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The ongoing abuses of Australia’s refugee policy

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.

After half an hour, Kakar pointed to a dark stretch of land, barely visible in the glow of a campfire. The captain cut the engine far from shore and we paddled in, guided by a small cluster of men on the beach who intermittently flashed a phone screen toward the sea. The discretion was necessary—the center was located inside a Papua New Guinea naval base, and officers lived less than a hundred yards away. Anyone caught outside the center’s perimeter fence would face arrest, but the refugees had a plan. A dozen men were standing by; if a naval patrol arrived at the wrong moment, they were ready to stage a distraction—a scuffle or a sudden illness.

When we reached shore, a half-dozen detainees were waiting. The silence we had kept aboard broke, the men talking easily to one another while they unloaded the supplies. As we headed inland, I met Benham Satah, a Kurdish man from Iran who had become one of the de facto leaders of the refugees. “Welcome to hell,” he said. “Do you need me to carry anything?”

Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a leader and activist from Darfur, Sudan, and Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian journalist, November 15, 2016. Both men were detained on Manus Island © Ashley Gilbertson/VII/Redux

The Manus Island facility was opened in 2001, shortly after September 11. Another detention center, on the tiny island of Nauru, opened around the same time. In November, John Howard, the Australian prime minister, was reelected after refusing entrance to a Norwegian freighter that had rescued Afghan asylum seekers from a sinking boat. “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” Howard declared.1

In 2013, the influx of asylum seekers peaked—more than 20,000 arrived that year alone, the highest total on record. A Labor government had closed the center in 2008, but then reopened it in response to the volume of migrants. The government declared that it would not allow asylum seekers who came by boat to settle in Australia, either upon arrival or at any time in the future. Over the next year, more than 1,500 single men were sent to Manus, and nearly 1,600 women, children, and families were sent to Nauru.2

The Australian government was prepared to pay any price to prevent refugees from reaching the country: each detainee on Manus Island cost between 420,000 and 506,000 Australian dollars per year ($316,000–$381,000), four times the average cost of a prisoner. Though New Zealand offered to accept 150 detainees each year, Australia declined, claiming that this would only spur the people-smuggling trade and serve as a back door into the country. Both of Australia’s major political parties supported offshore detention; deterring rickety boats, they agreed, would save lives at sea. But the unspoken consensus since Howard’s reelection was that turning refugees away played well with voters.

In its first years, the Manus detention center came to resemble a prison. The men were not allowed to leave the premises or receive visitors. They were always under surveillance, because the facility was strikingly overstaffed—at one point there were 1.5 workers for every detainee. (US federal prisons staff one worker for every four inmates.) They lined up three times a day for meals, water, and toiletries; hundreds would queue in the morning and again in the evening for sleeping pills and antidepressants. The men were not allowed cell phones; instead, they could purchase credits for a phone call of up to twenty minutes and were allocated one hour per week of painfully slow internet. The center was so ill-equipped in its first few months of operation that the living conditions amounted to abuse. Men complained of overcrowded rooms dripping with rainwater and infested with insects, of broken and stinking toilets, and of shortages of water, clothes, shoes, soap, and toilet paper. Fungal infections spread through the camp. One man told me he endured tooth pain for more than two years before he was allowed to see a dentist. Many people lied to their families about their whereabouts. When Satah, the Iranian, called his parents, he told them he was happy, and was careful to send them photos in which he was clean-shaven and smiling. Kakar told his family that he was in detention in Australia.

I had met Kakar while researching a book on Australia’s detention camps. In Pakistan, he had been a champion kickboxer and MMA fighter. Then he was kidnapped by militants who disapproved of his fighting career. At the age of twenty-one, he fled to Malaysia, then Indonesia, and after four tries, he reached Christmas Island, a tiny Australian territory 300 miles south of Jakarta, in September 2013. “Australia will support me,” he thought. “In Australia I will become the world champion.” After Kakar had spent two weeks waiting, an official told him he was being sent to Manus Island. “Where is Manus Island?” he asked.

