Phone credit is a luxury for the nearly 1,300 asylum seekers currently living in Australian offshore processing plants on Manus Island and Nauru. Asylum seekers currently spend an average of 450 days in detention, a record high. Over 20 per cent have been detained for more than 750 days. For these people, phone credit offers a precious line of communication to the outside world, a means to call family, read the news, seek legal advice and find answers to concerning health questions.
Gifts for Manus and Nauru runs monthly crowdfunding campaigns to provide phone credit for 1270 people currently on its database, all of whom have passed a stringent identity check. The January campaign brought in $12,000. “It’s really good, but it barely scratches the surface of what we need,” says Annie Molenaar, the organisation’s vice president. “If we were able to raise enough money each month to top them all up regularly, we would need to raise over $42,000 a month.”
Once they got access to mobile phones, their whole worlds opened up.
Asylum seekers on Manus Island were officially allowed to have mobile phones only after Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled in April 2016 that the processing centre was unconstitutional. Before that the mobile phones that inevitably found their way into the camp were considered contraband. “Once they got access to mobile phones, their whole worlds opened up,” says Molenaar.
Many detainees rely on the top-ups they receive from Gifts for Manus and Nauru to keep in touch with their family and friends, sometimes waiting 48 days for fresh credit. “We would love to get to a point where we've got them on a monthly cycle, so they don't have to go through the anguish of ‘When am I going to get my next top-up?’” she says. “So much of the mental anguish that they experience is because of the uncertainty in which they're living. Their detention is indefinite, and they have very little that they can rely on. They've all lost faith in people, and who they can and can't rely on, and this is one service that they've really grown to depend on.”
Life in the offshore processing centres is difficult, lacking most of the comforts we take for granted, like hot water and privacy. There is little to do to alleviate the daily boredom that marks life in the camps. On Manus Island, the only mode of transport is a minibus that ferries the detainees to and from town. People start lining up at 5.30am for the 8 o’clock bus, and many miss it because it is too full.
It was a desire to help break that daily tedium that prompted Molenaar to contact detainees in the first place. “I had a friend who was working on Manus Island, and she mentioned to me that some of the guys there were looking to have pen pals… something to keep their minds occupied.” In their letters, Annie’s correspondents wrote of their boredom. When she learned they were interested in things like reading and drawing, she sent them parcels containing e-readers and art supplies.
Gifts for Manus and Nauru started as a small Facebook group of people who, like Annie and the organisation’s founder Ali Murdoch, was sending care packages to asylum seekers. They pooled their resources to reduce postal costs. Their number grew and in 2016 the organisation registered as a charity. While phone credit is their focus for fundraising, they still send parcels. Popular items include sporting goods like runners and skipping ropes, external hard drives filled with movies and TV series, clothes, hats and sunglasses.
They've all lost faith in people, and who they can and can't rely on, and this is one service that they've really grown to depend on.
The group also sends snacks and vitamins. “They often run out of food in the mess,” she says. “If they've got an appointment with a doctor and they're not around when their food is served, then they just miss out.”
It’s Molenaar’s observation that mental illness is endemic among asylum seekers living offshore. “There's not one person that I've spoken to that hasn't at some point experienced extreme depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, all of those things.”
A new service offered by Gifts for Manus and Nauru aims to address this problem. If an asylum seeker is believed to be struggling with their mental health, the organisation will refer them to a professional trauma counsellor or psychologist. They can talk to the medical professional by whatever means they decide, says Annie. “If they're more comfortable communicating via text, through some type of a messenger service, they can do that, or if they would like to speak to them directly via phone, they can do that as well.”
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