As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their human rights work, their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Abdul Aziz Muhammat, a Sudanese refugee who became an advocate for refugee rights while experiencing long-term detention at the Australian government detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. In January 2019 he was awarded the Martin Ennals award for his tireless work on behalf of his fellow detainees.
How did you become a refugee, and why did you end up detained on Manus Island?
I am from the Darfur region of Sudan. In 2013, as today, Sudan was undergoing civil conflict, famine and drought, so I fled to Indonesia, where I boarded a boat bound for Australia. When I finally made it, I was sent, along with many others, to an offshore detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. This is a notorious holding space used by Australia to detain those seeking refuge. Australia’s policy of detaining and processing refugees on Manus Island has resulted in the systematic violation of the rights of several hundreds of people. I was forced to stay there for four years. I was granted refugee status in 2015 but stayed on Manus Island until 2019 when I was granted asylum in Switzerland.
What were the main challenges you faced while detained on Manus Island?
The detention centre was deliberately designed to make our lives there as bad as hell, designed to take our humanity away and replace it with cruelty and inhumane treatment, and designed to push us as hard as possible, mentally and physically. For instance, you wouldn’t receive proper medical treatment if you were sick, physically or mentally, but rather people would point fingers at you or tell you to go back to where you come from. I personally went through a lot of physical and mental challenges.
It is extremely difficult to summarise the situation, because it really is beyond human understanding. I am afraid people without a personal experience of detention in a place like that wouldn’t ever understand how detention destroys the lives of vulnerable people, both physically and mentally.
The situation was so bad that nobody who would be able to bear witness – human rights researchers, social workers, civil society organisations – was allowed to enter the island. So I tried to expose the cruelty and inhumanity faced by refugees on Manus island. Over time, I sent a journalist over 3,500 WhatsApp messages documenting the conditions of the detention camp. These were later turned into a podcast, The Messenger, that was published by the Guardian in 2017.
I started doing advocacy back in 2013. As soon as the authorities realised, the harassment started, and never stopped. It began with physical abuse, then torture, and when I got sick either physically or mentally, I didn't always get treatment. Even when I did, all there was was a doctor whose job description seems to have been to be as bad as they could. Between 2013 and 2015 I was in a desperate need of medical treatment, physically and mentally. Within a month I lost six kilos and I nearly died, but I managed to pick myself up again. I realised that I could not rely on these people to help me or treat me, so I decided to look after myself and treat myself.
I started to read about psychology and psychiatry and how they deal with anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress. Reading and researching helped me to cope and to learn how to look after myself as well as to look after friends in similar situations. I became a sort of therapist or counsellor to them, helped them out of their mental crises by detecting their negativity and replacing it with positivity – in other words, by trying to raise hope. I know it's not good to give people false hope, but I just tried to be there for them, to talk to them and try to remain positive, and tell them that we would get out of there sooner or later but in the meantime we just needed to stay positive.
What were the main restrictions on people’s ability to organise or speak up while detained on Manus Island?
Restrictions were all over the place. In a prison, the main rule for prisoners is ‘say nothing, do nothing, stay quiet’. You are an animal in a cage – you only move when the cage is opened for you, you only eat or drink when you are given food or water, and you only speak when you are told to. A separate world is created, with its own rules, structures, authorities and boundaries that you are not supposed to cross, and if you do cross them you are subjected to a variety of punishments. Social workers, the case managers, advised their clients in the centre to not speak about their situation if they wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you would remain in detention for a very, very long time, as your process would be delayed and your name would be put on a blacklist. These were the kinds of verbal threats that we got.
When you are immersed in a world like that, you always think of alternative options. If you cannot dismantle the system, then you may try to manipulate it so that you are seen as complying with the rules even if you are not taking them seriously. I wanted to test the limits and check what the punishment for breaking rules would be, if it would be applied or not, so I took the risk to become an advocate and started speaking up about the situation. I knew that I was going to be punished but also wanted to be a role model for others follow, so that if we all spoke up together we would be heard and our situation would improve.
Unfortunately, due to our differences in cultural backgrounds, some of my friends refused to follow. I also blame the system for this, because it is deliberately designed to create passivity through fear. However, we did manage to highlight the core problems and shift public opinion from a negative to a positive perception of refugees. The Australian government proposed a law that would criminalise whistleblowers further, but despite this, many other people felt encouraged to speak up when they saw us, speaking up about our situation while incarcerated.
What were your demands to the Australian government?
