One of the youngest refugees on Manus Island – erroneously sent to the adult-only detention centre when he was still a child – has been assaulted by a guard at his detention centre and, when injured, was forced to borrow and buy his own pain medication.
Loghaman, now aged 20, was 17 when he was sent to Manus. He is now housed at the East Lorengau transit centre where refugees are being held while Papua New Guinea rewrites its resettlement policy, now more than a year overdue.
A new report from Liberty Victoria (pdf) raises concerns about the fairness of Australia’s age determination process for asylum seekers.
Loghaman told Guardian Australia that this week he had just finished speaking with a Transfield worker about getting more washing powder “because we only have very small amount”, when he was approached by a PNG national security guard.
“He came up to me and said ‘if you don’t think it’s enough, go back to your country. If you don’t like it here, go back’,” Loghaman said.
“I said to him ‘this is none of your business’. Then he punched me. He punched me hard.
“I cry, and I fall down. I fall to the ground.” He injured his hand in the fall Loghaman said.
“My hand, very weak. Very pain.”
A Transfield staff member took Loghaman to hospital, where he was x-rayed and treated. His wrist is not, as was first feared, broken, but badly sprained and is still in a sling.
At hospital, Loghaman says he was obliged to pay for his own medicines, which he says he could not afford.
Refugees in the East Lorengau centre are not allowed to work, and are paid a stipend of 100 kina a week, about $A50, an insufficient amount, refugees say, in a remote and expensive country like PNG.
“Every week my money is gone on food, on [phone] credit. I have spent all my money, I say to doctor ‘I have no money’, so I have to borrow Panadol Forte from my friend.
“I have to wait until next week to buy more painkillers from City Pharmacy. My hand, still very pain.”
The guard who allegedly assaulted Loghaman is still working at the centre.
Refugees in the transit centre have reportedly been assaulted by staff before.
Three guards at the centre have been charged with assault after they beat another refugee while he was at the Harbourside Hotel in Lorengau town. Those men are all still employed at the centre.
Inquiries to PNG immigration about Loghaman’s assault have not been responded to.
Guardian Australia met with Loghaman on Manus Island last month.
He fled his home country in the Middle East after his cousin was hanged, and his two brothers jailed by the ruling regime there.
“I leave my country, because I come to freedom. But here is the same. I am caged like an animal.”
In 2013, Loghaman was wrongly sent to the men-only Manus Island detention centre as an adult, despite the fact he was carrying a photocopy of his national identity document that showed his birthdate, and told immigration officials he was under 18.
When the mistake was discovered, he was not removed from Manus, but kept on the island, locked in isolation with another child, until his birthday. Of his handful of possessions on the island is a card a case worker made for him for his 18th birthday.
Several asylum seekers have been erroneously judged to be adults by the department.
Leaked documents from Manus Island show up to 14 asylum seekers claimed to be unaccompanied minors while in detention there.
Mistakes in age determination have led to concerns over the way age determinations are conducted by Australia’s immigration department. Many asylum seekers arrive in Australia without documents, not knowing how old they are, or from countries where births are often not officially registered, so they have no official date of birth.
A new report from Liberty Victoria argues that asylum seekers who are potentially children are not given the “benefit of the doubt” in their age assessment interviews, that immigration officials are not properly trained to conduct interviews, and that children are not allowed lawyers or representatives to assist them.
Australia has abandoned wrist x-rays to determine age – the test has been discredited – and instead conducts interviews with young asylum seekers to determine their age.
Immigration officers ask about family makeup, education and employment history, “noting observations about client’s demeanour, behaviour and physical appearance during interview”.
Its guidelines counsel: “there is no right way of conducting these interviews, but there are many wrong ways. It will take only one badly-handled case to undo the whole process. It is not a compliance interview. It is a conversation with a potential minor.”
Interviews are typically two hours long, but the guidelines warn, are “not an interrogation – we are not trying to ‘crack’ clients (they may be children)”.
The department’s age determination overview state that where the age of an asylum seeker is in dispute, they should be treat as a child. “The program … aims to err on the side of caution.”
Jessie Taylor from Liberty Victoria, who has represented asylum seekers in age determination matters in Australian courts, told Guardian Australia the determination process was “terribly flawed”.
She said final determinations were sometimes made by bureaucrats who had never met the asylum seeker being assessed and that interviewers were not given relevant information such as psychologists’ reports.
The Liberty Victoria report, based on documents released under freedom of information, says that asylum seekers who may be children should always be given “the benefit of the doubt”.
“More than one age determination interview should be permitted where further assessment is required,” the report recommends.
It says all age determination interviews should be conducted face-to-face, not remotely, and that asylum seekers should be able to access free legal representation during the age determination process and to review an adverse age determination.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said departmental officers underwent specialist training prior to undertaking age determination assessments.
“The department is confident in the selection and training processes used for the age determination programme.”
“In addition to the specialist training provided, the department requires age determination officers to have interviewing experience across other programmes, such as protection visa or identity interviewing.”
She also said additional safeguards have been put in place for offshore detention.
“In regard to those transferred to regional processing centres, a process is in place to refer any cases of concern to a senior officer for further consideration.”