What's really happening behind the fence of the Manus Island refugee centre? Dateline hears of attempted suicides and a lack of claims being processed.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013 - 21:30

Not a single journalist has been allowed into the controversial Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea since it reopened to Australian refugees nine months ago.

Mark Davis tries to change that and uncover what the Australian Government is hiding behind the security fence.

In exclusive interviews with detention centre guards and an inmate, Mark learns of attempted suicides and self-harm among the desperate asylum seekers.

And it emerges for the first time that there hasn't been a single processing interview to assess their claims since the centre opened last August.

Mark contends with having his footage deleted by the authorities, a bugged car and endless bureaucracy, but does he eventually manage to film inside? And how does the Australian Government react to what he finds?

A Response From Mark Davis

Sandi Logan, National Communications Manager at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, posted a flurry of tweets in response to our Manus Island story last week. One of them went to the credibility of the story... and raises questions about his own.

Logan suggested that the claim in the story that I could elicit no response from his department while I was in PNG was a "complete fabrication".  He added that the texts, emails and telecommunications "could fill a hard drive".  

They must be issuing very small hard drives in DIAC these days. If Logan checks his, he should find communications from his department as follows:

- Not a single phone call from him or anyone else in his department.
- There may be records of multiple attempts by me to call him, but they should also reveal that he accepted exactly one phone call.
- No emails whatsoever.
- Four text exchanges from Logan as follows: one advising he’ll get back to me, two advising that he was busy and one advising to try someone else.

If he checks the hard drive from his minister's office he will find as follows:

- Multiple messages and exchanges from me asking to be called back
- Not one outgoing call.
- Not one email.
- A handful of texts from one staffer asking to be left alone.

We stand by the disputed claim and all other claims in the story.  

While a senior public servant like Logan may choose to engage in the vigorous style and language of social media, he would hopefully do so with a modicum of truth.


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Ever since the Federal Government decided to reopen the infamous Manus Island detention centre, its operations have been shrouded in secrecy. To try and find out what is happening there and what conditions are like, Datelines Mark Davis embarked on a journey to the remote island. There was nothing secret about his intentions, in fact - quite the opposite. Who better to ask for permission to visit the centre, than the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea. But as you are about to see, Mark was soon forced to run the gauntlet of those determined to prevent his access.

REPORTER: Mark Davis

In war or peace, few Australian facilities have been as clouded in mystery as our refugee centre on Manus Island. Inside the boundaries of a PNG naval base lies the so-called Regional Refugee Processing centre. This is as good a view as you can get of it.

I've come to PNG after a perplexing exchange with the Immigration Ministry in Australia. Like dozens of other journalists, I'd approached the office of the minister, Brendon O'Connor, seeking access to the Manus centre. His spokesperson claimed that the ministry didn't have a problem with media going there.

"œThe block is coming from Papua New Guinea;. They grant or deny access;. They are a sovereign nation you know."

Fair enough. So PNG seems like the best place to start on a quest to get into Manus. Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, has been a champion for the processing centre. He's been attacked by the PNG Opposition for supporting it, but has stuck by his commitment to Australia.

REPORTER: What were the benefits to PNG?

PETER O'NEILL, PNG PRIME MINISTER: We didn't necessarily look at it from a benefits point of view. We looked at it from a point of view of honouring our commitment that we made to the Australian government.

He's a supporter of the centre but it doesn't take long to realise that he has his own reservations about what he's hearing about it.

PETER O'NEILL: We are concerned and with have expressed our concern to the Australian officials. Particularly in terms of the children, as I said, we have to do it in a humanely possible manner. We have to do it in a timely manner, and that if these people are not genuine immigrants, then they must be repatriated to their country of origin.

REPORTER: One of the problems regarding allegations coming out of Manus is that you can't get there - the media's not allowed in. Is that a policy that you support?

PETER O'NEILL: We have allowed every visitor in our country to go to any part of the country if they so desire, so there's no restrictions on our part.