We were not in a position to present our demands to the government directly. We were just people who had fled their homelands and were looking for a safe place to call home, and that would give us the opportunity to make a contribution to society. When we came to Australia we were just like every other asylum seeker. We did not want to get in any confrontation with the government or even talk about them and their policies. But when they sent us to Manus Island, they forced us to speak up and organise. As a result, we managed to learn resilience and the ability to think out of the box and to act despite our lack of resources.
We had one very clear message to the Australian government. We basically asked, ‘If you don't want us in your country, why do you rescue us from the sea in the first place? If you don’t want us, please stop taking us to Manus Island; there are other countries that are willing to take us’. We made it very clear to the Australian government that we did not want to come to Australia after what we had been through, and we wanted them to hand us over to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is designed specifically to deal with the problems of refugees.
How did the Australian government respond to your demands?
The Australian government was getting heat from all sides. The international community pointed fingers at Australia and Australian civil society pointed fingers at their government claiming this was cruel and inhumane treatment and accusing them of being fascists. In response, the Australian government claimed this was not actually happening in Australia but in Papua New Guinea – according to them, this was happening on Papuan territory and the Australians were only providing them with the logistics. Truth is, though, that Australia still acts like a coloniser and the Papuan government complies with whatever they say regarding the detention centre.
As Australia claimed they were not responsible, we ended up facing the authorities of Papua New Guinea, who had no idea how to deal with us. They said they knew nothing of the situation we were denouncing, and that they didn’t even have access to us or the authority to make any decision regarding us – they were waiting for the Australian parliament to decide what to do and where to send us. So we basically kept being sent back and forth and never got any response from either side.
As our demands were ignored by both governments, we found ourselves fighting not only for our freedom but also for something more basic, our human dignity. We were human beings who had been turned into numbers but fought back to turn ourselves back into human beings, so that then we could start thinking about freedom. That is when we thought, ‘What if we demand our fundamental rights, like proper medical treatment? We are talking about Australia, a Western democracy with top-notch medical services – why can't we just access equal medical services as Australian citizens?’. Still, the government kept ignoring us.
We then realised that if we were not able to get to the Australian authorities, we might still be able to use social media to challenge the government’s arguments. And so we did.
Did you get any support from civil society in Papua New Guinea, Australia or other countries?
To be honest, civil society in Papua New Guinea had no idea what they were dealing with, of what was going on. Civil society groups there are dealing with other crises – healthcare, insecurity, unemployment – that from their perspective are much worse. They just don’t have the time or resources to look into Manus Island.
As for Australian civil society, there has been a significant change over the past few years. Today, with the help of Australian civil society, we are managing to get our message around Australia. When we started talking about Manus Island in 2013, one organisation, Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney, got in touch with us and connected us with many other civil society organisations. At the beginning, the position of civil society wasn't very clear or unified. Many thought their argument was weak because this was happening outside Australian territory. But we worked hard to shift their views, and now Australian civil society has a stronger, vocal position, and every time they get into an argument with the government they win it. We are very thankful to every individual and organisation in Australian civil society who contributed to spread the word about Manus Island.
Alongside Australian civil society, we succeeded in having the Medevac Bill passed in February 2019. This law gave us refugees not quite full access to our fundamental rights, but it gave us something rather than nothing. The newly-elected Conservative government is now desperately trying to repeal the Medevac Bill, but thank God we have managed to buy some time until November.
Are you aware of groups in Australia that oppose refugee rights?
I cannot say there are civil society groups organised to oppose refugee rights, but there are indeed politicians in parliament and in government who do. They claim that Australia has one of the best asylum processes and that the people on Manus are not refugees. They tell people: ‘these people are coming to take your job, to steal your welfare, they are criminals’. These are the politicians. There are just a minority of Australian society, but they are always there. There are always people who oppose your rights, and they do it by putting forward arguments that may not even be connected to what you're fighting for.
Do you think that people outside Manus recognised the work that you were doing?
Although I did a lot for my friends inside Manus and for many people elsewhere, while I was on Manus I never felt that my voice was being heard or my work recognised, up until February of this year, when I was given the Martin Ennals award. I am very thankful to everyone who stood beside me and shared my story and demands. I don’t have an academic background and I started from the grassroots, where I faced many challenges, but never thought that I should stop. I just want to keep doing the work that I’m doing. I’m not doing it for credit, but because this is who I am, and it’s what makes me feel good about myself. I want to represent the voice of refugees, because our voice is either completely missing or misrepresented by some organisations.
