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Manus teacher recalls asylum seekers’ despair

Former Manus Island teacher Jacob Rice

Back from Manus: Jacob Rice, now teaching at Mt Alvernia College in Brisbane, was disturbed by what he saw on Manus Island.

ASYLUM seekers on Manus Island have told one of their former English teachers they would prefer death than their indefinite sentence in detention. 

Jacob Rice worked as a fly-in, fly-out maths and English teacher at the Manus Island immigration detention centre for nine months between December last year and August this year.

“They tell me that they’re praying for death,” Mr Rice, 28, said. 

“One of my friends (an asylum seeker) is a maths teacher there, and his family is in Sydney … he’s told them to have a funeral for him because he’s not coming to Australia.  

“(He says) they should treat him like he’s dead.”

That indicated the depth of despair on the Papua New Guinean island where Australia has a detention centre for asylum seekers.    

Mr Rice returned to Australia in early August after receiving a job offer at Brisbane Catholic girls’ school Mt Alvernia College, Kedron, and has already spoken out about living conditions on Manus Island at public rallies and on radio.

“I’ve seen the way my government is treating people,” he said.

But under the Border Force Protection Act, which prohibits anyone who works for the Australian immigration department to disclose information learnt while working at the detention facilities, Mr Rice is risking two years’ imprisonment. 

Mr Rice said refugees were sleeping on “pretty average to poor” bunk beds, cramped into dome tents or rooms for between four and 50 people with “enough room to walk in to get into your bed” and they’re sharing one power point between four people.

“That’s their words and I was not allowed to go into their space,” he said.

“One of my classrooms was right outside a bedroom, so I (am aware) of what it looked like.

“Probably the best metaphor I use here, and I’ve just been on school camp with the girls (from Mt Alvernia College), is that it’s kind of like school camp.”

Refugees stole tables to create “a solid sleeping surface” because their bunk beds were so inadequate, Mr Rice said.

Inside the classroom, he said the rules for teachers were clear and pastoral care of any nature except for “suicide watch” was not encouraged.

“It’s black and white – you deliver curriculum,” he said.  

“If (the detainees) were suicidal, there was a policy for that but everything between delivering curriculum and suicide watch was not your job.”

Shortly into his placement, Mr Rice learnt paperwork was more important than learning outcomes.

He said his contract was based on time in class, not on outcomes.

“No one is going to come and assess whether you’re a good educator or not; no one cares if they pass the test in the end,” he said.

Students received points for showing up to class, which were sometimes redeemed as currency for buying cigarettes, chocolate bars, or phone credit to call home.

Selling cigarettes also helped refugees send money to their families.

“The desperation is there because they might have a roommate that has no more contact with their family, that the family’s disappeared,” Mr Rice said. 

“If someone says, you give me this packet of cigarettes, I’ll send $2 to your wife, you’d do it because it’s better than being that guy who hasn’t heard from his six-year-old daughter for two years.”

Mr Rice said emotional abuse was normal, and said he was aware of an incident where a security guard doing a routine night check ran a full weapons search, “touching genitalia” of a detainee and whispering threats before the detainee went to sleep.

The physical injuries Mr Rice saw also raised questions for him.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, in its annual Social Justice Statement in September – “For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas: Justice for refugees and asylum seekers” – called for an end to off-shore detention of asylum seekers.

Mr Rice said off-shore transit would not be an issue if refugees were guaranteed a job, land and resettlement with their families, even if it were outside Australia.

A spokesperson from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said the Papua New Guinea Government was responsible for managing the Manus Regional Processing Centre with support and assistance from Australia.

“The department and its service providers work together with the Government of PNG to maintain a safe and secure environment in (the) RPC for detainees, visitors and staff alike,” the spokesperson said.

The immigration spokesperson did not comment on the living conditions of the “transferees” but said the sleeping arrangements ranged from four beds to larger group accommodation.

The spokesperson also said transferees were offered a range of programs to support learning and skills development.

By Emilie Ng 

Catholic Church Insurance

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