REPORTER: The Department of Immigration in Australia, though, they are saying quite specifically they don't have a problem at all with observers and journalists going to Manus Island. They say it's a PNG problem.

PETER O'NEILL: Let me put it this way. Has anyone told you in our Immigration Department - by our immigration, that you can't go to Manus?

REPORTER: No, the Australians have.

PETER O'NEILL: Well, they can, I can only defend what my own officials speak and I can assure you that you are free to go to Manus any time you want to.

REPORTER: I might take you up on that - in fact, I will take you up on that.

The PM doesn't offer any golden pass, just asserts that I'm as free as anyone to go to Manus and make a proper application to enter the facility if I wish. That's worth a test.

CHURCH SINGING: The Lord is so good

It's Mother's Day on the island, the Head of the Women's Association, Hanna Ogi was hoping to spend it with the women and children inside the detention centre.

HANNA OGI: I mean, even I'm from this place. I haven't gone to see them, I haven't been around to see them, because they said, "No, you can't go".

REPORTER: No locals can go?

HANNA OGI: No locals, no.

REPORTER: Have you tried to go up there?

HANNA OGI: Well, we tried one time during the International Women's Day. We can go and talk to the women and children and then as we entered the gate, they said no, you, you can't come. They said...

REPORTER: You are a security risk? Maybe? You think?


REPORTER: It's such a secret place. There are so many rumours coming out of this one. What do you hear about how they're being treated, do you think they're being treated okay?

HANNA OGI: There's some kind of good treatment going on. But personally, I have to see it myself so that I can say whether it is true or not.

REPORTER: You and me the same, me, too, I want;

This is the naval base at Manus, the refugee centre is inside of it. Just over that rise. But I can't get much closer than this - not a single journalist has been inside the centre since it opened last August. That seems a little strange to me - it could be the house of horrors that some people describe it as. It could be the Sheraton Hotel, but there's no way of telling from out here and it seems that's exactly the way the Australian Government likes it.

I don't try to enter the base today, but I'm not disguising that I'm a journalist. There are no hidden cameras - I'm knocking on all the front doors. That's including that of the island police chief, who many assure me is bound to try to throw me off the island. Chief Inspector Alex Ndrasal.

CHIEF INSPECTOR ALEX NDRASAL: I'm not allowed to go in there anytime, anywhere.

REPORTER: You're not welcome either, you're like me?

CHIEF INSPECTOR ALEX NDRASAL: I am not also welcome, but I will be invited should anything happens in there. I have no idea the reasons why, it's very secret.

REPORTER: Is there a process to get in, or is it just not possible to go in?

CHIEF INSPECTOR ALEX NDRASAL: Whether there is a process or no process, I have no idea. Like I said the right person to talk to is the Immigration Officer for PNG in Australia.

The Chief Inspector assures me it's no offence to report from the island and talk to whoever I like. The naval commander is equally obliging, granting permission to film inside the base on the very edge of the refugee centre. I make a formal application to enter the centre and await the reply and I take on board a warning not to film even the front gate of the centre, which lies just behind this building. With a PNG police unit between me and it.

REPORTER: Will your officers stop me if I try to go up to the gate and try to film the outside of that place?

CHIEF INSPECTOR ALEX NDRASAL: My office won't stop you, because it is not our duty and responsibility.

Around the centre lies a string of traditional Manus villages, like this one at Puppatali, a new house is being finished today and the village gathers to help and to celebrate. There's a sense of community here that extends, remarkably to me, to their refugee neighbours around the corner.

MAN: They should have freedom, you can be allowed to go anywhere, you know. This world should be free to go anywhere, do anything we like.

Throughout the island, I hear similar comments. There's a sense of disquiet that the refugees are suffering total imprisonment. No-one thought it would turn out like this.

REPORTER: Do Manus people think it is too tough?

