Remote Manus Island was once one of the least developed places in Papua New Guinea due to its remoteness. Since the early 2000s, however, it has become one of the centres of Australia's 'Pacific Solution', a controversial system of processing asylum seekers at detention facilities outside the Australian mainland. The Manus facility, along with another on Nauru, were built and are operated on behalf of the Australian government and have been marred by controversy with human rights organisations raising concerns about the living conditions of asylum seekers. Reports of abuse and a number of deaths among inmates continue to discredit the policy.
The asylum seekers who are taken to Manus, usually after having been apprehended off the coast by the Australian navy, end up living in harsh conditions in tent settlements surrounded by barbed wire. The tents get extremely hot in the tropical sun and have only the most rudimentary sanitation, sometimes with limited access to drinking water. Many asylum seekers have been threatened by local guards, worried about the influx of foreigners and the scarcity of jobs on the island, and warned of dire consequences if they accept being resettled on Manus Island. Yet with Australia's newly tightened immigration policy, resettlement locally is often the only option people are given if they want to avoid being repatriated from the countries they have fled.
The precarious living conditions and increased intimidation from locals has led to a number of protests and hunger strikes. During one violent clash with a police mobile squad on 17 February 2014, a 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati was killed and another Iranian asylum seeker, Hamid Kehazaei, died from a rare bacterial infection after having been kept for a week on the island by the International Health and Medical Service.
At the time of writing, a hunger strike on Manus island is once again arousing international attention and putting the spotlight on Australia's treatment of asylum seekers.
Since 13 January 2015, hundreds of refugees on Manus have been refusing food and water and some have gone as far as to sow their lips shut and swallow razor blades. The main complaint coming from hunger strikers is that they are afraid of being settled in PNG, some calling for Australia to hand them over to the UN. Seeing their hopes of settling in Australia fade following a recent information campaign by the Australian immigration service stressing that 'if you come to Australia illegally by boat there is now way you will ever make Australia home', many of the hundreds of asylum seekers on Manus are starting to resort to ever more drastic measures.
Many locals are strongly opposed to the presence of foreigners on their land. They are still dealing with a much older refugee problem, that of West Papuan refugees from Indonesian Irian Jaya who fled in 1969 and have been living in a refugee camp in Lorengau, the capital of the island, without PNG citizenship.
Islanders are also incensed at other developments that have accompanied the hosting of the detention centre in their midst.
The notorious 'police mobile squad', brought in to assist the Australian authorities with security around the detention centre, has been involved in a number of incidents including the killing of a young student by a mobile squad vehicle and the death of another who was beaten to death by mobile squad officers.
Members of the Paliau Movement, a so-called Cargo Cult that developed on the island as a result of the presence of American troops in the Pacific during the Second World War, have also voiced their opposition to the detention centre. Many have stopped all cooperation with the sate, even withdrawing their money from the state-sponsored state bank.
Not all Manusians are against the centre. Some call it 'blessing' as Australian aid money keeps flowing into the community, bringing some development to this remote province of Papua New Guinea.
As part of an ongoing project about PNG, Vlad Sokhin recently visited Manus to report on the situation of Australia's outsourced asylum seekers.