The Invisible Men Manus Island

Text: Matthew Abbott

Last year I visited one of the Australian-run immigration detention centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, spending time with the men, photographing their everyday lives. The experience effected me profoundly as I listened to them talk of their despair – and how they felt their lives were being wasted just to set an example.

The men spoke too about their trepidation of leaving the Refugee Transit Centre (RTC) at Lorengau, and their fear of being attacked by locals. On my third day there I experienced this first hand as I witnessed the aftermath of a violent attack where two Afghan refugees were beaten with a metal pole. During the unfolding drama the PNG police attempted to stop me from photographing, with one man threatening to shoot me.

Luckily I was able to pass on the memory card to a friend before I was detained – and the pictures were able to be saved.


Above: Shortly after being attacked by a group of Manusian men, two Afghan refugees make their way to Lorengau police station with the help of sympathetic locals anxious to help. Soon after taking these photos I was detained. “It was very tense, they were very angry, but we tried to be respectful, while explaining that I was doing my job taking photos. They actually said to us at one point, ‘What you do now will determine whether you are ever allowed to visit PNG again.’” After being questioned for more than two hours, and forced to supply my passport details, I was released. – Matthew Abbott


Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled last year that Australia’s policy of housing asylum seekers on its territory was unconstitutional. As a result, on 31st October 2017 a major refugee camp inside Lombrum naval base was decommissioned and officially shut down, with all its food, water and power supplies terminated.

Over 300 men [of the 600 originally] refused to leave and remained there in deteriorating conditions, saying they feared attack from local people and that the alternative facilities were not ready – and just another prison. After four years in detention these men were tired and at breaking point.

Two weeks ago, over a year since my first trip, I tried to return to Manus Island to photograph the stand-off at the detention centre but was refused entry into Papua New Guinea. The immigration officials at Port Moresby airport accused me of publishing disruptive material from Manus Island and sent me back on the first plane to Brisbane.

With access proving to be difficult, the media has relied more and more on the brave and prolific journalism of Behrouz Boochani and other refugees publishing on social media from the camp. However this comes at a cost. Yesterday Boochani was targeted by the PNG police and detained for several hours. Boochani posted:

I hope these images from Manus Island give some insight into the conditions that prevailed there – and that they help humanise what tends to be a faceless story, a story that is still being suppressed despite the best efforts of our media and to our national shame.


Photography by Matthew Abbott/Oculi

Above: Rohingya refugee, Nayser Ahmed: fleeing persecution, he was separated from his family en route to Australia.

While they rebuild their lives in Sydney, Nayser Ahmed remains stuck on Manus Island.


Photography by Matthew Abbott/Oculi

Above: Nayser, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar.


Photography by Matthew Abbott/Oculi

Above: Pakistani refugees on their way back from Lorengau Town with water and supplies for the friends keeping vigil over the body of a refugee who drowned.

The Australian government has refused to repatriate the body to Pakistan and several days later the body has begun to decompose with no solution insight.

The men fear that if they are not present, the PNG authorities will bury the body locally.


Photography by Matthew Abbott/Oculi

Above: Four refugees walked us back to the main road and waited with us until we found a lift.

The men in the detention at the Refugee Transit Centre (RTC) are able to leave any time but avoid being out at night for fear of being attacked.

Some men never leave even during the day.


Photography by Matthew Abbott/Oculi

Above: The view from within the Refugee Transit Centre.


Photography by Matthew Abbott/Oculi

Above: A burnt section of the Lorengau hospital, Manus Island.


Photography by Matthew Abbott/Oculi

Above: A refugee’s room inside the Refugee Transit Centre.


Photography by Matthew Abbott/Oculi

Above: A new police station allegedly being funded by Australia.


Photography by Matthew Abbott/Oculi

Above: The entrance to the most upmarket hotel in Manus.


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