Over time, I witnessed some organisations working day and night on behalf of refugees, while others are fighting for their own interest or to further their own political agenda. Sometimes people contact you and ask you a comment, or to participate in an event, they use you for their fundraising and you never hear from them again, until they run out of funds and they come back to you. So it is important to tell apart those who are advocating or speaking on behalf of the missing voices of refugees or migrants because that is what they believe in, and those who are trying to get some gain out of it. It is important to identify those who do it out of their humanity or because they feel that something needs to be done.
Sometimes other people take credit for the work I do, fail to see me as my own advocate, or think I am going to put their work in jeopardy, and for that reason they keep undermining me. But they won’t stop me – I’m here to make unheard voices heard. All the while I’m dealing with a huge amount of trauma, as I spent six years incarcerated in a detention centre, in a parallel world with its own rules and restrictions, where people are kept under control and their humanity is taken away.
What difference did the Martin Ennals award make to you and your struggle?
Winning the Martin Ennals award gave me purpose, and a lot more. I never in my life thought that one day I would be coming to Europe, and particularly to Geneva. It was not even part of my dream, and it happened because of the Martin Ennals award. Above all, this award meant recognition, not just of the work I’ve done, which I wasn’t doing to be recognised anyway, but most importantly of the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Manus Island, in Nauru, in Australia and around the world. It meant that despite what we've been through, or maybe because of it, we get to represent our own voice, to speak for ourselves and make the world know what is happening.
The award finally shone a light on the crisis on Manus Island. Not long ago, the Australian government came to Europe to talk about their successful migration policy. They didn’t speak about the atrocities they have committed and the suffering they have caused to kids, men and women who have been mentally and physically destroyed. But as a result of this award people are beginning to understand what happened. It was a crime against humanity. I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but you don’t have to be one to see that locking up thousands of people for years and torturing them mentally and physically is well beyond the law, and any government that does that is acting above the law.
What are the next steps for you?
I want to continue amplifying the voices of migrants and refugees and to make people understand that we are equal human beings, you and me, that there is no difference between us. I want to advocate for refugees and migrants globally, not just in one place, because as we can currently see in Europe, some countries are acting beyond all limits, turning into evil. Italy and Hungary, for instance, have even passed laws to criminalise people who are saving the lives of others. So what I want to do next is help empower these embattled human rights defenders.
I also want to make people stop judging people based on their status. If you look at my status, my migratory status, I am a refugee. But my status doesn't represent me. I am Aziz, and I want people to treat me as Aziz – Aziz who has the ability and capacity to stand up and speak and participate and share his story, Aziz who also can be part of the community he is in, not Aziz the refugee you feel sorry for. 'Refugee’ and ‘migrant' have almost become offensive words, and it is our duty to change that, to prove to the world that they are not, and to remind people of history. It's not long ago when the world turned upside down in the First and Second World Wars, when many people became refugees and were not treated the way that we’re treating people right now. The fact that you were not there at the time is no excuse for ignorance. The history is there; if you can read, you can learn what happened. I will use the Martin Ennals award to share my story and other stories of struggle and resilience on Manus Island. I will use my personal testimony to give people the facts.
What support do refugees and refugee advocates need from the international community and international civil society?
We want the international community to understand fully that we are human and include us in the conversation and in decision-making. By talking about us, or representing us, be it from a legal or an academic perspective, you are not helping the victims, those actually experiencing torture and trauma. What we want is for the trauma and the torture to stop, and for that to happen, we need people who have been through the experience to come and testify, to be heard by the international community.
We want civil society to also include the voices of refugees and migrants in roundtable discussions, where they could convey the message that people do not choose to be refugees, but they are forced to. If I can take part in the discussion, I will say what is in my mind, I will tell what I have been through, and I will be a strong voice on behalf of people who remain in places that are out of sight, out of mind – where no one knows of their existence. I will be their voice. It will encourage them to stay strong, resist power and fight hard, even inside a detention centre, if they know a refugee is sitting at the table and speaking on their behalf.
Including refugees at the table provides legitimacy to civil society. When civil society speaks up, governments always undermine them by pointing out, 'You were not there, how do you know?'. In order not to be pushed into the corner that way, they need to bring in refugees or migrants that speak for themselves and who can say ‘yes, I was there, and I know how horrible that place is’.
To stay true to its mission, civil society needs to question its own motivations and scrutinise everything from that perspective, even human rights institutions and refugee agencies and staff. Many people view international institutions and civil society organisations as a source of employment rather than a platform to serve others, to help people that are in need of help. There is so much to be done in order to improve human rights and democracy around the world. We need everyone’s contributions, the only way we can do it is together.