Australia’s offshore detention centres have long been a secretive, carefully guarded operation.
For those who remain inside them, smartphones and social media have been the main way to tell stories of their plight, as governments remain reticent on who is responsible for them and journalists struggle to gain access to the sites.
The situation has come to a head lately with the closure of the Australian-run Manus Island Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea at the end of October.
Home to more than 400 asylum seekers, the facility saw many refusing to leave for a new centre which is prone to attacks from the local community and is still under construction, as documented by the UNHCR.
On Thursday, with media still restricted from the site, Twitter was abound with updates from refugees inside the centre, especially from Kurdish Iranian refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani. That day, Papua New Guinea police and immigration arrived to try and remove the remaining refugees in the compound.
So many police mobile squad and immigration officers came inside the prison camp. They are shouting at us to leave the prison camp. Some of the refugees are gathering in Delta compound and some are on the roof.
— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) November 22, 2017
Photos and video from inside the centres paint an ugly picture. Much of the media’s reporting has cited first-hand accounts of these men, who’ve used smuggled phones and credit that’s been donated.
Getting an outside line
A volunteer-run charity called Gifts for Manus and Nauru has helped with sending phone credit to refugees.
Ali Murdoch from Bega in New South Wales is behind the charity, and has been involved in supporting the men in the Manus Island detention centre since 2014.
“Getting to know these men and learning more from them about the conditions in the centre gave me more of an understanding of some of the things they could benefit from in the camp, and so I learned how parcels could be sent and what was contraband etc, and started to send some things to the men I was getting to know,” Murdoch explained via email.
Alongside family, friends and other advocates, Murdoch sent parcels to the Manus Island centre containing essentials for the refugees.
Gradually, it became clear that the men also needed phone credit, essential in allowing them to keep contact with family and friends, and also allow them to have direct, unmonitored communication with advocates and the media.
“In terms of right now with the Manus crisis that has been going on, the men’s access to phones has been vital … documenting as much as they can.”
“In terms of right now with the Manus crisis that has been going on, the men’s access to phones has been vital in enabling us to coordinate with them for food and other supplies they need, and during these two days of violence and forced removals, their phones have been so important in documenting as much as they can what has been happening,” Murdoch added.
Unsurprisingly, the refugees’ phones are a police target. Papua New Guinean authorities who entered the centre again on Friday went after the devices, leaving Murdoch’s charity needing to find ways to replace them.
Immigration & police broke many phones of ppl trying to take photos. The refugees are gathering in Oscar compound, police & immigration are around them. Some officers destroying Delta compound. The ppl are waiting for buses to take them, 4 buses are full and on way to new camps.
— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) November 23, 2017
The closure of the Manus Island centre on Oct. 31 also means phones are necessary in coordinating medical attention, which has been cut. They’re also an essential tool for sending legal and medical documents, but also for entertainment to keep their mental health in check.
“Supplying phone credit to the men at Manus has also taken on a higher level of importance in the past month or so,” Murdoch explained.
“Prior to that the men were able to buy some of their own credit at times by using their ‘points’ to purchase cigarettes in the camp canteen which they could then trade for phone credit. When the men had their points system and the cigarettes removed, the men became totally reliant on what we could send.”
Murdoch said the group has no problem sending phone credit, but it used to be a lot more secret, ensuring they didn’t identify any men who owned phones.
As it stands, the refugees have been moved to the new centre in East Lorengau late on Friday, a move welcomed by Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton.
“Advocates in Australia are again today making inaccurate and exaggerated claims of violence and injuries on Manus, but fail to produce any evidence to prove these allegations,” he said in a statement online.
Of course, the online presence of these men tells a different story.