Eleven refugees who spent years detained by Australia on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island left for the United States on Tuesday, with 170 men still remaining in limbo in the Pacific nation.
Amir Hamed Sangari, a 37-year-old Iranian refugee, spoke to Guardian Australia from Los Angeles on Wednesday and described himself as “just happy” to be in the US, despite the nation’s high coronavirus numbers.
Sangari said he was excited to leave the “hell” of PNG and finally live as a free man.
He and eight other men who left Port Moresby on Tuesday were among the 52 held incommunicado in PNG’s Bomana immigration detention centre for five months in 2019.
Photos obtained by Guardian Australia showed the men living in hot accommodation without shade and forced to sleep on hard plastic mattresses without pillows.
Sangari said the other men on his flight were happy but “confused”.
“It is difficult to move to another country,” he said. “We were treated like prisoners of war for eight years and we were humiliated in every way.”
Resettlement of refugees in the US under its deal with Australia resumed in May after being suspended in March, despite a persisting high rate of coronavirus transmissions in that country.
Ben Winsor, whose organisation Ads-Up recruits Australian expat volunteers to support refugees from Nauru and Papua New Guinea when they arrive in the US, said many were struggling with the health and economic impacts of the virus.
Because refugee resettlement in the US is generally suspended, there is scant funding to sustain support services for the new arrivals, he said.
“We’re seeing caseworkers who are just throwing up their hands, not providing basic support,” he said. In many cases, it has been left to volunteers to advocate for refugees looking for work, trying to obtain social security numbers, and avoiding evictions because of the crisis.
A number of former Manus Island and Nauru refugees have contracted the virus while in the US and many have lost work, Winsor said.
Ads-Up is currently fundraising for about a dozen refugees to enrol in commercial truck driving licensing courses – a popular stream of work that has not been greatly affected by the pandemic.
“We’ve seen that this has been the ticket towards a stable, well-paying job, and the costs can otherwise be a big roadblock for them,” Winsor said.
Sangari was a mechanical engineer in Iran but said he did not know what he would do for work in the US.
More than 800 people have so far been resettled in the US under the deal, which is nearing conclusion.
At the end of July, 188 refugees and asylum seekers remained on Nauru. Hundreds more who were transferred from offshore detention to Australia for medical reasons are still awaiting resettlement.