This is what life is like for a gay man detained on Manus Island (Pedestrian TV)

This article was originally published on Pedestrian TV.

It’s hot and humid. The air is sticky. The food is unstomachable. You’re facing daily humiliation from guards, being referred to as an “illegal”. The dorms are cramped and smelly. The toilets are filthy. You’re depressed. It’s already been three years, and there’s no end in sight.

This is a terrifying snapshot of what it’s like to live in detention on Manus Island, as described to me by Mahmud* (not real name).

There’s not too much I can say about Mahmud without putting him in danger.

I *can* say he’s an Iranian man currently being held in detention on Manus Island. I can say that he’s gay, though not openly so. That he’s eloquently spoken, gentle and intelligent. That he’s interested in literature (“but it’s hard to find books here”). That he’s been on Manus Island for around three years, and that he faces execution upon return to Iran or release in Papua New Guinea.

I can also say that he refers to News Corp as “Rupert’s propaganda machine” and that in his spare time (which, for as long as he’s been detained, is most of the time) he likes to write.

In fact, he’s writing a book.

“I normally spend my time in my small bed space which is covered by sheets to make a little bit of privacy,” he tells me.

“I used to write my book which is almost finished, but I am suffering from severe mental health depression so I have lost all my mood and hope. Now I just lie on my bed or sleep to kill time.

“I wish I had the mood to complete it, but the circumstances here don’t let me. I have no mood for anything.” 

Mahmud is one of an estimated thirty gay men currently being detained on Manus Island. His sexuality is only worth noting due to the additional threat it poses to his safety. Mahmud recalls one openly gay man being harassed and ridiculed by guards and fellow detainees to the point of willingly returning to the perilous danger of his war-torn home country.

“They were following him to the shower room and toilet, knocking at his door and asking for sex all the time,” he says.

“They were calling him a pufte (sic) and asshole.” 

Mahmud has known that he was gay since childhood, one of the many reasons he initially fled Iran. Based on Sharia law, homosexuality is illegal – and punishable by imprisonment or execution.

However, homosexuality is also illegal in PNG, where those caught partaking in same-sex intercourse can face up to fourteen years imprisonment. This adds horrendous complexity to the ongoing issue of gay asylum: how is one to prove their sexuality and the subsequent need for safe resettlement, when doing so exposes them to abuse and persecution?

“On one hand, you risk stigma, punishment and/or rejection by revealing that your sexual orientation or gender identity is the basis of your claim. Alternatively, you can remain silent, and be returned to the country where you faced a well-founded fear of persecution,” writes Senthorun Raj, scholar at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University.

“Either way, it is an impossible Catch-22.”

Despite the understandable fear and anxiety attached to his sexuality, it was Mahmud’s abandonment of the Islamic faith for Christianity and the ensuing danger that inspired him to become involved in the Iranian Green Movement and eventually seek a better life for himself.

“I met a guy in the place I was working. He was a very nice and bright guy, but we had some arguments about religion," he recalls.

"Finally he suggested to me that I read The Bible. I started attending a home-based Church, but one day my father advised me not to do so because of the possible grave consequences. On that same day my friend and all of his fellows were arrested and I never heard from them again.”

In Iran, Muslims who convert to Christianity are subject to both societal and official pressure, which often leads to punishment by the death penalty. In 2013 Iranian-American pastor and former Muslim Saeed Abedini was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for allegedly helping to “build the country’s underground Christian church network”.

Long story short, seeking a relationship with Christ in Iran means dangerous business – particularly as a gay man. 

For the last two years Mahmud has been in daily communication with a Melbourne man by the name of Andrew*. Andrew was initially approached by a Manus Island counsellor, who requested a letter of support for gay detainees enduring the bleakest of circumstances.

“Mahmud and I had intermittent contact for about a year as the guards oversaw use of internet for one hour per week,” Andrew tells me. 

Thankfully, once these weekly supervised internet sessions ceased, an alternative (albeit forbidden) method of communication was arranged.

Andrew has since made it his mission to help Mahmud in whichever small way he can; sharing details of his story in online forums and connecting him with a number of journalists and writers like myself.

Mahmud and I have now been speaking daily for over a week, and every morning there’s a fresh horror to report.

I read his messages – which typically begin with “Dear Sam” and include the occasional “mate” – while lying in the warmth of my bed or nursing a coffee on the bus to work, every day more ashamed to be living in a country that would partake in such savage mistreatment.

Just yesterday he told me of a concerning new trend emerging on Manus Island; young detainees being wrongfully accused of “pushing guards” and charged with assault. They’re being thrown into solitary confinement and treated like animals – denied food or water for up to 24 hours at a time before being allowed to apply for bail, which they may or may not be granted.

Mahmud says that he and other detainees are terrified they’ll be next.

“I never planned for Australia. It was my only choice,” he tells me.

“I expected there would be lots of ups and downs, but I hoped there would be a sanctuary somewhere. I haven’t found it so far.”

Samuel Leighton-Dore