Over the years I had grown accustomed to Kakar’s relentless optimism. He had a positive-thinking app on his phone called Deep Life Quotes and liberally posted inspirational sayings and muscled selfies on Facebook and Twitter. His favorite emoji were the strong arm, the red rose, and the heart, and he often sent me an animation of a small dog giving a big dog a bouquet of flowers. But positive thinking alone wouldn’t give Kakar what he sought: resettlement in Australia.

The worst part of living in the center, worse than the confinement or the filthy conditions, was the feeling of being in limbo. Men on Manus could submit asylum applications to Papua New Guinea and, if granted refugee status, settle there. Papua New Guinea was responsible for assessing the refugee claims, but the country had never resettled such a large number and had no process in place for doing so.

After a year and a half in the center, the detainees began to receive the results of the refugee claims they had filed when they entered. Those who were approved, like Kakar, had two options: staying in Papua New Guinea, or taking a cash payment from Australia and returning to their home countries.3 Neither choice was appealing. Most of the detainees had traveled to Australia to escape persecution or war. As for living in Papua New Guinea, fewer than forty men over the years had formally agreed to it—jobs and health care were not easily available, and they feared violence from locals.

The detainees were stranded. They were on an island thousands of miles from any place they could potentially call home, forcibly disconnected from the outside world. The years passed without any prospect of leaving, amounting to an indefinite sentence. “I used to pray for my own death every night when I went to bed,” one young man told me. “I have given up on asking for death. Because nothing is happening.”

Before long, reports leaked from the center’s security contractor revealed that officials were keeping a mental health watch list; the rate of self-harm was high, and some detainees were placed under constant observation. Men tried to commit suicide by swallowing razor blades or washing powder, by drinking shampoo or mosquito repellent. The ­UN Refugee Agency (­UNHCR) stated that Australia’s policy had led to “a chain of human rights violations.” Six people died on Manus: one by drowning, two by suspected suicide, two after apparent medical neglect, and one by homicide. A team of ­UNHCR medical experts who visited the Manus center concluded that nine out of every ten men held there were suffering from depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, one of the highest rates ever recorded in a surveyed population. (A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs broadly disputed the allegations in this article but did not refute any specific claims. The department denied requests for an interview.)

In April 2016, after more than three years of deliberation, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that the Manus Island detention center was unconstitutional because it breached the right to personal liberty. Authorities responded by opening the gates during daytime hours, providing buses to Lorengau, and lifting the ban on cell phones. The detainees were now referred to as “residents,” but their detention remained indefinite. They also felt less safe, writing in an open letter to the New Zealand government that attacks and robberies in Lorengau left them in “constant fear” for their lives. In June, the Australian government agreed to pay nearly 1,900 people who sued over their treatment at Manus 70 million Australian dollars ($53 million), the largest human rights payout in the country’s history.

Preparations for the center’s closure had been under way for months, and in April 2017, Australian authorities instructed the men to leave by October 31. They offered no plan for where the detainees would go. There was only one other facility on the island, in Lorengau, known as the transit center, but it didn’t have enough room for eight hundred people. After the closure the Australians would pull out, leaving Papua New Guinea to handle the men.

On July 31, Papua New Guinea immigration and police officers cut off access to electricity and water in one part of the detention center. By evening, trained engineers among the migrants had reconnected them. Satah consulted with the other leaders and called the detainees to an open-air shelter that served as a meeting spot. He rallied the men with a speech: “They want to make the situation harsher and harsher to force people to go and live outside. Nobody here wants to live in Lorengau town or any place in Papua New Guinea,” he declared. “It isn’t about water, it isn’t about food, it isn’t about electricity. We want to tell anyone who is listening that our problem is freedom. We want to be free from here.”

Satah’s words resonated with Kakar. He had arrived on Manus at the age of twenty-one, and now he was twenty-five. He was a sportsman, not ordinarily given to politics; when he wasn’t training, he liked to sleep. But when Satah urged the group to protest every afternoon, Kakar resolved to join them.

A few days later, a thirty-one-year-old Iranian man named Hamed Shamshiripour was found hanging from a tree in Lorengau, where he had been living chaotically—getting in trouble with police and aggravating locals. Many of the refugees did not believe his death was a suicide, and the incident intensified their fear of being moved to Lorengau and their anger at authorities. The men held a vigil that night and, their resolve strengthened, continued protesting the following day in silence. Kakar persuaded his friends to attend. “The world is sleeping,” he told them. “Come out, otherwise no one will ask about us. We need justice.”