MAN: It is. It is too tough and the poor people are locked up in there, especially women and children. It's not bad people. It's not good. Not good at all.

Officially it may be known as the Regional Refugee Processing Centre, but the locals know it as the calaboose - the prison.

MAN 2: Not like a prison, should be processing centre.

REPORTER: Should not be a prison, should be a processing centre?

MAN 3: Definitely. Should be a processing centre.


MAN 3: Well, we are dealing with human beings and I feel sorry for them. I want to care for them and look after them.

MAN 2: They are free. They can come out. They can help us. We can help them and we can process them and then they can go back.

Whether the Australian Government has considered letting refugees out to swan around with the islanders is not clear but while I was on Manus Island, Prime Minister Gillard arrived for talks in Port Moresby.

JULIA GILLARD, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: This 2013 declaration points the way to a new level of co-operation based on mutual trust, respect, and common values.

But it would seem that Australian and Melanesian values about how refugees should be treated - particularly on PNG soil - aren't as common as we've been led to believe.

PETER O'NEILL: As a government we've stated to the Australian Government that the refugees and the asylum seekers on Manus can freely engage with the local community.

REPORTER: You want them out of the...

PETER O'NEILL: Of course, we want them to move around freely within the community. They don't necessarily have to be confined at the centre.

REPORTER: They're not criminals, I guess.

PETER O'NEILL: Yes, and our people are very friendly people and they welcome that opportunity and we want them to help within the community and work and try to have a normal sense of life while they are waiting for the processing to take place.

REPORTER: It's quite an extraordinary suggestion, an extraordinarily generous suggestion. How has it gone down with Australia? Have you put that to them?

PETER O'NEILL: Yes, on many occasions.

REPORTER: Did they have a response?

PETER O'NEILL: Well, they appreciated...

REPORTER: They appreciate the gesture...but they are not accepting the;.

PETER O'NEILL: It's entirely, can't say they have not accepted it, it's entirely up to them to allow people to move freely.

REPORTER: So the locals, the village here, they would be happy for them to come out?

MAN 3: Yeah.


MAN 3: Yes. We are prepared.

Just days before Prime Minister Gillard's arrival in Port Morseby, the Australian High Commissioner, Deborah Stokes, made a flying visit to the refugee centre, not expecting to be bugged, it would seem, by the presence of any journalists on the island.

REPORTER: Ma'am, it's Mark Davis from SBS TV, can I ask you how your trip was to the facility?

DEBORAH STOKES, AUSTRALIAN HIGH COMMISSIONER: It was a very straight forward trip to the facility.

REPORTER: Are you concerned - I mean there's been various rumours published about the place. Are you concerned about those rumours of inadequate facilities for children and mistreatment of adults?

DEBORAH STOKES: I've had a good look at the facility and that's all I can say at this point.

REPORTER: Could I ask you one question - why is the place so obsessively secretive - no access to journalists, NGOs, lawyers?

DEBORAH STOKES: It's run by the Papua New Guinean Government and that's their decision.

REPORTER: The Papua New Guinean Government says it's not, the Prime Minister says he's happy for journalists and others to go there because he's worried the rumours are growing to such a degree no-one can verify them or otherwise.

DEBORAH STOKES: We will have a discussion with the PNG Government about that.

REPORTER: So as far as you're aware, the Australian Government has no problem with access?

DEBORAH STOKES: The PNG Government is the administrator of the centre and it is on their land, and we will have a discussion with them about that.

REPORTER: So theoretically if they're happy with it, it shouldn't be a problem?


PETER O'NEILL: It's absolutely not true on our part that we have placed any restrictions on anybody to travel to Manus to report on anything.

REPORTER: The Department of Immigration in Australia do claim the original memorandum of understanding banned access and they say that they're fervently trying to renegotiate that issue. Are you aware of such negotiations by Australia to get you to allow media in?

PETER O'NEILL: Ahh, I'm not aware and as I stated to you, my position has been very, very clear. We allow free access to every party that wants to engage meaningfully.

