Canberra, 4 April 2017
If Azzam was a dog his video would have gone viral.
His name is Azzam el Sheikh. He is badly injured. In the video, his head is vertically squashed against a dirty wall, his body horizontal and awkwardly resting on a flattened cardboard box on a cement floor in a putrid room. From this position, Azzam addresses Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to explain his situation. He apologises for having to show the Prime Minister this shocking scene, but tells him ‘I’m sure you don’t have any idea about [what’s] happened under Australian name’. He says he has repeatedly asked for pain relief but his requests have been ignored.
Many refugee activists have shared this video on social media, at Azzam’s request, but the mainstream media have not picked it up. In the video, Azzam reflects that the conditions in the cell are such that nobody could accept to see an animal, even a simple dog, in there. If Azzam was a dog, badly injured, refused treatment, without food and locked in a filthy room with a cement floor, the video would have gone viral.
Azzam has spent six nights in the Lorengau lockup for resisting forcible deportation. There are reports that he is on a hunger strike, and that he was kicked and shoved by police. His video appears to show he has difficulty breathing and speaking.
Azzam is one of many men on Manus Island targeted for forcible deportation because their claims for refugee assessment failed in a process that has been widely assessed as seriously flawed. The United Nations refugee agency has expressed ‘alarm’ at these forced deportations. According to media reports, the UNHCR has repeatedly advised Australian and PNG immigration authorities that some of the decisions to refuse protection may be erroneous, and stated that no deportations should occur before an appropriate review of each case. Nonetheless, the men on Manus are being pressured to accept payments of up to $20,000–$30,000 to ‘voluntarily’ return to their countries of origin or face forced deportation. Azzam has refused the money, telling journalists ‘I can’t go back home because I’ll be dead.”
“It is almost impossible to make sense of a refusal to accept this money except in terms of their insistence that they are genuine refugees, their fear of persecution is real, and that they want the opportunity to prove their case,” says Meg Clark from the Canberra Refugee Action Committee.
“The conditions on Manus are horrendous, and it’s hard to imagine the pressure these men are under. Some of them are making life and death decisions. ‘Do I take the money and the tiny bit of protection it might offer me, or risk forced deportation with nothing, knowing that I might be arrested as soon as I return?’”
In PNG, Azzam has a legal right to judicial review of his refugee assessment but with no pro-bono lawyers in PNG, time is needed to raise funds to support him and the other men in similar situations.
Australia, through an MOU with PNG, has held this man and others prisoner for 43 months. In doing so, both Australia and PNG have violated international law, the PNG Constitution, and the Refugee Convention. Returning men to persecution is also a serious violation of international law and these men deserve the opportunity to have their cases appropriately reviewed.
PNG is running out of options. The detention centre set up by Australia, run and managed by Australia, has been found by the PNG High Court to be unconstitutional. The flawed refugee determination process, designed and paid for by Australia, has left many men without a valid assessment of their refugee claims. The US deal will almost certainly exclude this group of men. Settlement in PNG is not safe, not tenable or affordable.
“But in spite of our Government’s protestations that this has nothing to do with them, they are responsible for these men and their safety. PNG might manage the deportation process, but Australia foots the bill and is responsible for whatever happens to these men,” says Clark. “It is time the government acted.”
The Canberra Refugee Action Committee is organizing a 48-hour vigil and rally to demand justice for asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. The vigil will begin at 1pm on Friday, 7 April, at Civic Square, and culminate in the Palm Sunday rally for refugees on Sunday, 9 April, at 1pm.
Meg Clark of the Canberra Refugee Action Committee is available for comment on: 0457 880 026
About the Canberra Refugee Action Committee
The Canberra Refugee Action Committee is part of a network of concerned citizens around Australia seeking the fair and humane treatment of refugees in Australia.
We are working to raise public awareness about the government’s obligations to give refuge to asylum seekers and treat them with dignity and humanity.
The Refugee Action Committee is composed of individuals from a broad range of backgrounds and is not associated with any political party.