On the beach, I waded through the shallows and pulled on my shoes. “We are living. We are surviving,” one man told me enthusiastically. While the center was open, no journalist had been allowed to enter. Now the detainees were excited to share their story with a member of the press. “We are going to give you a tour.”

We followed Satah’s dark figure beneath low-hanging trees on the foreshore, then along a path beside a fence eight feet high. Satah has a small, round belly, and because he is short and tends to bustle around with his elbows tucked back, it seems to lead him through space. As we arrived at the gate, which was padlocked and manned by refugees acting as sentries, I noticed that my guides moved without fear—now, with the authorities pulled out, they were the de facto proprietors of the center.

On the other side, men were sitting on plastic chairs in the dark, talking quietly or looking at their phones. We moved in a halo of light, our way illuminated by the phone screens of several men following close behind us. The ground everywhere was white, spread with crushed coral. A dog barked, and Satah called out to it. He had adopted the handsome, sandy-colored mutt a year earlier and named it Shalan, after a dog in a Kurdish myth who sacrifices its life to save a king.

The detention center had been built in stages, so each of the four main compounds was structured differently. Oscar Compound was made up of domed, air-conditioned tents, each home to three dozen men. Foxtrot featured rows of small green huts. In Delta, shipping containers were clustered beneath a corrugated tin roof, and in Mike, the newest compound, containers were stacked two high. Mike, Satah explained, housed most of the men who’d been denied refugee status and were under threat of deportation—these men were the most troubled. “Even immigration doesn’t come to Mike,” he told me. “They know people here are not mentally well.”

We walked down a long, narrow path closed in by tall fences. Satah pointed at one of the containers and told me that he had witnessed the murder of his roommate there three years earlier, when a series of protests turned into a riot in which a force of special police, locals, and Australian security guards invaded the center. Ever since, Satah’s legs have shaken vigorously whenever he sits down, like an out-of-kilter washing machine. At night, before he goes to bed, he takes sleeping pills to calm the tremors.

Kakar dropped the supplies in the storage room the men had established in Delta Compound. He showed me the water tanks they had connected to the roof and the wells they had dug for water. The engineers among them had also invented a makeshift system to charge phones using solar panels, a generator, and batteries. Without their phones, Satah said, the men would argue and complain, and worry more about their families.

It was the middle of the night, and most of the detainees were sleeping. Lacking electricity for fans and air conditioners, many slept on mattresses in the open air, or hoisted them on top of the containers. In the daytime, Satah told me, people washed in the makeshift shower, or, if it was raining, bathed beneath leaking gutters. Each community cooked rice or baked flatbread, and they would offer food to others walking by. Although the men were in the midst of a crisis, with the absence of the guards they could enjoy a sense of peace. While the center was open, diesel generators had thrummed ceaselessly, drowning out the softer sounds of the island, but now the men could hear the calls of birds and the gentle waves at the shore.

That afternoon had marked the 106th protest since Satah had first rallied the men in August. At five o’clock every evening, a whistle called them to meet. Satah and other leaders announced news, gave updates on outside support, and encouraged the men to keep resisting. Sometimes someone would suggest chanting or going on a hunger strike, but Satah argued against any action that could escalate into violence or give authorities an excuse to intervene. He reminded the detainees of their fortitude and asked them to repeat in unison: “We are strong. We are brothers. We are together.” Their problem was not the Papua New Guinean officers, not even those who swore at them or destroyed their supplies. “They are not our enemy,” Satah said. “Australia is doing it to us.”

In four years, Satah had learned a lot about resistance. His strategy was simple, disciplined, and peaceful. The men would walk a path through the compounds and pose for media photos. They held placards—we want safe country; kill if you want to killwe ♥ new zealand—and arranged group shots of everyone sitting with their hands above their heads, wrists crossed as though shackled.

