As Australians settle down to spend Christmas with their families, another young man imprisoned in one of the nation’s offshore detention centres has lost his life. Faysal Ishak Ahmed, a 27-year-old refugee from Sudan, collapsed and suffered head injuries inside Manus Island detention centre, Papua New Guinea, on Friday. He was evacuated to Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, where he died on Christmas Eve.
Ahmed had been held on Manus since October 2013. According to a Guardian Australia source on Manus, Ahmed had been unwell for more than six months and had suffered numerous blackouts and collapsed multiple times. More than 60 refugees detained on Manus had signed a letter sent to the International Health and Medical Service (IHMS), the private company responsible for providing healthcare in the detention centre, appealing for them to take Faysal’s condition seriously. According to Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian journalist detained on Manus, Faysal had been to IHMS asking for medical help ‘every day’, but had been told that he didn’t need medical treatment. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection released a statement following his death saying it was ‘not aware of any suspicious circumstances surrounding the death’.
Faysal is the third refugee detained by the Australian government to die this year. Two young men died in the Nauru detention centre this spring. Four refugees have lost their lives on Manus Island. Reza Berati, 23, was beaten to death by guards inside the centre in February 2014. Hamid Kehazaei, 24, died in September 2014 after an infected cut on his leg was not properly treated and his medical evacuation was delayed by Australian government bureaucrats. Kamil, 34, died in August this year after slipping at a waterfall on the island and hitting his head. On Nauru, Omid Masoumali, 24, died in April this year after self-immolating in front of UNHCR officials, while Rakhib, 26, died in May from suspected heart failure after overdosing on paracetamol. Fazel Chegeni, 34, was found at the bottom of a cliff in November 2015 after escaping from Australia’s Christmas Island detention centre, where refugees who arrive by boat are sent for processing before being transferred to Manus or Nauru.
Australia’s ‘stop the boats’ policy is uniquely cruel in explicitly adopting a punitive approach to those seeking safety in Australia. Refugees who arrive by boat are detained in appalling conditions in order to deter others from attempting the same journey. Refugees are detained indefinitely in the Manus and Nauru offshore centres. Many have been there for more than three years. Incident reports leaked from the Nauru Island detention centre earlier this year detail the violence and sexual abuse faced by refugee women and children at the hands of guards and locals, along with the unhygienic and cramped conditions in which they are forced to live. Refugees have long protested these conditions, as have refugee advocates in Australia and around the world. The UN and Amnesty have both found the conditions on Nauru to amount to systematic breaches of Australia’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture.
The leaked Nauru files, along with the media and other coverage of refugee deaths and abuse mean Australians cannot claim ignorance of the effects of this policy. Australians seem willing to close their eyes to the death of refugees at the hands of their government. They accept the racist line that boats filled with brown, black and Muslim bodies must be stopped at whatever cost. The unauthorised arrival of boats filled with white British people was the event that led to the genocidal foundation of this settler colony in 1770. Unlike Captain Cook and his crew, the men, women and children who are trying to reach Australia by boat today are in search of sanctuary, not conquest. It is the illegitimacy of their own place in the sun that makes white Australians’ acceptance of policies that punish refugees who arrive by the same mode of transport as their ancestors so deplorable.
Faysal Ishak Ahmed boarded a boat bound for Australia in the hope of finding safety and a better life. Instead, Australia gave him death. This would have been Faysal’s fourth Christmas in detention on Manus Island. May he rest in peace. Until Australia closes the camps, refugees’ lives are at risk and more people like Faysal will die unnecessarily. Australia must end this spectacle of cruelty now.
Sarah Keenan is a Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck Law School.