of family , wives and children were ripped up in front of them and trodden into the ground. The men who had treasured Korans were forced to stand silent while these too were thrown down and trodden on. The man wept as he told me this. In so many ways these men have been stripped of any autonomy, dignity and respect. I believe this constitutes torture, cruel and unusual punishment. I won't be alive to hear the apology which must come from the nation for what we have done but we cannot let this crime against humanity be forgotten.

Pamela Curr | 23 November 2019  

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