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Sudanese refugee detained on Manus island wins prestigious human rights prize

by Nita Bhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 14 February 2019 16:02 GMT

Refugee advocates hold placards as they participate in a protest in Sydney, Australia, against the treatment of asylum-seekers at Australia-run detention centres located at Nauru and Manus Island, November 18, 2017

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The United Nations and human rights groups have criticised Australia's offshore detention centre policy, citing human rights abuses

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI, Feb 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Sudanese refugee stuck in an Australian detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea for five years has been awarded a major international human rights prize for revealing the harsh reality of Canberra's off-shore refugee policy.

Abdul Aziz Muhamat, 25, was named the 2019 Martin Ennals Laureate on Thursday for his advocacy in drawing global attention to the harassment, beatings and poor living conditions faced by hundreds of asylum seekers at the centre.

It is the first time the prize, named after the British human rights activist, has focused on the plight of refugees and been awarded to someone who has suffered violations due to the policies of a Western nation.

Muhamat, who was given permission to travel to Geneva to accept the award, said hundreds of asylum seekers were trapped on Manus and Nauru islands as part of Australia's offshore processing policy, where they treated are like "criminals".

"It's not easy to be in a place where have to fight for your rights. This award sheds light on the very cruel refugee policy of the Australian government," said Muhamat.

"My message to all the refugees around the world, speak up for your rights, no matter where they put you. Speak up for your rights and try to overcome your fears."

Muhamat fled civil conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region in 2013 and flew to Indonesia. He boarded a boat bound for Australia, but after six days at sea, it was intercepted by Australian authorities and he was forcibly sent to Manus.

Over the last five years he has become a leading voice for refugees by exposing the reality of life at the centre through his podcasts, tweets and media interviews.

His podcast, "The Messenger", created from more than 4,000 WhatsApp messages Muhamat sent from the detention centre, won best radio/audio feature at Australia's Walkley Awards in 2017.

It documented Aziz's journey to Manus and exposed the cramped, poorly ventilated conditions inside the camp as well as the destruction of their possessions and their forcible removal to another centre in November 2017.

The United Nations and human rights groups have for years criticised Australia's offshore detention centre policy, citing human rights abuses and called for their closure.

The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said Muhamat had "eloquently drawn the world's attention to their plight" and urged "that solutions be found for all refugees and asylum seekers under Australia's offshore processing in Papua New Guinea and Nauru as a matter of urgency."

"I have the deepest admiration for Mr. Muhamat, for his courage, his humanity and indomitable spirit," Volker Türk, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, said in a statement.

"His testimony is a wake-up call to the world about what happens when policies dehumanize and mistreat other human beings."

The Martin Ennals Award Laureate is selected annually by a jury of 10 of the world's leading human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists.

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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