More than ever before, the detainees were communicating directly with the outside world. They had created a channel on the messaging app Telegram to post photos, videos, and bulletins for the media. One detainee, the prolific Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani, was writing first-person accounts of the impasse for the Guardian. When Kakar made his first clandestine trip to Lorengau for supplies, he tweeted a photo of the bread and rice he had purchased with money drawn from a 160,000 Australian dollar fund ($120,000) raised by Australian donors. He wrote, “Thank you beautiful people for your help, we have some food for today.” Supporters in Australia were spurred to action, scaling the Sydney Opera House and blockading immigration department offices to draw attention to the standoff, but policymakers were unmoved. “They aren’t coming to Australia, and I can’t repeat that often enough,” said Peter Dutton, the immigration minister.

Ten days after my visit to the center, early in the morning of November 23, a detainee on lookout saw Papua New Guinean police, navy, and immigration officers approaching in Land Cruisers. The men sounded their whistles three times to signal an emergency.

Three weeks had passed since the center’s official closure. Australian authorities had long departed, and the Papua New Guinean authorities had had enough—they were removing the men by force. Kakar awoke to shouts that officers armed with metal rods were inside. They marched through the compounds, striking the containers with their bars and yelling, “Take your stuff! Move out!” Kakar headed immediately to Delta Compound, where the detainees had planned to gather in case of trouble. Officers were closing the gate between the compounds, but Kakar made it through. Most of the men were already there, sitting close together on the ground and locking arms so that the officers could not move between them. They called to one another to remain peaceful. They chanted, “UN, help us! Human rights! Help us! We don’t want to move!”

In desperation, several men from Sudan, Iraq, Syria, and Myanmar climbed onto the roof, about fifteen feet high, and threatened to commit suicide. The officers called to them that if they jumped, it would be at their own risk. But other detainees gathered below to break their fall, following them as they ran around the rooftop.

Some of the detainees tried to photograph or film the eviction, but the police confiscated and smashed their cell phones. Kakar hid his down the front of his shorts and tweeted surreptitiously. In the stress of the moment, he felt like his mind wasn’t working, and worried that his En­glish was worse than usual.

#PNG Police Using unacceptable Words, They Are Really Want to Fight. #MANUS

No One Want To Leave The Camp, Many people Are Ready For Suicide Coz No One Want To Leave The Prison To Another Prison. #MANUS

By evening, the police had succeeded in evicting only fifty-six men who had been cornered in Mike Compound. Frustrated, the officers resorted to dumping the water supply, trashing sleeping quarters, and destroying the men’s personal belongings. Finally they left, warning that their operation—code-named Klinim Base in Tok Pisin—would continue the next day. The detainees, rattled, attempted to clean up the mess, and carried sand from the beach to fill in muddy holes formed by the spilled water.

That morning, Satah had been in Lorengau on a supply run. He had spent much of the day pacing my hotel room in a state of high agitation, desperate to return to the center—to negotiate with the officers, to prevent violence—but no one would risk taking him back. All day he followed reports in the media and on Twitter and Facebook. He saw global condemnation of the eviction, but to his mind the event was also a deliberate tactic to publicize Australia’s commitment to controlling its border. “The only way I can think is that Australia wants this,” Satah said. “People everywhere in the world know what is happening, so nobody will come by boat.”

Just after dawn the next morning, police once again entered the detention center and found the detainees still huddled in Delta Compound. They called out the names of the men they considered ringleaders in order to apprehend them first. “Where is Aziz?” they yelled, referring to Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a Sudanese man who had been outspoken in the press. But the detainees responded like the slaves in Spartacus. “I am Aziz!” they yelled back. “We have no leaders.”

This time the officers blocked the way onto the roof of Delta Compound and forced their way into the crowd, yelling and pushing people apart, beating them, and dragging them toward the gates. Some men walked to the exit, where buses were waiting to transport them to the new centers. Kakar hid behind the tents in Oscar Compound until an officer discovered him using his phone. “You are motherfucker, I will kill you here, don’t try to be smart,” the officer said. Kakar put on a hat to obscure his face and boarded the bus.

By midmorning, the center was empty. Hundreds of men left without their possessions, and over the following days the site was looted by local residents. Later, a man from Manus who lived on the naval base sneaked me in. “People helped themselves,” he said as we looked at the large tents strewn with broken boxes and plastic, and the buildings bereft of their tin roofs. “They stripped this place out.”

