A Manus Island migration agent turned whistleblower speaks exclusively to Dateline, saying the asylum seeker processing there is 'fake'.
The violence, the bashings and the killing that occurred a little over a week ago on Manus Island are still shrouded in mystery. Conflicting accounts abound and staff members on the island have been prohibited from giving their accounts publicly. Liz Thompson was bound by that prohibition until she resigned a few days ago. Thompson is based in Melbourne and is a professional migration agent of three years standing. She's also been a member of several refugee advocacy groups. She has just returned from Manus and gives her account of what happened on the island and, just as importantly, an insight into why.
REPORTER: Mark Davis
Liz Thompson was deployed to Manus in early February, to interview and assist detainees to make their refugee applications. She was there during the violence on the Sunday and Monday of the previous week. On the Monday night, she could hear the mayhem from her room and spoke with multiple eye witnesses the following day.
LIZ THOMPSON, FORMER MANUS ISLAND MIGRATION AGENT: It was certainly clear from what I was hearing that a lot of what happened occurred inside the perimeter fence and that there'd been a breach of the perimeter fence by locals who'd come in and attacked people. People describe being pulled out of their beds. We know, obviously we've got those communications within the comms room.
On Tuesday, it became clear that asylum seeker Reza Barati had been killed on Monday night and more than 50 others injured. Liz and her team were sent back to work on Wednesday.
LIZ THOMPSON: That was the idea. We would go back in and start reprocessing people and show everyone that this was business as usual. That someone has been brutally murdered and that it's business as usual. Obviously we were given the line from the department that a man has died because he breached the perimeter fence. He was outside the centre when that happened. That was re-emphasised to us in a meeting with Immigration. I walked out at that point because I just couldn't hear them further justifying what had happened.
On Thursday she resigned - the first Manus staff member to publicly do so - and left the island on Friday.
LIZ THOMPSON: Yes, and so I couldn't continue. .
The Manus Island facility re-opened in 2012. This is the naval base at Manus, the refugee centre is inside of it. Just over that rise. Technically, it's a regional refugee processing centre to be run by Papua New Guinea. But, remarkably, there was no processing whatsoever. Last year, Dateline broke the story of how not a single refugee had been interviewed to assess their asylum claims. Not one, since Manus had re-opened nine months previously.
GUARD: They're asking all the time when they're going for the processing.
REPORTER: But some of these people have been there since it opened?
A situation which disturbed PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill.
PRIME MINISTER PETER O'NEILL: But we are concerned and we have expressed our condition to the Australian officials, who will not allow these issues to just drag on forever. There must be some conclusion to it and some decisions given to all the people in the process.
Two months later, Liz Thompson was part of the first team to start the interview process. But it was stopped after two weeks. At the beginning of this month, the interviews began again - an event that should have alleviated tension in the camp. But it seems to have escalated it.
LIZ THOMPSON: We were sent there as a claims assistance provider. So the idea is that we would assist the asylum seekers to individually put together their refugee status determination claims.
Liz and the other interviewers were instructed to advise claimants that their only option was to be settled in PNG - not Australia, nor any third country.
LIZ THOMPSON: But we were informed when we went there very quickly this time around that re-settlement - we were not to discuss resettlement. We were not to discuss third countries options - third country meaning, not PNG and not your own country.
REPORTER: As part of your instructions to go into these interviews, not to discuss a third country and obviously not to discuss Australia.
LIZ THOMPSON: Yes. That's absolutely not to discuss Australia.
REPORTER: Why? What was the point of that instruction, so that people would understand that they're to be settled in PNG?
LIZ THOMPSON: Yes, that's right. And this was despite the fact that while we were there, you know, we would watch on the TV in the camp and read the newspapers, we would see that the Papua New Guinean Government had actually not made any decisions about resettlement and where people were to be settled, that there was no visa that people could be given. And we were not the only ones that knew this, the guys in the camp are quite intelligent, they pay attention to what is going on, they are trying to make decisions about their lives and so they were fully aware that the Papua New Guinean Government had not made any decisions. But it was made very clear to us, every day, sometimes even twice a day, under the threat of being removed from the island, we were not to talk about third country. We were not to suggest that there was any resettlement options. We were not to suggest that they were able to get off PNG. You need to stick to the script or you'll be taken off the island.
REPORTER: Were you spoken to about going off the script?
LIZ THOMPSON: Yes. So, for example, there's certain groups of clients who it's obvious that they can't settle in PNG - gay clients, because of PNG's sodomy laws, so they would face persecution in Papua New Guinea because of those laws that essentially outlaw homosexuality.
REPORTER: Presumably you can't settle a gay man in Papua New Guinea.
LIZ THOMPSON: No, you can't.
REPORTER: So what do you say when the man tells you he's gay? What do you say to him?
