It had been 6 years since Tim McKenna first met Shaminda Kanapathi and the locations and their moods could not have been more different.
In 2017, Shaminda, a Hindu Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, was being held in the Australian-run detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Dr McKenna was visiting on behalf of St Vincent de Paul Society’s refugee network, and the overall picture was grim.
Today, Shaminda is a free man, living in the safety of distant Finland, able to work, even travel without restriction. Needless to say, there were smiles all round when they reunited.
‘Shaminda’s looking and doing incredibly well,’ Dr McKenna told The Record after returning from a European holiday that included a detour to visit his friend, now living close to the capital, Helsinki.
‘He’s even planning a trip to meet up with his family in a third country. The sad thing is that he still can’t go home, despite the political troubles in Sri Lanka supposedly being long over.’
Back in 2013, Shaminda was interviewed by the Sri Lankan authorities on suspicion of supporting the militant Tamils whose revolt was only ended by a brutal government crackdown.
Yet Shaminda was not involved in such support, nor did he live in the Tamil north where the civil war had raged. Living in Colombo, he counted many non-Tamils as his friends.
But after the way the interview was conducted, he feared for his life, so he bought an air ticket and fled his homeland.
In southeast Asia, where he travelled for six months, he sought a path to safety, despite setbacks such as losing money and his passport to people smugglers. Desperate, he bought a passage to what he hoped would be the sanctuary of Australia.
Instead, the boatload of asylum seekers from various perilous places reached Christmas Island in July 2013 and were placed in the purpose-built detention centre.
For Shaminda, things got progressively worse. Under the so-called “PNG Solution” he was transferred to distant Manus Island, joining asylum seekers whom successive Australian governments had ruled would be “processed” offshore in order to stop them claiming sanctuary on the mainland.
The time (years) passed slowly and badly (suicides, violence from guards, poor health and minimal care). Shaminda, whose command of English was excellent, helped fellow detainees with communications, including writing refugee applications to countries that might be more compassionate than Australia.
During this time Reza Barati, a young Iranian Kurd, was beaten to death by guards and other contractors during a violent rampage inside the centre. In August 2023, the Australian Government and the security firm G4S confidentially settled civil proceedings with Barati’s parents.
Four years after his incarceration, a period in which Australia continued to breach the UN’s refugee conventions, Shaminda met Tim McKenna who was visiting PNG on behalf of the Vincentian Refugee Network and the Canberra-based group, Manus Lives Matter.
‘It was April 2017,’ Dr McKenna recalls, ’and Shaminda met me at Manus airport. I found him an intelligent, pleasant and engaging fellow. He and one other Tamil refugee stayed with us at the lodge on the outskirts of Lorengau where the other men came to meet us over the next five days.’
Just before we arrived there was a notorious shooting incident, when PNG military lifted rifles from the armoury and fired into the refugee compound. Apart from the trauma of being shot at, the refugees were particularly upset with the Minister (Peter Dutton) suggesting it was due to an incident relating to a child, an assertion which thankfully the local police commander dismissed.
‘Later, I was able to socialise with Shaminda and some of the other refugees. He said at the time it was the happiest day and evening he’d spent on Manus.’
Returning in October, Dr McKenna found the camp in the process of closing down and the authorities trying to coerce the inmates to move into accommodation around the township. Then came the suicide of a Tamil refugee named Rajeev whose death had to be explained to his friend by Dr McKenna, with Shaminda as translator.
And so it went on, with neglect, brutality and increasing restiveness from men forced together with little to do and no hope for their future.
‘Regular deaths and the attempted suicides of men on Manus was one of the most upsetting things for him’, Dr McKenna recalls. ‘It was an appalling situation.’
Fast forward to mid-2019, by which time the broader Manus community, which is majority Catholic and includes Vincentians, demanded the men be moved off the island and the PNG Government agreed. Within months they were taken to the capital Port Moresby, where nearly 80 remain to this day.
‘Life there wasn’t easy either,’ Dr McKenna says of the last time he’d seen Shaminda in early 2020. ‘I noticed all the men, including Shaminda, were deteriorating mentally and physically in Port Moresby.’
‘Port Moresby had its own difficulties with security and with medical treatment remaining poor. The hopes of safe resettlement for the refugees remained – and for those still there today, continue to remain – at all-time lows. The hopelessness of their situation clouds everything.’
Shaminda, now aged 32, has finally escaped the nightmare cycle. Following an arrangement brokered by UNHCR he was able to leave PNG in late 2020 for Finland, a place where he has established friendships, including Tamil and non-Tamil Sri Lankans, made impressive steps in learning a difficult language, and taken two jobs in the hope of saving to start his own business.
‘I’m blown away by what he’s achieved so quickly in a very foreign land,’ Dr McKenna says. ‘but sadly there are nearly 80 still held in PNG, many of them with no path to safe resettlement.
‘At least a dozen are so sick that they need immediate evacuation to Australia. Without specialist treatment in Australia their health issues will never be addressed.
‘Shaminda is now safe and well, but his friends still in PNG are not. The Australian Government says it now has no responsibility for those still in PNG because the previous government signed an agreement to that effect in 2021,’ Dr McKenna says.
‘This is cruel nonsense. Even Labor’s own national platform states that Australia retains an obligation to support these people, whom Australia sent there against their will, despite whatever agreements the previous government made.'