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Aziz spread his wings and escaped Manus Island: he wants more to follow

He laughs.

Until a few months ago, Aziz was one of the hundreds of men trapped in the Australian offshore immigration system on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

I felt deep inside my heart the real meaning of freedom.

He had been there since October 2013 after fleeing western Sudan.

He had been granted refugee status in early 2015 but had nowhere to go without a host country.

And until a week ago he was on borrowed time. A short visa had allowed him to come to Switzerland in February to receive the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

He had applied for asylum, but while the Swiss system is far from Europe’s most oppressive the numbers were still stacked against him – the country grants around a quarter of asylum applications.

Switzerland has seen a public backlash against asylum seekers, as in many European countries since the refugee crisis. The government recently revised asylum laws to streamline and centralise the process, though, and this may have helped Aziz.

Aziz spreads his wings.

Aziz spreads his wings.

Last Friday the news came through. Asylum granted.

“I was over the moon,” he says. “This was a very, very long journey.”

But while he is happy for himself, he feels guilty at the same time.

The award was granted for his tireless work as an advocate for refugee rights, the award judges said.

He has been one of the primary public voices among the men on Manus, campaigning for more humane treatment, better medical care and of course a way off the island. And he has been deeply involved in helping others on Manus deal with their situation.

Aziz receives a humanitarian award in Geneva in February.

Aziz receives a humanitarian award in Geneva in February.

“I’m so worried and I’m so sad that there are still people left behind,” he said. “They are not in a good situation.”

He is still in 24/7 contact with people on the island and he says there is a “mental health crisis” there – a spate of suicide attempts that others have reported. Aziz says there have been more than 50 cases since mid-May, the most intense such period he can recall.

It is caused by loss of hope after the Australian election result, he says.

Dark days: Abdul Aziz Muhamat pictured in Port Moresby in 2017.

Dark days: Abdul Aziz Muhamat pictured in Port Moresby in 2017.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“People had a hope that a Labor government … may accept the New Zealand offer [to resettle refugees from Manus] or even speed up the process with the United States. The [Coalition] government has been rejecting talks.

“Imagine you had only a tiny bit of hope left with you and all of a sudden they just took it away. You’re just going to feel ‘I’m done, enough, I’m tired and I give up’.”

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On the phone from Geneva he tells them to keep hold of hope.

“No matter how hard they are going to push us, how hard they are going to torture us, there will be a day we would walk out of that cage as free people and remember what happened to us at Manus as a memory.”

In Geneva, Aziz is working the phones and putting his foot in doors, at the various UN bodies and NGOs. He says it is working. His personal testimony counts.

“They haven’t talked to someone who was inside that place,” he says. “My voice has been heard. It’s going to take time and coordination … and people will come up with a strategy on how to tackle the problem.”

And in the meantime he has to adjust to life off Manus.

“I didn’t get to see many strange people,” he says. “Coming to Geneva, an international city, it’s a big shock for me and I’m finding it a big difficult to adjust. But you just have to get on your feet and run.”

Switzerland’s federal system has proven a barrier to refugees seeking work – some cantons use labour laws to restrict the kinds of industries refugees can work in, others require jobs to be offered to locals first. Employment rates for refugees vary from 0 per cent in three cantons up to 18 per cent in another.

Aziz calls himself self employed. He’s working to “upgrade” his French. And he’s working to “raise the alarm”.

“The minute I stepped down from that hill I said to myself, ‘It’s good for me to fly, but I don’t want to fly by myself’.

“We are going to fight, together, not only to get out of that place but to regain our dignity, and get our identity back.”

Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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