LIZ THOMPSON: I would say to him, explain the sodomy laws. Of course then the question would be, "Well, okay then, I can't settle on PNG?" And I would say, "We know that. We're aware of that. That's an issue that we're aware of."
REPORTER: But you are not meant to say that.
LIZ THOMPSON: That's a pretty weak response but that is what I said and that information was reported to Canberra.
REPORTER: And you got in trouble for that?
LIZ THOMPSON: Yes. We are told to tell people, to keep them focused on resettlement in PNG. That resettlement in PNG is what's going to happen. But they know that's not the case. They know that. They watch the news, they read the newspapers. They know what's going on around the camp. They know there's no decision from the Papua New Guinean Government on resettlement. So what that means is, you are never getting out of this camp, it is indefinite detention. While we play this charade.
REPORTER: You're not coming to Australia. They know that.
LIZ THOMPSON: You're not coming to Australia. There's no other third country option.
REPORTER: They were told they were going to be resettled in PNG. But that is not a likely option in your view. They know that.
LIZ THOMPSON: That's right. We know that and they know that. We're not allowed to say that... but we all know that.
REPORTER: Amongst your staff, you know it amongst your managers...
LIZ THOMPSON: Of course. We knew this was ridiculous. But we were lying to people and we were told to keep that message going, to keep it clear.
REPORTER: It's hard to keep a straight face when a guy is saying, "Where am I going?" You say, "You're going to a PNG settlement." You don't believe it and he doesn't believe it.
LIZ THOMPSON: Yep, yep.
REPORTER: Do you think this is one of the reasons why this came to a head just a week ago... after the interviews had begun.
LIZ THOMPSON: Yes, because what they realised - you know what they wanted was not just the interviews and a process, something to feel better about, something to be involved in... they want to know where they are going.
REPORTER: So the government can say the interviews have begun, which they been criticized internationally for.
LIZ THOMPSON: That's right, the interviews have begun, everything is happening. What's not happening is any clarification about where they'll end up. There is no process. The process does not lead anywhere except to indefinite detention.
REPORTER: They'll stay there forever.
LIZ THOMPSON: Yes.
REPORTER: So rather than alleviating the tension, the interviews have exacerbated it.
LIZ THOMPSON: Absolutely.
Things came to a head on Sunday, 16th, a direct response to what Liz describes as the lies being told in the interviews..
LIZ THOMPSON: I believe that what happened was completely predictable and that it was allowed to happen. That tensions were allowed to build up. That the misinformation was allowed to circulate. That people were allowed to be, you know - kind of driven into a frenzy about what was going to happen.
REPORTER: You're at the coalface in this, you're in the compound basically, talking to them.
LIZ THOMPSON: Yes, I was in the compound on Sunday night when the protest started in Oscar, we were actually stuck next to Oscar, we could not leave.
REPORTER: You're talking to the asylum seekers.
LIZ THOMPSON: Yes.
REPORTER: Are you passing your concerns up the chain?
LIZ THOMPSON: Yes, but they don't go anywhere. I mean, obviously after all of our interviews, we would talk about how impossible it was to put this message across. I mean, the only people who were being honest about what was going on was, members of the Papua New Guinean Parliament, other people who - staff at the centre, it's rumoured that they were being frank with the people about what the Papua New Guinean Government had decided in those meetings.
On Sunday, Liz believes that a PNG official spoke frankly to the detainees, that the PNG government had not made a decision to resettle them. To give them their freedom. Whatever small gap that had been opened to them had been shut that day.
LIZ THOMPSON: I suspect that he was more honest about what was actually going on. Which obviously we weren't allowed to do but, yes, that was - that's what happened on Sunday. That's what happened on Sunday, is, you know, the meeting occurred and then the protest started very soon afterwards. People...
REPORTER: It seemed that he called a spade a spade. It's not clear that they're going to be resettled in Papua New Guinea.
LIZ THOMPSON: Which is simply what members of the PNG parliament has been saying that very week.
REPORTER: What happens for you now? Will you go back? Or...
LIZ THOMPSON: I don't imagine I'll be allowed back to Manus Island. And - I would not go back because there is no process. There's nothing for me to do. There's no process for me to assist people with. It's fake. The - I don't believe that there's a way to fix this. It's not designed as a processing facility. It's designed as an experiment in the active creation of horror to secure the deterrence. That's why I say again that Reza Barati's death is not a crisis for the department. It's actually an opportunity - it's an opportunity to extend that logic one step further to say, "This happens." But deterrence continues, Operation Sovereign Borders continue.
Former Manus Island employee, Liz Thompson. We approached the Department of Immigration for comment. A spokesman for the department said, "With regards to the reports that the transferees were advised they would not be settled in PNG the minister has been advised that those reports are false."
25th February 2014