REPORTER: All right, so can we be very clear - because it's an important point - PNG and your office has no objection to journalists coming through proper processes, it is Australia that is preventing them?

PETER O'NEILL: I cannot say that Australia is preventing them. That's for Australia to say. But for Papua New Guinea, I can tell you without any hesitation whatsoever, that there is no restriction on our part.

No restrictions from the National Government and certainly none from the local one. Francis Kolopen is President of the local government here. He represents all of the villages surrounding the centre. With his deputy, George Poloka, he offers to show me the centre from the waterside.

FRANCIS KOLOPEN, LOCAL GOVERNMENT PRESIDENT (Translation): As a leader, I wonder how they are dealing with people, human beings; They won't let journalists go inside to explain exactly what is not good. So the way it is, I as a leader, think they are hiding something.

REPORTER: It could be anything, you don't know - could be good or it could be bad.

As we approach the beach, both refugees and guards see us coming. We can't reveal the images I filmed, but within minutes of arriving off the beach, the shouts from the guards became increasingly threatening and soon the chase was on. The President of the government that the centre resides in, hides in the mangroves with his deputy, they know what will happen next - they've seen it before - while we make a dash for our car.

REPORTER: Is it the police?


REPORTER: You think they will try to get the camera?


It looks like we've got company. The police are following us down the road. They've come from the camp over here. We've got rid of my main camera, just holding my little camera and we'll see how far we can get.

Calextus Simeion, fellow journalist and my fixer, is determined to get us to a friend's house in town where we can copy off what we've filmed.

REPORTER: There could be a roadblock up ahead, too, right?

CALEXTUS SIMEION: Could be, yeah.

But across the water we can see security vehicles pouring out of the centre.

CALEXTUS SIMEION: No fucking - sorry - driving really fast.

It seems time to pull off the main road and hide it out.

CALEXTUS SIMEION: Didn't realise it was gonna be like this. I know for sure they will make an example. Maybe, rough me up, you know, I will be expecting that.

REPORTER: What, they rough you up?

CALEXTUS SIMEION: Yeah. Make sure the camera is rolling. You know, I'll make sure we have some good footage.

REPORTER: You'll do the stunt falls.

CALEXTUS SIMEION: But I'll try my best not to overact you see, I'm not that fit anymore you see.

REPORTER: Well hopefully that doesn't happen, Calextus. We will see. But I think they will be after the camera.

After half an hour we hit the main road again, but surprisingly we were surrounded within minutes.

REPORTER: There's the cops. They've seen up come up here, right? They're stopping us.

CALEXTUS SIMEION: Move over to the side?

REPORTER: They've got us.

We're captured by PNG Police, not from the island, but the unit attached directly to the detention centre.

REPORTER: Small camera.

POLICE: Usually big? Were you with them in the dinghy?

REPORTER: I was in the dinghy yes.

POLICE: Where are the rest of your friends? Where are they now? Where are you friends now, where did you leave them?

REPORTER: What have we done wrong?

POLICE: You're not allowed to go and take photos there.

REPORTER: I've asked for permission to get in and I'm waiting for that permission but we just got a shot...

POLICE: From the dinghy. You so smart to get in there.

REPORTER: But we were outside, sir.

POLICE: I don't care. You're a traitor now. You are so smart.

We were taken unusually, I thought, not to a PNG police station, but through the naval base and into the detention centre itself. Ironically, I became the first journalist to get inside since it's reopened and was handed over to mostly Australian guards working for the British security company, G4S. Somehow they knew the village I'd been in, where I'd hidden the camera. To protect the people there that had helped me, I agreed to return to retrieve it - an event captured on a friend's phone.

REPORTER: This is well before the detention centre.

With an Australian guard by my side and a threat of having all my cameras and footage seized, I deleted the footage I'd taken of the centre. Calextus emerged unscathed and spent the next day working his contacts inside the centre and the police.