David Yapu, the provincial police commander, told me that the eviction was necessary to prevent the outbreak of waterborne disease from the men’s toilets and hand-rigged water tanks. “We were outnumbered, but we dealt with the situation in a professional manner,” he said, denying any use of unreasonable force. A Papua New Guinea immigration officer who spoke to me on condition of anonymity admitted that police were armed with “rods,” but said that they were used only to intimidate the men, not to hit them. “We felt sad. We have a close rapport with them,” he told me. “But we are on the other side of the fence.”

At 10:44 am Kakar sent me a voice message from one of the new centers. “We are fine and we are safe and we just came to East Lorengau,” he said. He laughed. “We are fucked. Four and a half years. And now again in the prison.”

Three days after the eviction, I visited a temporary clinic set up by Doctors Without Borders (known as MSF, for its initials in French) at the hospital in Lorengau. News of the raid had left Satah extremely distraught, and he was worried about the men who had been forcibly removed. For the many who suffered from severe anxiety and depression, the violence was destabilizing. MSF saw nearly a hundred men in four days—a quarter of those who had been forced out. There were more in need of attention, but the team was barred from visiting the Lorengau detention centers, so they could not treat men who were incapacitated or too afraid to travel.

In the foyer of the clinic, I spoke with men waiting to see Dominique N’Guetta, an MSF doctor. One man was getting an X-ray of his hand; he said he had been struck there with a metal bar, and also on the head, back, and legs. Another man reported hearing loss and headaches from a blow behind his left ear. A third sat quietly and avoided eye contact. Later, he messaged me online. “I wasn’t able to talk to you because I was feeling down and had a lot of painful feelings,” he wrote.

N’Guetta told me that many of the wounds he was treating indicated that the men had been beaten, but their most urgent and ongoing need was for counseling and psychiatric support. One of his patients had just attempted suicide. Although the men hated living in detention, the center had also served as a place of continuity and community over the past four years. It had become their home.

In the Lorengau hospital I spoke with Bringfried Molean, one of only six doctors on staff. The day before, Molean had refused to treat three refugees who had been admitted for psychiatric care, insisting that the hospital administration bring in a mental health team. “I’m not qualified to look after psychiatric patients,” he said, noting that his specialization was internal medicine. “There’s no proper support for psychiatric patients here.” There is little such support anywhere in Papua New Guinea. A 2013 World Health Organization report found that there were just four clinical psychiatrists and one psychologist in the whole of the country, which has a population of 8 million. All were based in Port Moresby, the capital.

Apart from the temporary MSF clinic, a single day clinic in one of the new centers was all that was available to serve the men. It was far from adequate. Satah told me that after the eviction, many detainees had run out of their medication and needed appointments to see a doctor. In October, he had been given a month’s supply of his prescriptions—more than a hundred antidepressant tablets and sleeping pills—but now he had none left. “Nobody is mentally well,” he told me. “You know, I am talking about myself.” The sight of Australian security guards at the new center had triggered an uncontrollable rage. He got the same feeling when he reflected on his experiences in detention. He went to his room and banged his head against the wall. “When I see my own blood, it makes me calm,” he said. “It’s okay, it’s normal, I have been doing it for a long time—if I shave my head it’s full of these scars.” Satah asked International Health and Medical Services, the health care contractor, to arrange for him to see a psychiatrist, but his request went unanswered for more than two months.4

A refugee at a detention center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, November 12, 2017 © Adam Ferguson/New York Times/Redux

Satah lost nearly all his possessions during the eviction, except for his laptop and his dog. Many others left everything behind in the move to Lorengau. Satah was moved into West Lorengau Haus and Kakar into Hillside Haus, adjacent sites on the outskirts of the town. The majority of the men were taken to the new facilities in East Lorengau.

Though the Manus detention center had been shuttered gradually over a period of four months, the new facilities were not yet ready when the detainees arrived. For the first two nights, around sixty people slept on the floor of a classroom. Dutton, the immigration minister, insisted that the buildings were habitable, but detainees posted photos and videos to social media that depicted half-constructed fences and out-of-order bathrooms. Manus Islanders were not pleased with the arrangement, either—Lorengau’s population had suddenly increased by 10 percent, and many were angered by or fearful of the influx of single men.

