Manus Island, Papua New Guinea – Aziz Abdul Muhamat had agreed to meet me for an interview near the East Lorengau refugee transit centre at eight in the morning.
The 25-year-old Sudanese man is a nominee for a global human rights prize – the Martin Ennals Human Rights Defender Award – for his advocacy work on behalf of his fellow refugees on Manus Island.
He has been a refugee on this remote Pacific island, part of Papua New Guinea, for more than five-and-a-half years.
But Muhamat wasn’t answering messages.
Later, I would learn that it was because he’d been up until the early hours, giving words of hope to desperate men – men who have been self-harming.
Men have been dousing themselves in petrol. Men suffering from depression, grief and anxiety, marooned on an island and withdrawn deep inside themselves.
As of October, there were around 500 male refugees remaining on Manus. Perhaps another 100 were asylum seekers whose bid to be recognised as refugees had failed. Getting precise data on them – and whether they have moved to the capital, Port Moresby – from Australia’s government has been consistently hard for years.
|Aziz Abdul Muhamat, a 25-year-old refugee from Sudan, has been held on remote Manus Island for more than five-and-a-half years, after trying to get to Australia by boat [Bill Code/Al Jazeera]|
Luck was not on the side of these men when they tried to get to Australia from Indonesia, coming face-to-face with a new Australian policy to halt boat arrivals once and for all – and, according to the government, stop deaths at sea.
From 2013, authorities began intercepting boats and taking those on board to Australia’s Christmas Island. Eventually, the refugees were flown to Manus or the tiny republic of Nauru. With the agreement of the government in Port Moresby, it was decided that the men on Manus would be housed in an Australian navy base.
The detention centre was shut in late 2017 – its last remaining men violently ejected and moved on to “transition centres” – after a large cohort spent several weeks resisting the power, water, food and medicine cuts, gaining a sizeable amount of media coverage.
I felt that people are calling my name, ‘Aziz’, instead of Q and K and Zero, zero, two.
Aziz Abdul Muhamat
For many, though, the only transition was to a deeper state of despair.
Muhamat was at the forefront of the refusal to leave the centre, borne from a glimpse of freedom when the men were suddenly reminded of the power that came from being able to make their own decisions on when to shower or sleep.
“I never felt that I’m free in five-and-a-half years, except those 24 days,” he said. “I felt that people are calling my name, ‘Aziz’, instead of Q and K and zero, zero two.”
|Australia closed its main detention camp on Manus Island a year ago and the men now live in ‘transition centres’ with only rudimentary support; those at the East Lorengau centre protested against the conditions last month [Al Jazeera]|
Having been moved from the prison-like detention centre, the refugees are now in poorly-serviced camps which they are free to leave.
But most stay put. A much-vaunted “US deal” to allow these refugees to settle in the United States is their remaining hope, but for many, it is fading fast.
More than 400 people formerly held in Nauru – where Australia detained families and children – and Manus Island have already been resettled in the US.
The ones I’ve spoken to have jobs, rented apartments, cars – in short, new lives. Of course, they’re still scarred from their time in detention, but they’re off the islands.
But many Iranians, Sudanese, Somalis and others are simply not being accepted by the administration of President Donald Trump under the deal struck by the government of his predecessor, Barack Obama. They have either been outright rejected, or have applied for resettlement and spent the year in vain waiting for replies.
A mental health crisis grips the remaining men. Suicide attempts and self-harm are rife.
As the stress and anxiety increase, men like Muhamat and the Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Bouchani continue to work round-the-clock providing impromptu counselling to their grief-stricken friends and counterparts.
Australia’s government has repeatedly promised that these men will “never” settle in Australia, lest “people smugglers” begin selling their product once more. The hope that came with news of the so-called US deal has for some become an unbearable disappointment.
We want to keep them alive
Aziz Abdul Muhamat
In the face of that, I’m struck at the incredible strength of character on display by many of the young men I met.
“We tell these men, we give them false hope for them to go and sleep,” Muhamat said one afternoon as we sat in my hotel room.
“We do it because we want to keep them positive, we want to keep them alive.”
When asked if he needed to head back at any time to deal with the desperate messages coming up on his phone, he replied: “It’s OK, Behrouz is there.”
Shift work in action.
|Aziz Abdul Muhamat walks with friends on Manus Island [Bill Code/Al Jazeera]|
The despair is as great as at any time in the past five-and-a-half years.
For Muhamat, the day-to-day ritual of helping others over the years – liaising with journalists and lawyers, teaching English to other refugees, talking friends out of self-harm and suicide – has been part and parcel of survival.
“As long as what I’m doing, people are getting a benefit out of it, I don’t actually feel that pressure,” Muhamat said.
At the time of writing, a newly-elected independent member of parliament from Sydney is attempting to get a bill through the parliament which would see the evacuation of psychologically or physically ill men from Manus.
But glimmers of hope come and go on Manus.
Later, I see a message from a refugee reporting a man’s attempted suicide, his second in two days.
After he fails to hang himself, he tries another desperate act – overdosing on tablets and drinking shampoo.