CALEXTUS SIMEION: There may be some people I know that work inside and they overheard the boss of the G4S.

REPORTER: The security?


REPORTER: Australian or PNG?


REPORTER: The Australian was speaking the PNG police?


REPORTER: What was he asking?

CALEXTUS SIMEION: Basically asking the police to get rid of us. They want all the cameras confiscated and then all the footage deleted.

REPORTER: Everything we've shot?

CALEXTUS SIMEION: Everything we've shot.

REPORTER: Okay. Well, it hasn't happened.

CALEXTUS SIMEION: We're still here.

REPORTER: Maybe the PNG Police don't want to do it.


Even more disturbingly, Calextus had information about how the police working for the centre had been following us so easily.

CALEXTUS SIMEION: The police actually called the hire car people that we had available from and asked if they can start tracking the hire car. The hire car people said no, we can't do it because they are our clients and the cops said, well if you can't do it, then...

REPORTER: They're now tracking the car, when we were off in the bush?

CALEXTUS SIMEION: Yes. So they knew roughly where we were, that is how they got us.

REPORTER: The car is bugged.

CALEXTUS SIMEION: The car is bugged, yeah. But for security reasons and now the cops are using it to track us down. What to do.

REPORTER: Okay. That's it, is it, you found it. Serious?

CALEXTUS SIMEION: What you do is plug it in. There is a plug here.

The police unit attached to the refugee centre forced the car hire company to give access to the tracking data.

REPORTER: What a game, huh?


REPORTER: Okay, so it's just got harder.


When news spread that our footage had been destroyed, locals came out of the woodwork with offers to help, including some hair-raising schemes to get us into the camp and one fisherman proved remarkably adept as a cameraman. These are the images that seem to send the camp guardians into a frenzy, some wire fencing and a bunch of soggy tents. But finally, some good news came - my application to enter the camp had been approved by the head of the centre.

OFFICIAL: The centre administrator has allowed for you to come in and have interviews with them.

But by that afternoon there was a problem.

REPORTER: The Australian Department of Immigration? So the Australians are saying they don't want it to happen?

OFFICIAL: Yes, that is correct.

The administrator's second in command passes on some astounding news.

OFFICIAL: They are not to be engaged with any media and if they do, they will lose their contract.

The Australians in the centre were refusing to follow a directive of the centre's administrator - a PNG national.

REPORTER: so the centre administrator...

OFFICIAL: You have permission. That is correct.

In essence, the security guards were refusing to let me in, citing their contracts with the Australian Department of Immigration who have an official permanently based in the centre.

REPORTER: Have you spoken to her since this afternoon?

OFFICIAL: Yes, yes. She's aware. She is aware that the centre administrator has given you the okay. I cannot have any control over her. So, you speak with her.

REPORTER: The situation is this - Australia tells the public that PNG doesn't want media. But I don't know that that's the truth now.

OFFICIAL: That is correct.

Still thinking there might be some mistake, I contact the Department of Immigration in Canberra.

REPORTER: So, I don't mind any reasonable conditions. You know, all the ducks are lining up here and there's no local problem with it, so, I can just see it as an Australian problem and I hope it can be an Australian solution. So... I'll hear from you, thanks. See ya.

The clock started ticking on that call back. Four more days on Manus, a week in PNG, and not a single reply came.

REPORTER: Hi, it's Mark Davis from SBS TV. Have you got another number? It's Mark Davis from SBS TV here.

OPERATOR: Your call be will be charged after the tone.

REPORTER: Can you give me a call, I need to get on to get on to you pretty urgently today, from SBS TV. I need to speak to her...

From a department that reportedly has 41 media communications staff and has boasted in the past of being a 24/7 operation.

REPORTER: He's hanging up on me.

So, what's the big secret inside the bush camp? If I can't get in, I can get some witnesses out - the guards who work there. I speak to six of them, but for security reasons, knowing we'd been tracked, we present just one with his voice changed. His account accords with the others.

