Gay asylum seekers on Manus Island write of fear of persecution in PNG

Guardian Australia obtains six letters detailing persecution in Iran, detention centre abuse and fears about resettlement in Papua New Guinea, where homosexuality is illegal

Gay asylum seekers detained by Australia on Manus Island have written of suicidal thoughts, experiences of sexual assault and fear of persecution in Papua New Guinea in a series of handwritten letters seen by Guardian Australia.

The six letters, written by four different men, paint a vivid portrait of life in the detention centre for gay asylum seekers – due to be resettled in PNG where homosexuality is illegal and can carry a jail term of over a decade.

Many of the men write of their decision to flee societies where they were persecuted for their sexuality and detail instances of abuse and bullying inside the Manus centre and in their lives before arriving in Australia.

The letters – all written by Iranian men and mostly in Farsi – were translated independently by Guardian Australia.

‘I am so sorry that I was born gay … I wish our boat had sunk in the ocean’

In a suicide note to his mother, one man, Omid*, writes:

I couldn’t return to Iran and be executed by the Iranian government. Hence living in PNG was not any better, because being gay is considered a crime in PNG as well, and the punishment for such crime is 14 years imprisonment.

I am so sorry that I was born gay. I never meant to hurt you, mum.

I wish our boat had sunk in the ocean and stopped me living the most painful year in my life.

I thought Australia and its people would be my protector, but they taught me otherwise.

Guardian Australia has been told by sources that Omid attempted to take his own life but did not succeed. It is understood three gay asylum seekers on Manus have recently been placed on watch for self-harm and suicide in recent weeks.

Fears of persecution in PNG:
All the authors express fear about life in PNG if they are resettled. Ahmed* writes: “I am hoping that I will not be sent to PNG prison because I don’t want to be killed by indigenous people living in PNG like my fellow countryman did in February.”

Ahmed continues:
I have to hide my sexuality because in this country, like Iran, there are a lot of people – fanatics – whom if they find out anyone is gay they would harass them and maybe even try to kill them.

I have to hide my personality once again. I have to live as someone else.

It feels like this is a disease that is consuming me for all these years and society will never leave me alone. It feels like the universe doesn’t want you to live in the serenity of one moment, I don’t know what I have done to the universe, or what it has against me.

I can’t live one moment without anxiety stress and sadness, it doesn’t let me live happily with anyone who I love or feel love, I don’t know what is my crime that I have to be punished so harshly.

In an extended five-page letter, another gay asylum seeker, Farhad*, tells the story of his time in Iran. He says he was gang-raped at the age of six by a group of older boys.

“I remember that I couldn’t comprehend what was happening to me, although because of the enormous physical pain I was crying the whole time,” he writes.

Farhad says he discovered he was gay years later and fled Iran decades after, when members of his family found out.

Homosexuality is also illegal in Iran, where the punishment can be death.

Farhad is the only asylum seeker on Manus to have also written a letter in English. It reads:

Orientation message: ‘People have been imprisoned or killed for performing homosexual acts’

Guardian Australia has obtained a copy of an orientation presentation shown to asylum seekers on Manus after they arrived on the island. It was prepared by the Salvation Army and shows a picture of two men kissing with a large red cross through it.

The delivery notes attached to the presentation warn: “Homosexuality is illegal in Papua New Guinea. People have been imprisoned or killed for performing homosexual acts.”

A spokesman for the Salvation Army confirmed the slides were used in the presentation to asylum seekers and said they formed part of a “broader education program about life in PNG”.

“The Salvation Army developed these modules in consultation with PNG immigration officials, as well as officials from the DIBP both in Australia and in Manus Island,” a spokesman said.

“So that there is no misunderstanding, The Salvation Army has always and will continue to provide services to all people in need regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, without discrimination, in accordance with its strong principles of social justice and in line with its international mission statement,” a spokesman said.

Salvos slide
A slide from a Salvation Army orientation presentation shown to asylum seekers soon after their arrival on Manus Island. Photograph: Supplied
A December report by Amnesty International first warned of the danger for asylum seekers detained on Manus. The report said that senior Australian immigration department staff told asylum seekers that if any homosexual activity occurred in the centre it would be reported to PNG police as a matter of protocol.

The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, denied that was the government’s policy. He conceded that asylum seekers were provided “clear advice” on “relevant laws” in PNG but declined to go into detail.

Morrison, who did not respond to a request from Guardian Australia for comment on the letters, said in December he was “unaware of any claims or declarations of homosexuality” from asylum seekers on Manus.

But a former Manus immigration caseworker, Liz Thompson, told Guardian Australia on Tuesday she was aware of at least three cases where asylum seekers on Manus had presented their sexuality as a reason for their persecution during protection interviews since September last year, indicating the department would be well aware there were gay asylum seekers on Manus.

Ben Pynt, director of Humanitarian Research Partners, who is in regular contact with a number of asylum seekers on Manus and who initially received the letters, said he estimated there were around 36 gay men detained.

“There are even more who we don’t know of because they’re too scared to be ‘out’ in PNG,” Pynt said.

Allegations of assault and bullying on Manus
The writers relate detailed allegations of bullying and assault at the hands of other asylum seekers on Manus.

In a letter Farhad writes in Farsi: “They [other asylum seekers] started bullying us, disrespecting us because we were gay, there are always people who are waiting to find a way to harm us, some want to rape us, we are tired this and we have no hope.”

Another author Karim* writes:
In this camp I suffer a lot. For example about four month ago I had to protect myself from a vicious man who tried to rape me, I lodged a complaint against the man, but I’ve got no reply yet.

Life in the camp became harder because after that incident everyone stopped talking to me, I am completely alone, they are bullying and humiliating me at all time.

I asked the psychologists to help me, but I’ve been ignored.

Guardian Australia understands that a number of gay men on Manus have elected to repatriate following alleged bullying in the camp and fear of persecution outside of it.

Australia accused of breaching non-refoulement obligations
Advocates argue that the cases of gay asylum seekers on Manus highlight that the resettlement deal with PNG, announced by former prime minister Kevin Rudd on 19 July 2013 is in direct violation of Australia’s non-refoulement obligations under the refugee convention.

Pynt said: “The fact that so many gay men have been sent to Manus highlights obvious shortcomings in the already inadequate pre-transfer screening processes. Further, the circumstances under which the men are sent to Manus and the punishment that will follow as a necessary consequence, should they be resettled in PNG, leads to serious questions about whether this amounts to people trafficking.”

Graeme McGregor, Amnesty Australia’s refugee campaign coordinator said Amnesty had “consistently raised the issue of gay men on Manus with the immigration department” but had “never had a clear response”.

McGregor said the presence of gay men on Manus was a clear example of refoulement. “There is a specific irony for gay men on Manus who want resettlement and stability but that release and resettlement brings other dangers,” he said.

A spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby (GLRL) in New South Wales also said it had consistently raised the issue of gay men on Manus with the department for immigration but had no response.

“The GLRL is extremely concerned by reports that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or intersex (LGBTI) asylum seekers in detention feel unsafe not only in detention centres, but in PNG itself, a nation that criminalises homosexuality,” the spokesman said.

“We are particularly alarmed that some have either self-harmed or contemplated taking their lives. This highlights the need for improved medical, social and legal support for all detainees, and particularly for groups who are already vulnerable to violence, discrimination and even further imprisonment in these circumstances, particularly LGBTI people.”

• All names in this article have been changed to protect identities.

by Oliver Laughland
Source – The Guardian