Trapped in Shamrock, Manus Island

by Ione Lewis


Shamrock Compound Shamrock Compound (photo by Refugee Action Coalition).

What stood out about Shamrock Compound was the desperation and hopelessness of the refugees and asylum seekers kept there under guard. There was nothing lucky about Shamrock.

Everyone in Shamrock was traumatised, suicidal and on psychiatric medication. It was not unusual for people to be prescribed an anti-depressant, anti-psychotic, and a tranquilliser all at the same time. There was nothing strong enough to treat detention fatigue and the torture of indefinite detention.

Shamrock was not a clinical setting. It was a container divided into small, dark, claustrophobic rooms and staffed by security guards. Security was not very secure. One man wrote on the whiteboard on his door “Will pay anything for gas”. He wanted to kill himself. He was supplied with a small amount in a clear plastic water bottle by a guard unable to resist the cash.

For some refugees detained in Shamrock for up to six weeks, the security presence and cramped dark spaces triggered their experience of torture in their home country. Their trauma and suicidality markedly increased. For others, it was a continuation of the control exercised over them for years in what Behrouz Boochani has called Australia’s military border complex (2018).

I remember many WhatsApp conversations with people in Shamrock. One man talked away going star-watching outside the city in his home country. One man talked about his torture history in a small cell with electric cattle prods, lasting for weeks. All of them wished to die.

The tragedy of Shamrock was made possible by Australia’s bilateral policy on offshore detention, which commenced on 9 July 2013. Three thousand, one hundred and twenty-seven people were sent to offshore detention in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and about six hundred still remain. Murray, Davison and Schweitzer (2008, p. 10) note the unique cruelty of this policy:

“Australia’s policy on mandatory detention in recent years drew international criticism as a breach of international human rights agreements of which Australia is a signatory (Bruce, 2003). Although many countries use detention for similar purposes, Australia was the only country where detention was mandatory for all individuals entering without valid visas (Silove, Steel, & Mollica, 2001). As a signatory to international human rights treaties, Australia is required to accept refugee claimants when they arrive on shore and to process their claims. However, the use of other countries nearby … was one approach to circumvent this obligation”.

Detention robs people of their autonomy, self-determination and dignity. Deprivation of normal life experiences impacts people’s maturation very negatively. Living skills, executive functioning, and important years for establishing oneself in the world are lost.

Goffman’s description of total institutions captures the intent and experience of indefinite detention: batch living with others treated in the same inhumane way, binary management by security guards of inmates, the inmate role which is intentionally degrading and inhumane, and the institutional perspective (Jones & Fowles, 2008).

The Shamrock response to refugees’ and asylum seekers’ suicidal intent was also shaped by the PNG legal context.  Attempting suicide is a misdemeanor in the Criminal Code (Clause 311), which contributes to a high level of stigma and judgement in the communities from which staff are drawn, and in health systems.

By 2018, when Shamrock was used to warehouse people with severe mental distress, they had been incarcerated for six years. They had lived through harsh lockdowns in the naval detention centre, which for some included solitary isolation in Mike compound. There was the Good Friday 2017 shootings into the detention centre by drunk defense force members, threats and assaults by local Manus people, and the siege and forced removal at the end of 2017, following the PNG Supreme Court’s ruling that detention of refugees was unconstitutional, and life in insecure community houses.

There had been the death of Reza Barati on 17 February 2014 from a head injury caused by two security guards and other staff. The death of Hamid Kehazaei on 5 September 2014 from sepsis from a cut on his foot. The death of Kamil Hussain by drowning on 2 August 2016. The death of Faysal Ishat Ahmed in Brisbane Hospital on 24 December 2016. He had been transported too late for medical treatment. The death of Hamed Shamshiripour on 7 August 2017 by suicide. Rajeev Rajendran died on 2 October 2017 by suicide. Salim Kyawning died on 22 May 2018 after jumping from a moving vehicle.

People detained in Shamrock were medevacced to Australia for treatment later in 2018. The community detention houses and Shamrock now stand empty and “refugee processing” has closed on Manus Island. The memory of Shamrock will endure in the minds of those secured there.


Boochani, B. (2018). No friend but the mountains: Writing from Manus prison. Sydney, Australia: Picador.

Criminal Code of Papua New Guinea. Retrieved from$FILE/Papua%20New%20Guinea-%20Criminal%20Code.pdf

Jones, K., & Fowles, A. J. (2008). Total institutions. In J. Johnson & C. De Souza (Eds.). Understanding health and social care: An introductory reader (2nd ed., pp. 103-106). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Murray, K., Davidson, G., and Schweitzer, R. (2008).  Psychological wellbeing of refugees resettling in Australia: A literature review prepared for The Australian Psychological Society. The Australian Psychological Society Ltd.

Ione Lewis

Ione Lewis is a social worker and psychotherapist who has coordinated the Therapy4Refugees network of counsellors, social workers and psychologists since 2016.

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