21 Dec 2016

Glimpse of freedom on the Manus oval

4:27 pm on 21 December 2016

Time would not seem to be an issue.

The refugees on Manus Island have had time to burn during their three and half years there doing nothing.

However, the authorities and security guards only allow them around an hour and a half to take to the park, before they bring them back in.

Still, a little bit of cricket is better than no cricket, when that sport is your passion.

Cricket on the prison island

A cricket tournament is underway on Manus involving refugees stuck on the Papua New Guinea Island.

Refugees stuck on PNG's Manus Island play in a cricket tournament.

Refugees stuck on PNG's Manus Island play in a cricket tournament. Photo: Supplied

Cricket is a particular passion for many of the roughly 900 men who were sent to Manus for offshore processing by Australia in the past three and a half years.

They come from countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where cricket is king.

PNG's Supreme Court ruled in April that it was illegal to detain the men against their will on Manus and that they should be released.

Initially it seemed that the ruling could finally mean the men could be set free from the place they have come to know as a prison island, but Canberra has refused to take in any of the men and resettlement in PNG was unviable.

And while recently there's been vague talk of a resettlement deal hatched with the US for those processed on Manus and Nauru, the refugees aren't holding their breath.

This month's cricket tournament is therefore a welcome distraction for the men from the prolonged mental torture of being stuck on Manus.

The tournament started a week ago, and while the cricket is being played in a protracted format (eight overs a side) it still represents a breakthrough of sorts.

Parachinar Zalmi team lineup

Parachinar Zalmi team lineup Photo: Supplied

One of those taking to the field is Naseem Haider, from Pakistan.

"So different countries are participating in this cricket, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. And the Manus new cricket team is also participating and Manus Cricket have also a very good team."

PNG Cricket was initially reluctant to approve the tournament as it appeared to be against ICC rules to sanction an event with unregistered teams.

But Naseem said that after six months of organisational efforts, the green light was given.

Members of The Prisoners - one of the refugee cricket teams on Manus Island.

Members of The Prisoners - one of the refugee cricket teams on Manus Island. Photo: Supplied

Several teams broadly representing nationalities of refugees held on Manus were established with names such as the Prisoners and the Zalmi (which means youngsters in the language of Pakistan's Pashtos)

"What was our ambition is just that we all have some talent which is our hobby as well from childhood until now," Naseem explained.

"And we were just trying to promote the cricket in Papua New Guinea as PNG is now developing and making a good career in cricket." (PNG recently gained International status in Limited Overs formats)

Dreams

Abnan Ullah, or Abbi as he is known, is one of the organisers of the tournament.

The Pakistani hails from the Federal Administered Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan, and says he was a professional cricketer with a serious future in the sport.

refugees and manus locals.

refugees and manus locals. Photo: Supplied

But almost four years ago his dream of progressing to the sport's highest level was dealt a cruel blow when, after he and others were forced to flee the conflict zone that is his part of Pakistan, they ended up on Manus.

On Manus, cricket has had to be put aside, especially as Abbi sustained a back injury and struggled to get adequate medical treatment.

"It is important to be healthy and physically normal but no one cares about me. It seems I must lose all my goals and ambitions," he explained.

Yet like for many detainees at Australia's offshore processing centres, it is the mental cost of detention that injures Abbi the most.

"We have been here for over three years and still we don't know when our detention will end," he said.

"Sometimes I think people are slowly being poisoned and they are dying little by little by time. Because we never hear anything good from (PNG) Immigration in this time of over three years."

He says when he set out to seek refuge in Australia, he knew of the country as a world champion of cricket and also a welcoming state for refugees.

Thousands of Australians demand refugees not be sent back to Nauru or Manus Island, on 20 March 2016 in Melbourne.

Numerous protests in support of refugees and asylum seekers have been held in Australia. Photo: Recep Sakar / ANADOLU AGENCY

Incredibly, after the hardline treatment by Australia under Canberra's offshore processing immigration policy, Abbi still dreams of playing cricket for the country.

"Whenever I get the chance to go to Australia I will try my best to serve Australia in the field of cricket."

As he pointed out, another Pakistani of similar age, Usman Khawaja, also sought a better life in Australia and is now representing the country in cricket.

Khawaja was in the Australian eleven which beat Pakistan in a thrilling test at Brisbane on Monday.

Australian batsman Usman Khawaja celebrates his century against New Zealand on day 2, 1st Test match, Basin Reserve, Wellington, Saturday 13 February 2016. Copyright photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

Australian batsman Usman Khawaja celebrates his century against New Zealand in February 2016. Photo: Photosport

Pakistan had launched a brave fightback to almost steal an unlikely victory before Australia's frontline bowlers came back into the attack and snuffed out the tourists' hopes.

The ruthlessness with which Australia plays its cricket is also a characteristic that could be attributed to the country's immigration policy.

For these men on Manus, and the men, women and children on Nauru - the people who came to Australia by boat - there is no quarter given by Canberra which insists none of them will ever be allowed to live in the country.

Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia, addresses the United Nations high-level summit on large movements of refugees and migrants. 19 Sep 2016

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said people attempting to reach Australia illegally by boat will be permanently banned from applying to enter the country. Photo: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Integration

The involvement of a team from Manus itself in this tournament casts a new light on the various reports about hostile local attitudes towards refugees over recent years.

The Governor of Manus, Ronnie Knight, has made numerous claims about some of the younger refugees on Manus creating social problems when integrating with locals.

Naseem Haider however said it had been refreshing to participate together with local people in this tournament.

"And the big thing is that here there is a lot of problem with us, like a lot of tension, we are in the limbo," he explained.

"It is very hard for us to play our cricket properly here. But we are doing our best and we are playing with them, we are promoting cricket."

Naseem said the company operating the Manus processing centre, Broadspectrum, only allowed them around an hour and a half on the oval.

The tournament, which continues through Christmas, offers the refugees a small chance to exercise their cricketing passion, a brief glimpse of what might otherwise constitute a normal life for them.

A brief glimpse of freedom on a prison island.

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