Hellish conditions driving refugees insane, advocate warns

SHINING LIGHT: John Ennis spends long nights on the phone counselling desperate detainees on Manus Island.
SHINING LIGHT: John Ennis spends long nights on the phone counselling desperate detainees on Manus Island. john mccutcheon

MANUS Island refugees are being driven insane by interminable detention as part of a strategy one advocate believes is meant to break them so that they accept voluntary repatriation to the countries from which they fled.

John Ennis of Nambour, a former teacher engaged by the Salvation Army to work on the Papua New Guinea island said those who go back to the places from which they escaped are often imprisoned.

He spends most nights talking by phone to detainees who are living in cramped tent and shipping container accommodation that lacks air-condition and adequate toilet facilities.

By the reckoning of his sources on the island Mr Ennis believes that up to 75% of the detainees have serious mental health issues resulting from their incarceration and previous life experiences.

They are being prescribed sleeping pills and other medication they describe as "mind pills" to help them sleep at night but some won't take them because they fear they are at the root of many of the problems being experienced.

"Sometimes they are extremely confident at others nearly suicidal," he said.

"It's not consistent. Sometimes they sleep all day and others they can't get to sleep for a week."

A recent dysentery outbreak, which impacted more than 100 men, had them queuing in the rain to access one of 15 working toilets.

When he was there, Mr Ennis said the rain would cause septic systems to overflow and run along drains dug either side of crushed coral walking paths.

The trauma they have experienced has in some cases brought on a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, which can lead otherwise fit young men to suffer strokes.

Mr Ennis worked on Manus Island as a contractor to the Salvation Army to provide education services from late 2013 until just before the death of Reza Barati in 2014 after Papuan New Guinea locals broke into the compound.

BARS AND WIRE: Security forces gather at the Manus Island detention centre during a hunger strike in January.
BARS AND WIRE: Security forces gather at the Manus Island detention centre during a hunger strike in January. REFUGEE ACTION Coalitionaap

He says his advice is that Barati was kicked repeatedly in the head by four Australian guards after he had been bashed almost senseless by locals.

As many as 11 refugees either in detention or on temporary protection visas in the Australian community had died in the past 18 months.

In the past few weeks Iranian Fazel Chegeni was killed on Christmas Island, two asylum seekers, one in Western Australia, have burned themselves to death and another hanged himself at Brisbane International Airport.

What he found when he went to Manus Island were polite, respectful people many of whom were highly intelligent and some who had been professionals and global leaders in their fields.

One Iranian he encountered had been in charge of delivery of water and sewerage infrastructure to the Beijing Olympic village but fell out of favour at home and faced arrest before he fled to Australia.

Mr Ennis says management of the Manus Island centre appeared chaotic but he's convinced it is designed that way.

"There is no security (for detainees), no certainty and no respect,'' he said.

"Nobody could be that hopeless.

"They would give them sleeping pills and then when everyone was all asleep they would be dragged out at 1am.''

The staggering $1.4b cost of detaining around 950 people is also something he struggles with, given the conditions in which the men live.

The men sleep four to a 2.5 metre square room without a window that opens, fans that have either broken or are inadequate and are unable to open the doors at night because of mosquitoes.

A loose network of refugee advocates, several of whom live on the Sunshine Coast, provide moral support to the detainees and provide advice and material assistance in a variety of forms.

Topics:  asylum seekers editors picks manus island

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