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Bearing witness: The life of an Australian refugee advocate

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Refugee advocate Anne Moon presenting in mainland Australia (image self-supplied).

Anne Moon sounds tired. The retired aid worker does not sleep well these days.

Much of her time is spent talking to, and advocating for, the group of asylum seekers and refugees who have been detained in Papua New Guinea by the Australian Government, in their controversial offshore detention system.

She told IA: 

“I get loads of messages each day. Half the time, I lose track of who I’m talking to. I am often running five [text] conversations at a time." 

She admits to feeling “permanently" exhausted.

Moon is often flooded with messages, but despite the time-consuming nature of the task, and her failing eyesight, she always takes the time to reply.

Moon started speaking with the men on Manus Island at the end of 2014, however, she has been involved in human rights advocacy for many years. A long career in international aid work has exposed her to the plight of displaced and disadvantaged peoples across the globe, from the Amazon to Timor Leste.

She recalls first hearing about the current offshore detention regime when she returned to Australia:

I hadn’t long been back from East Timor. I remember hearing people saying that [the Australian government] were going to send [asylum seekers] to Papua New Guinea. I didn’t really take any notice. Then I saw them being bussed off … I still thought "Oh, it’s just for show and they’ll bring them back". But after four or five months, I thought: they’re not going to bring them back.

Moon was initially reluctant to involve herself in the burgeoning asylum seeker advocacy campaign.

“I didn’t want to do this again,” she says. "I’d been away [from Australia] for 20 years. I came back to retire.”

Moon has visited Papua New Guinea on several occasions, to meet with the men held there. Her last trip – undertaken with a fellow refugee advocate, to Manus Island – was in early 2019.

Moon wrote an account of her experiences during that trip, which she posted on social media:

The second day we were there I arranged to visit PIH [Pacific International Hospital] to see the sick men who are there.

 

To say I was shocked at what I saw was an understatement. I've spent 20 years working in international aid in all types of bad circumstances, but never have I seen this. Young men reduced to shuffling like old men, who are so drugged with sleeping pills they can barely speak. Indeed, three men have stopped speaking altogether.

 

I passed an older man and shook his hand and he shuffled off. As we walked away, I said to the nurse that I wanted to see a particular man who I know extremely well. It was him and I didn't recognise him.

On the same trip, she also visited Bomana Prison. In another post, she said:

'These men who have committed no crime and who even prison guards said to me should not be there: it’s for criminals, the worst murderers and rapists.'

Not long into her trip, she and her colleague were deported.

After seven years, stories of the plight of these men find their way into the Australian media much less often. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers was not an issue that either major political party campaigned on in the May 2019 Federal Election. The problem of what to do with the remaining few hundred offshore asylum seekers does not occupy the public interest to the extent that it did in 2018, during the successful campaign to remove all children from offshore detention in Nauru.

There have been significant developments in the story over the past 12 months, however. Almost all the asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island were moved to Port Moresby in August 2019.

Moon relates her knowledge of several men who had integrated into the local society on Manus Island. Some had opened their own businesses and married locals, only to be moved to Port Moresby against their will.

“Even their wives’ wantok, their wives’ families, wanted them to stay,” she says. “They were working, they were supporting their family. Those families are now left with no support at all.”

Those who had been found to be refugees were moved into hotel rooms in Port Moresby. Many of those who have either not been assessed or had their asylum claims rejected – the "negatives", as they are commonly called – were transferred to Bomana Immigration Centre (BIC). More than 50 men were initially incarcerated in BIC in 2019. A Senate hearing last August heard that a lawyer acting for several of the men, and several doctors, were no longer able to contact their clients after they were sent to the centre.

Moon describes the account of a refugee who saw one of his friends who had been transferred to the public hospital from BIC after self-harming.

Anne Moon and Ismail, a young Somalian refugee who she considers her son (image self-supplied).

In detail, she recalled: 

“It broke his heart, he said, because [his friend] just looked at him and he cried, and cried and cried. He had 14 sutures on his chest, seven on his head [from self-harming]. [He spent] two days in intensive care, and then the next day they sent him back [to BIC].”

In late 2019, some of the men were released from BIC – but only after they agreed to return to their home countries. The remaining men were released in late January 2020.

“They won't talk to journos,” Moon says of the men she is in contact with. “All of them are frightened of Immigration.”

After our first interview, Moon sends me a photo of a young Somali man, Ismail. She calls him her adopted son.

“There are four men who are now family to me,” she says. The other three do not want their photographs posted online. Ismail was brought to Australia under the Medevac laws and is now being held in a Mantra hotel. He has been found to be a refugee but has not yet received any indication of what will happen to him next. Moon understands that there has been no improvement in his medical treatment and mental health since he was transferred.

Asked whether she thinks that people working with the asylum seekers, such as advocates, experience vicarious trauma as a result of witnessing the effects of ongoing detention, Moon responds in the affirmative.

She chose her words carefully:

“It’s true, but it’s not something we generally like to talk about, as advocates. Simply because our trauma, our sadness … the [asylum seekers] are so much worse. It feels like we would be taking something away from their really, really appalling trauma.”

“It harms us as a society,” Moon says of Australia’s offshore detention policies. She believes that, in the years to come, Australia will look back on this chapter of our history with great shame.

“It also creates a division between Australians,” she says. “Because many of us are really feeling very angry with those Australians who wilfully ignore what’s happening.”

Sarah Jacob is an Australian freelance writer. She has a background in conservation science and education, and writes on environmental and human rights issues.

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