For nearly six years, he did not have a name, just a number: QNK002. To receive food, water, any sort of assistance, he and the hundreds of other men detained in Manus Island detention centre in Papua, New Guinea, had to give their assigned number to the guards. It was meant to dehumanize and punish him and the others held on the island seeking refuge in Australia, he said. They were meant to be kept secret, hidden from the eyes of the rest of the world, he stated.
But Abudul Aziz Muhamat, QNK002, told a packed house of human rights activists and supporters in Geneva, that despite this bureaucratic dehumanisation, he and his fellow refugees retained their names, their humanity and their hope. Muhamat is the 2019 winner of the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders. In accepting the award on behalf of those he left behind on Manus Island, he said winning it is a chance to highlight the suffering of refugees everywhere.
“This award means a lot. Today the international community recognises our existence, our struggle, our fight,” he said. “And they lead us to believe in hope for another day.”
Muhamat is a human rights defender who campaigns for the rights of himself and other refugees caught up in the Australian offshore immigration system. He fled conflict in Darfur, Sudan and in October 2013, he was forcibly transferred to Manus Island as part of Australia’s offshore refugee policy, when the boat he was on was intercepted by authorities.
Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore called the award and the ceremony a chance to show solidarity with human rights defenders the world over.
“In these extraordinary laureates and nominees … in their example we have a human face for courage,” Gilmore said. “It is their work that places compassion and justice at the heart of public participation. It is their action that puts not complaint and wound but solutions … rooted in human rights answers to human wrongs.”
Two other finalists for the award were also honoured at the ceremony. Marino Cordoba Berrio from Colombia, has fought for the rights and welfare of the Afro-Colombian community for decades. And Eren Keskin was the third nominee. The lawyer from Turkey has fought for the rights of women, Kurdish people and the LGBT+ community for more than 30 years. She was unable to attend the ceremony in Geneva because the Turkish government refused to give her documents to allow her to travel.
Defending the rights of others
Muhamat has spent the last few weeks in Geneva, meeting with human rights and refugee organizations, as well as the press. He told the stories of Manus Island, the lack of resources, access to medical care or decent food. He talked of the lack of livelihood, of hundreds of men spending months and years on end, trying to find ways to fill their days and find hope to survive to the next. Muhamat told these stories to remind everyone that the people on Manus Island and Naru exist.
He met with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, whom he said was receptive to his stories and gave him a message of his own: We are not giving up on you and you, nor are we giving up on your friends.
“This is the message I am going to take back with me to tell people we are not just a number,” he said. “People are calling our names. People are still believing in us that we are human beings and we have a dignity.”
And Muhamat said, he will return to Manus Island, rather than remain in the relative comfort of Geneva. He said he realizes it is hard for people outside to understand, but his life, his purpose is back on the island, with his friends, providing hope, fighting for dignity.
“I came here to share the message” Muhamat said. “And I want to go back to that dehumanisation to make sure that …the dehumanisation will no longer continue. So my presence on Manus Island and in that prison, it will only bring hope back to people.”
22 February 2019