REPORTER: When you got the job, what did you think this place would be like?

GUARD: To me, I didn't think it would be like this. From my angle I think they're not prisoners. They're not prisoners.

REPORTER: For you?

GUARD: Yes, they're not prisoners but their treatment sometimes with the Australian guards, who treat the clients inside not like humans.

REPORTER: Not human?


REPORTER: In what way?

The mistreatment he alleges is not physical, but psychological torment.

GUARD: they are always begging for the same thing. When will they be processed?

Prison style rigor and no hope of ever having their asylum cases heard.

REPORTER: You think, they think they are there forever, maybe.

GUARD: Yes, definitely. They go crazy, cutting themselves up, trying to hang themselves up.

REPORTER: People are trying to kill themselves in there?

GUARD: Yes, of course. So far we've seen two hanging up.

REPORTER: Recently?

GUARD: Yeah.

REPORTER: Do you have to cut the...

GUARD: Cut the rope and save them, yeah.

REPORTER: And other, you say they're cutting?

GUARD: They get piece of metal like wire, or something and cutting themselves. We rush them to the clinic. Every now and then they keep doing it.

REPORTER: How often?

GUARD: Oh, once a week, twice a week.

I managed to get a phone call inside the refugee centre to one of the detainees.

REPORTER: I've spoken to some guards in there, and they're say that there are people self-harming, cutting themselves up. Is this happening or not happening?

GUARD 2: It happens a lot here actually, around eight single males hang up themselves, some of them just harm themselves... with razor blades they cut their hands.

REPORTER: It is very extreme to kill yourself or cut yourself. Why is it happening now?

GUARD 2: They couldn't;. exactly they said; we can't tolerate this place, it is such a hell and we are going to stay here for a long time. It's better we die here than have Australian guards torturing us.

The man I'm speaking with gives some clue as to what torments him the most.

GUARD 2: Five years and we don't know nothing;..

He's been there since day one and not a single immigration official has interviewed him about his case - not once. And all of the guards confirm that no-one else has been interviewed either - in nine months, not one.

GUARD: They are asking all the time when they are going for the processing.

REPORTER: But some of these people have been there since it opened?

GUARD: Yeah.

REPORTER: So last August or something?


REPORTER: And they haven't been processed?


We put the claims in this program to the Department of Immigration. There was no reply at all to the allegations about self-harm - no answer to a request for an estimate of the total costs - no reply why access is still refused - a fairly blunt "no" for an interview request with the minister, Brendan O'Connor and on the issue of whether any processing interviews had been conducted, we were advised the question might be best presented to PNG. PNG confirms there have been no interviews.


There is nothing regional about this secretive regional refugee processing centre and there's no processing either. The local tag, 'The Australian prison', does seems more accurate but whether this situation is as tolerable to PNG politicians as it is to Australian ones remains to be seen.

PETER O'NEILL: I will assure the public and anyone interested in these matters, is that we will not allow these issues to just drag on forever. There must be some conclusion to it. There must be some decencies given to all the people in the process.

REPORTER: In your view, it may be a personal view, but what's a decent amount of time for someone to be processed before it's regarded as imprisonment?

PETER O'NEILL: I cannot just put a length of time in place, but as short as possible. I think we all know what that means. The quicker the better and I think it's up to the Australian Government and the Australian officials to make sure that it happens.

ANJALI RAO: The secrets of Manus Island. It's also worth mentioning we received more communication today from the Immigration Department in a flurry of combative tweets than Mark did in his entire visit to Manus. Mark tells us local staff in the detention centre have been grilled and threatened in the last 24 hours. It is of great concern to us if the tracking data from his car is being used to trace people Mark spoke to while he was on the island. It is something that we will be following closely. The issue of asylum seekers and how they are treated always sparks fierce debate on our website. Have your say on Mark's story.



Fixer/Additional Camera



Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN

28th May 2013