Lightning flashed behind the fiberglass banana boat, but ahead of us the night sky was clear and the water was calm. Ezatullah Kakar, a Pakistani refugee, and I were in the South Pacific Ocean, 2 degrees shy of the equator, just off the coast of Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. As we cut smoothly through the flat sea, one of the men aboard passed the skipper a beer. The mood was tense and quiet, the three-man crew speaking only when necessary. Kakar didn’t share their apprehension. He took out his phone, ran one hand through his wavy hair, threw his arm around me, and snapped a moonlit selfie of the two of us. I must have looked nervous, because Kakar smiled encouragingly at me. “I believe if we are doing good things, no one will catch us,” he said.
The hull of the boat was stocked with shopping bags containing food and medication—bread, peanuts, cigarettes, acetaminophen—that Kakar had bought that afternoon in Lorengau, the main town on Manus Island. He had volunteered to make the hour-long boat trip every other day to smuggle necessities to the more than 400 men living inside the Manus Regional Processing Centre, an Australian offshore holding facility for refugees and asylum seekers.
Australian immigration officials had officially closed the center two weeks earlier, on October 31, 2017. Ordering the men to relocate to new, smaller detention centers in Lorengau, the authorities eliminated provisions and removed the diesel generators powering the facility. But the men refused to leave. Instead they held daily protests, the culmination of years of organized resistance: complaints, petitions, open letters, court cases, hunger strikes, and noncooperation. None of these efforts had done much to change their grievous situation—by now, the men had spent more than four years in involuntary detention on Manus. They demanded not to be moved to another detention center or left without support in Papua New Guinea but to be resettled in a country that would allow them to live freely and in safety.