Three years is a long time to live in limbo. Especially when that limbo means being detained in Australia’s offshore detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, where one is battling multiple mental illnesses, has allegedly been sexually assaulted and is unable to escape an environment that exacerbates existing trauma and inflicts all manner of ills.
This is Ali’s plight.
Ali is a 25-year-old Iranian cartoonist and asylum seeker who, through drawing, communicates his menacing surroundings to the outside world. His pen name is Eaten Fish and he recently won the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI). Each year CRNI seeks out a political cartoonist who has “demonstrated exceptional courage and resilience in the face of life-threatening risk and danger.” CRNI’s executive director, Dr Robert Russell, said that Eaten Fish’s work is incredibly important in documenting the human rights abuses and daily agonies of life in the offshore immigration detention centre. He told The Washington Post, “Mr Fish’s case is the worst, most complicated, most heartbreaking case we have ever worked with in our 20-some [year] history.”
Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites (RAPBS) explain, in an open letter, that Ali has a personal history of trauma and torture — evidenced by his medical records — and was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) before he fled Iran. Doctors in Australia familiar with his case state that he needs urgent assistance for severe OCD, complex post-traumatic stress disorder and debilitating panic attacks.
Dr Susan Ditchfield, who specialises in stress management, notes that, “Over time he has tragically become the target of unsolicited sexual harassment and eventually sexual assault. The response of those caring for Ali has been totally inadequate, inappropriate and, at times, professionally negligent.”
Ali will reportedly scrub himself until he is bleeding and obsessively wash his clothes in an effort to banish the feeling of being contaminated. Trauma specialist Dr Helen Driscoll writes that the severity of Ali’s OCD indicates a “major underlying trauma”. “Clearly, being kept in detention with ongoing trauma and being unsafe is total anathema to basic human dignity let alone clinical care.”
The open letter calls for Ali to be brought to Australia where he can receive appropriate treatment for his conditions and be removed from the ongoing threat of violence that aggravates them.
Two professors behind RAPBS, Dr Suvendrini Perera and Dr Joseph Pugliese, note that Eaten Fish “draws attention to a world cordoned off from the rule of law. In this world, sexual assault and breaches of duty of care and trust are the norms.”
“The recurring images of CCTV cameras that populate Eaten Fish’s drawings expose a brutal irony: in his drawings the cameras are recording video evidence of criminal acts – to no effect. In the amoral landscape of his artwork, surveillance technologies become just one more instrument of voyeurism and abuse. Who is watching? Who is being protected?”
In a statement to RAPBS, Ali said, “Tell them Mr Fish is not sick, these people made him sick. Tell them Mr Fish does not want to be assaulted. Tell them I just want the normal life. I want my right to be a healthy person.”
While the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has denied claims (made by CRNI) that Eaten Fish has been beaten, deprived of food and subjected to degrading treatment by guards as a result of his critical cartoons, RAPBS wrote in a September 10 Facebook post that, “Mr Eaten Fish has let us know he was badly assaulted for complaining about his treatment.”
First Dog on the Moon (Andrew Marlton), a Walkley Award-winning cartoonist, has been mentoring Ali and created a website to raise awareness about his situation. The site features a large collection of poignant pieces by Australian cartoonists communicating the plight of Eaten Fish and adding to the call for him to be brought to Australia for suitable care.
A petition has attracted almost 7000 signatures.
International law experts and human rights advocates have long condemned the conditions at the Manus Island detention centre and its counterpart on Nauru. Trauma specialist Paul Stevenson told The Guardian that what he witnessed on Manus and Nauru was the worst trauma he has ever seen in his decades of experience. His testimony shows how Australia’s offshore detention policy breeds hopelessness. How it sucks the life from people, who have been broken to the point of setting themselves on fire. Aspects of Australia’s asylum policies violate the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and amount to arbitrary detention.
This month, a UNHCR report leaked to The Saturday Paper revealed almost 90 per cent of asylum seekers and refugees assessed on Manus were suffering from a depressive or anxiety disorder and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. It noted, “These are extremely high rates, among the highest recorded of any population in the world, but a predictable outcome of protracted detention.”
In April, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled that the Manus centre was unconstitutional and illegal. Plans are under way to shut it down, with uncertainty surrounding the fate of 823 men detained there. Of those whose protection claims have already been processed, figures show, 98 per cent were recognised as refugees. The men of Manus — some separated from their families who were settled in Australia before the change of policy — languish in order to deter other desperate people who might consider Australia a generous and friendly place to seek protection.
In recent months all major service providers have revealed plans to end their participation in the controversial offshore system. Ferrovial, the parent company overseeing Australia’s offshore detention regime, was warned by Stanford Law School professors that its directors and employees could be culpable for crimes against humanity. Ferrovial will reportedly not continue its contract after October 2017.
Wilson Security is also set to abandon the offshore detention network next year. This announcement follows the release of the Nauru files, a collection of more than 2000 leaked incident reports published by The Guardian, which shone a light on the scale of abuse and also the security firm’s downgrading of incident files. In September, welfare provider Connect Settlement Services also made clear the company would not be applying for a new contract.
With more and more cracks appearing in the policy of outsourcing refugee protection, will humanity prevail? The Australian Government could start redeeming its reputation as a respecter of human rights by rescuing Eaten Fish from the horrors of a “nightmare world in plain sight.”