Graphic evidence has emerged of two refugee men being attacked on Manus Island by local men who beat them with an iron bar.
The men, Afghan Hazaras who are being held in the Australian-run detention centre on the island, were attacked as they walked for a bus from the beach in Manus’s main city of Lorengau.
The refugees were surrounded by seven local men, one of whom was carrying an iron bar. The men were abused, robbed, and then attacked, hit in the body, arms and head with the iron bar, even after they had fallen to the ground.
The refugees were rescued by another local man who intervened in the assault and helped the men walk to the police station.
“This was at 5pm, it was broad daylight, so there were a lot of people around, and we just saw these men walking towards the police station, followed by a very large crowd,” a witness told Guardian Australia. “The men were clearly in a very bad way, there was a lot of blood. One of the men was holding up his arms as he walked, and blood was running off his arms.”
Upon reaching the police station, one of the refugees collapsed unconscious, prompting one officer to attempt CPR. The refugee was then carried into a police 4WD and taken to Lorengau hospital.
Later, he was transferred back to the detention centre.
Freelance photojournalist Matthew Abbott, who was on the island working for GetUp, and Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy with the Human Rights Law Centre, witnessed the aftermath of the assault.
Abbott shot photos of the men, but was accosted by police and others as he tried to take more pictures of the incident.
“One policeman kept trying to put his hand in front of the camera, and outside another man kept shoving me. He told me I should stop taking photos then he told me he was going to shoot me. He said ‘I’m going to get my gun and I’m going to shoot you’.”
Police then called PNG’s immigration and citizenship services authority, which had held Webb and Abbott at the police station for more than two hours, demanding the photos be erased. Abbott retained the photos.
“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’,” Abbott said.
After being questioned for more than two hours, and forced to supply their passport details, Abbott and Webb were released, but were made to return to the police station the next morning, before they were able to leave Manus Island.
Guardian Australia understands that three refugees, all Afghan Hazaras who have been granted refugee status after fleeing the Taliban in their home country, had been on the beach at Lorengau on Wednesday afternoon.
One of the men had bought multivitamins at the Lorengau pharmacy but knew the tablets would be confiscated back at the detention centre. According to several sources on the island, the refugees had reportedly gone to the beach to bury the tablets in the sand.
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When the three were returning from the beach, they were confronted by the seven local men, who are said to have been drinking.
One refugee managed to escape and hide in nearby bushes, while the other two were surrounded. The attackers demanded cigarettes and the refugees’ money, clothes and shoes, before they began assaulting them, one man hitting them repeatedly with the iron bar, even after they had fallen to the ground.
Webb told The Guardian he had travelled to Manus to meet with the men detained there for three years. He said he had heard stories of violent attacks on refugees – inside the detention centre and out – but was shocked to witness it first-hand.
“These guys have been on Manus for three years. They have seen their friend,Reza Barati, beaten to death in front of them. One refugee has been shot. Another has had his throat slashed. They’ve been bashed by guards. They’ve been attacked by locals. They are genuinely fearful,” Webb said.
“These men are in our care and they are not safe. The Australian government can’t keep sticking its head in the sand and pretending everything is fine. The only viable and humane way forward is to bring them here.”
Matthew Phillips, human rights director with GetUp, said the violence Abbott and Webb witnessed was “the grave danger the Turnbull government’s abusive policy of offshore detention places people in on a daily basis”.
“Peter Dutton must take responsibility, acknowledge this clear danger, stop blaming other people and end the detention of the men, women and children detained on Manus Island and Nauru.”
Calls to PNG police by the Guardian on Saturday were not answered.
The assault is reflective of a growing tension on Manus over the refugees’ continued presence on the island, and the government’s faltering efforts to resettle people elsewhere in the country.
Following the PNG supreme court judgment in April that the men’s detention on Manus Island was illegal and unconstitutional, the 854 men held there have been given limited rights to leave the detention centre.
They cannot leave of their own volition (the detention centre is housed within a military base), but are allowed to catch daily buses to Lorengau, the main town, a 45-minute drive away.
However, many of the men refuse to leave the detention centre because they fear being attacked.
While many Manussians are accepting and welcoming of the refugees, there remains significant hostility, often violent, towards the refugees from some locals. Incidents are most common after dark when people have been drinking.
There is also a broader hostility to the detention centre and its staff, with repeated transgressions of PNG law by staff, without punishment.
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Last year, three expatriate staff allegedly drugged and gang-raped a local woman inside the accommodation block of the detention. All three were spirited off the island before PNG police could interview them.
Other detention centre workers have robbed hotels, started fights, and crashed cars, all with impunity.
Manussians are also angry that promised benefits to their communities have not materialised. Many have not won employment or expected lucrative contracts, and promised improvements to infrastructure on the island have not occurred.
Photographs by Mathew Abbott for the Guardian Australia /2016.