Satah and Kakar resumed their duties as caretakers for their fractured community, which included purchasing clothes and medicine in bulk. The new centers had no gym and no recreational activities, so Satah bought three big-screen TVs with money from donors. Meanwhile, the protests continued daily in each of the three locations, although the number of participants declined as the days passed. The international media spotlight had moved on. Nevertheless, Satah was proud. The men had resisted for twenty-four days after the closure of the Manus center, far longer than he’d expected. Despite the hardships, those days now seemed to him like a time of freedom. “It was just me and my friends, and we were so close together,” he said. “There was the voice of sea—it’s a very beautiful voice.”

Two weeks after the eviction, the men involved in the class-action suit that had been settled the previous June received an email announcing their compensation. Each man would receive between 50,000 and 70,000 Australian dollars ($38,000–$53,000), depending on his health and the extent of his suffering. Satah lodged an objection with the court; he was upset that the lawsuit had not gone to trial, because that meant the evidence of human rights violations would never be made public. Finally he accepted the money, with bitterness—Australia was paying him for the suffering it had inflicted even while it was prolonging that suffering indefinitely.

A profound injustice dogged his mind. Dutton had repeated ad nauseam that no asylum seeker who arrived by boat would be settled in Australia, and he insisted on the necessity of a watertight immigration policy. But Satah knew that out of the seventy-eight people who had shared his boat, at least twenty-five were in Australia on temporary visas and eligible to work. In fact, very quietly, nearly a third of the asylum seekers who arrived after July 2013 were allowed entry into Australia. Australia’s rationale for offshore detention—for subjecting hundreds of men to physical suffering, trauma, and death—was a charade.

The arbitrary nature of this cruelty had deepened Satah’s distrust of the authorities. After the murder of his roommate, he had refused to cooperate with the administrators handling refugee claims, and he now faced deportation. But Satah was secretly taking precautions. “If I know they are going to deport me,” he said, “I will disappear from this place.”

Other detainees were applying for resettlement in the United States. In November 2016, the Obama Administration had agreed to resettle 1,250 of Australia’s offshore refugees. Although President Trump described the agreement as a “dumb deal” after his inauguration, two dozen refugees were transferred from Manus this past September and flown to the United States, and about sixty more were approved in December. (The most recent iteration of Trump’s travel ban, however, refuses entry to Iranians—the largest cohort among offshore detainees—and Somalis.)

Kakar had made his own plans to escape Manus, if only temporarily. Though it had been five years since his last boxing match, he was in touch with a gym in Port Moresby, and a promoter had promised to put him in a title fight. He did not have permission to leave the island and possessed no valid documents besides his detention ID card, but he booked a ticket to Port Moresby on the same flight as me.

Manus’s airport is small and shabby; it resembles an old classroom dropped in the middle of a field. Satah accompanied us there and arranged for his contacts to smooth the way for Kakar. The airport supervisor tried, unsuccessfully, to call an immigration officer, but Kakar insisted on boarding. “I am a refugee,” he said. “The Supreme Court has decided we are legal.” With the flight running late and other passengers waiting, the supervisor relented.

The moment brought us all a small rush of euphoria. Satah hugged Kakar farewell: “Brother, I’ll see you on the TV—the first champion, okay? Promise?”

When we took our seats on the plane, Kakar opened his Deep Life Quotes app and showed me the screen: You’ll never get the reward if you never put in the work. “Very strong words,” he said. He told me that he had been on Manus Island for 1,592 days. “The Manus pain will be always in our bodies. It will be there always until we die. But one day, if I am free, this experience will teach me everything.”

He took a series of selfies and played Pashto music so loudly in his earbuds that it was audible two rows down, over the jet engine. He ignored instructions to switch his cell phone to airplane mode and spent the flight flipping between Twitter, Facebook, and the Instagram feed @musclemania.

He was leaving, yet he was not leaving. “What do you think—I am happy?” he asked me. “To go to Port Mores­by? It’s same, same. Go. Come. Every day when I talk to my family, my heart breaks.”

 lives in Melbourne, Australia. He is the host of the podcast The Messenger and the editor of They Cannot Take the Sky, a collection of first-person accounts from asylum seekers in detention in Australia.

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July 2018

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