A Sudanese refugee held in one of Australia’s offshore migrant detention sites for six years was on Wednesday awarded the world’s most prestigious human rights prize.
Abdul Aziz Muhamat, 26, was hailed by the Martin Ennals Award organisers for his “extraordinary tenacity and courage” in protesting the Australian government’s “inhumane practices”.
For years Canberra has sent asylum-seekers who try to enter the country by boat to Manus Island or Nauru in the Pacific for processing, with those found to be refugees barred from resettling in Australia.
The harsh policy is meant to deter people embarking on treacherous sea journeys, but the United Nations and rights groups have harshly criticised the camps’ conditions and long detention periods.
“The conditions that we are living there are absolutely indescribable, … inhumane and cruel,” Muhamat told reporters in Geneva ahead of Wednesday’s award ceremony.
“We have been treated very badly, (worse) than an animal,” he said, pointing out that refugee residents of the camps are referred to only with a number.
“My number is QNK002, that’s how I’m known to the system.”
Muhamat described how he fled the violence in Darfur, first to Khartoum and later making his way to Indonesia.
He said he attempted three times to reach Australia by boat, losing five of his closest friends en route.
Then, in 2013, Australian authorities intercepted the boat he was on and forcibly transferred him to Manus, where he has been held ever since with hundreds of other men.
Deprivation and violence
“He never stopped raising his voice for those who have been stripped of their most basic rights together with him,” Dick Oosting, chair of the Martin Ennals Foundation said in a statement.
He said he had been permitted to leave after being granted a Swiss visa to attend the Martin Ennals awards ceremony, but that he hoped to return to the island to continue his advocacy there.
He described a situation of deprivation, harassment, humiliation and violence, pointing out that the camp is staffed by former military men and mercenaries who bark orders at the detainees and only give them food through a chain-link fence.
Twelve people have died so far in the camps on Manus and Nauru, including one man who was beaten to death, several suicides and people who died due to lacking medical treatment, he said.
Jury member Philip Lynch, who heads the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) organisation, told reporters the decision to hand the prize to Muhamat was “significant”, and that he hoped it would help put pressure on Australia to halt the practice of offshore detention.
“It is the first time in the history of the award that it is being conferred upon someone who is advocating in relation to rights violation perpetrated by a Western liberal democracy,” he said.
The two other finalists for this year’s prize were also honoured at Wednesday’s ceremony.
Marino Cordoba Berrio was hailed for his decades of campaigning against the illegal logging and mining of his Afro-Colombian community’s land in the Pacific region of Colombia.
Turkish human rights activist Eren Keskin was meanwhile recognised for speaking out for decades against sexual violence and torture, as well as for Kurdish, women and LGBTI rights.
She had to appear via video link at the ceremony since she has been barred from leaving Turkey.
The Martin Ennals foundation is named after the first secretary general of Amnesty International and the 30,000 Swiss franc ($30,000, 26,000 euros) prize is judged by the London-based rights group, along with Human Rights Watch and other leading organisations.
The other finalists were awarded 10,000 Swiss francs each from the foundation.