Protesters in Sydney in November call on the ruling coalition government to bring back 600 refugees from an Australian detention center in Papua New Guinea. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

Atop a hillock on the island of Manus, behind roadblocks and steel gates, sits one of the notorious and widely condemned camps set up to keep refugees out of Australia. People from across Asia and parts of Africa, sent here by Australian authorities against their will, have been murdered, have killed themselves or have died here as a result of poor-to-nonexistent health care.

Although more than 500 men live here now, the camp’s days may be numbered. The United States has resettled 85 Manus refugees since September and is going to take more. Yet as part of a system of camps that Amnesty International recently described as one of “calculated neglect and cruelty,” it is going to be missed by the people who live in the local community.

Shuttering the camp could deal a severe blow to the economy.

Ken Kuso, a hotel owner in Lorengau, the capital of Manus, remembers the day he first heard the camp would open.

“There was lots of publicity about how Manus would benefit from the center. I heard it at a public announcement at Harbourside,” he said recently, naming one of his competitors. “Politicians described it as a pot of gold and encouraged banks to give out loans to local businesses.”

Kuso cracked open a betel nut with his molars and started chewing. His second-floor balcony overlooks a recently paved street, paid for with long-promised Australian money. Beyond are the slanted roofs of the central market, where prices have as much as doubled since the camp reopened in 2012 on the site of a previous resettlement center. From his balcony, he can see idle men hanging around the bus station.


Asylum seekers in October protest the possible closure of their detention center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. (Australia Broadcasting Corp./AP)

The camp has been a shock to the community. Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, once described Manus as a “delightful” place that was jolted from its isolation during World War II, when 1 million U.S. troops passed through the island. Today, the quiet, education-minded island has become a hub for fast cash, attracting fortune-seekers from near and far.

Lorengau closely resembles a mining town. Everything revolves around a lone source of revenue. Social problems, which even before the camp opened made Lorengau stand out, have been exacerbated. Prostitution has proliferated. Kuso, who is saddled with debt after his bet on a second guesthouse didn’t pay off, now rents out some of his rooms for liaisons.

He spit a red stream off the parapet.

“I’m so angry I feel like shooting down all the Australians,” he said.

Every day, he said, he turns down job applications.


“When the Australians close the camp, it will be catastrophic,” he said. “People have become used to easy money, to go out drinking. Once it’s shut, there will be more breaking in and stealing.”

Refugees, who can leave the camp for town, are targets of public drunkenness, violence and muggings. New accommodations, where they were moved by force in November, were meant as a way to better integrate them into society. However, fear and depression lead most of them to spend their days in bed.

“I choose to remain in prison,” said a 26-year-old Kurd, Ari Sirwan. “Does that sound sane?”

Sirwan fled ethnic discrimination in Iran. His chest bears a cobweb of furrowed scars, a memento of an attack after which he didn’t dare go to the hospital, instead getting stitched up at home. Every night he sings songs from home, but he can no longer stand talking to his mother.

“It’s too painful,” he said. “I’ve spent all of my young adulthood here. In the beginning, I had hope. I thought, six months more, then I will get out. Now, it feels like it will never happen.”

On this particular day, though, Sirwan had ventured farther out than ever. He was crouching on the dirt floor of a little straw hut on nearby Mandirlin Island, fanning a fire. Outside, children surfed the turquoise waves in dugout canoes. The place belongs to Robin Marakei, a local fisherman who took pity on a group of refugees he met in town last year.

“I saw some of them hanging around, looking depressed,” Marakei said. “I heard some people had treated them badly. So I thought it would do them good to visit my island. They could cook, swim, have a drink in peace. I told them to call and I would arrange a boat.”

Since then, the visits have been many. Marakei’s guest book contains entries by people from as far and wide as Burma, Sudan and Syria. “I love meeting new people and hearing their stories,” he said. “The refugees cook very good food. And they’ve taught me to use the touch screen on my phone.”

Manus has done little to help relations between Papua New Guinea and Australia. Paige West, an anthropologist at Columbia University who recently did field work around the camp, said Papua New Guineans’ confidence in their old colonizer has been shattered.

“Australia has blamed all problems on Papua New Guinea” and its population, she said. “Young Papuans who have been able to read it all on social media have been disgusted and found it colonial and racist.”

For some locals, compassion has been fueled by their own sense of abandonment. Many express frustration with the central government in Port Moresby. The country receives about $315 million for hosting the refugee camp. Manus doesn’t even get a tenth of that.

Marakei, who lost an arm several years ago, feels deserted himself. He said the government is unwilling to help him and his family get access to hospitals, schools and other public services.

“In a way, I live here like a refu­gee, too,” he said.

He shuffled around, on the edges of his group of visitors. His presence wasn’t needed.

Sirwan lay down — tea finished, fire extinguished. Working on the fire had taken his mind back to his home in Iran’s Kurdish region.

“Fire is very important to us. It’s even the meaning of my name,” he said. “For a moment, I’ve been able to forget why I’m here. The journey that brought me and the five years I’ve spent here. Today, for the first time in a long time, I’ve been able to envision myself free.”

An earlier version of this article said 1 million U.S. troops were based on Manus during World War II. That figure referred to how many troops passed through the island over the course of the war, not to the total at any given time. The article has been updated.