Escape from Manus: The untold true story by Jaivet Ealom, Viking Australia, 2021, 352 pages, softcover AU$22.00, ebook AU$14.99. ISBN 9781761040214. Available here from Amazon Australia
TUMBY BAY - In 2014 I carried out a social mapping study on Manus Island and got a first-hand look at Australia’s regional processing centre for refugees.
What I saw was deeply disturbing and not something easy to forget.
In 2018 I read Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani’s account, No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, about his incarceration in the notorious facility.
What he wrote saddened but didn’t surprise me.
This new book by Rohingya refugee Jaivet Ealom, who fled from Myanmar, reinforces much of what Boochani said but adds further to the shameful saga.
Manus was a repository for single men. Families with children were sent to an equally sordid Australian processing centre on Nauru.
When Jaivet arrived on Manus as an asylum seeker there were already about 1,300 men in the centre.
A decidedly random ‘Refugee Status Determination Process’, which could be subject to the personal biases of the assessing officer, sorted out genuine refugees.
Australia’s then immigration minister, Scott Morrison, had instructed his department and detention centre staff to publicly refer to asylum seekers as ‘illegal arrivals’, irrespective of what their final status might be.
This was propaganda - a deliberate distortion of international law which states that to seek asylum is not illegal.
But Morrison’s aim was to persuade the Australian public that the men on Manus had sought to reach Australia illegally.
In the final wrap-up, 82% of the asylum seekers on Manus were found to be genuine refugees.
Jaivet, as with other Rohingya people, had been deprived of Myanmar citizenship by the ruling military junta of that country.
To make matters worse, he had lost his identification papers. As a consequence he was deemed to be ‘stateless’.
After many twists and turns, Jaivet was informed by the authorities that he was not considered to be a refugee.
This left him with two options, to be returned to Myanmar or to remain in detention in Papua New Guinea.
In desperation, he attempted suicide by jumping off the two-story shipping container in which he lived.
He aimed at a substantial concrete slab but instead of landing on his head as he planned he landed feet first and bounced into a metal light pole.
While recovering from his suicide attempt, he read a secretly printed copy of a book by World War II concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl.
The book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, was a remarkably story of survival and filled Jaivet with hope.
It was then he decided to escape from Manus.
Jaivet comes across as a modest and intelligent man. His command of English is impressive and he is a gifted writer. Among the asylum seekers on Manus he was not alone in this regard.
He makes the point that the intellectual capital these men represented was a human resource that Australia wasted because of its incredibly politicised and expensive policy of deciding that asylum seekers who travelled by boat would not be allowed into Australia.
As he explains, people with the bravery and initiative and skills to flee their repressive home countries were not ordinary.
Jaivet also makes it clear that he regards what evolved into the savagely aggressive policy towards asylum seekers arriving by boat was a wholly-owned invention of Australia’s Liberal-National coalition government.
He believes Morrison’s ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ and the creation of the Home Affairs Department and Border Force took a particularly retrograde mind to conceive and execute.
That it enjoyed public support in Australia he attributes to quirks of Australian cultural and political ennui. He writes:
“Although some parts of the population had begun to agitate for the nightmare on Manus to be brought to an end, a majority of Australian voters, the ones whose lives revolved around barbecues and footy matches, gave their complicit assent to the Liberal-National coalition’s offshore affairs.
“(It was not a one-time mistake, as the same coalition was returned to office in 2016 and again in 2019).”
He contrasts this with what was going on in PNG and explains how Belden Namah, as a “principled” opposition leader, in 2013 had launched a challenge to the legality of offshore processing in the Supreme Court.
This case went largely unnoticed in Australia, despite the fact that the immigration department, administered by Morrison and then Peter Dutton, paid millions of dollars in legal fees to assist the PNG government defend the case.
The Supreme Court found that the detention centre on Manus was constitutionally illegal.
This aptly demonstrated the differences between Australia and PNG when it came to matters of humanity.
This is nowhere better depicted in the help Jaivet received from ordinary Papua New Guineans during his escape from detention.
These people, at great risk to themselves, helped him get on a plane out of Manus disguised as an interpreter.
Then they looked after him in Port Moresby and organised the next leg of his journey to a safe haven in Bougainville from where he fled to Canada where he now lives.
Three women and their relatives helped him achieve freedom.
One was Tessa, who worked in Australia as a migration agent and was also a member of the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network.
The two other women were Papua New Guineans, Nina and Winiaka, who worked for Playfair, a company contracted to help detainees through the legal and bureaucratic requirements of PNG immigration.
All three women were sympathetic to Jaivet’s situation and related to him as a human being. Together they provided valuable advice and put him in touch with contacts who could help him during his escape.
It is not appreciated by the general public in Australia that most of the Manus people did not hate the men in the detention centre.
They did not hate them but were afraid because of the propaganda promulgated by the Australian government on Manus that they were dangerous terrorists.
There are better ways to discourage people attempting to reach Australia by boat than to bang them up in the cruel quasi-prisons of Manus and Nauru.
Effective vetting agencies were never established in key transit points in Indonesia and elsewhere.
Asylum seekers were overwhelmingly desperate people fleeing from danger who did not have the means to apply for formal emigration.
The dysfunctional official centres that Australia covertly supports in Indonesia and elsewhere take many years to process refugees, during which they are forbidden from earning a living or pursuing educational opportunities.
Behrouz Boochani’s book was composed on a cheap mobile telephone in the Farsi language while he was detained on Manus.
It was later translated into English, but has a literary style that is not easy to read. You can link to my 2020 review in PNG Attitude here, ‘An enduring book about Australian bastardry’.
Javiet’s book was written in English after he had escaped Manus and is easier to read and just as enthralling as Behrouz’s popular and award-winning work.
At some point, probably not in my lifetime, Australia will be forced to apologise for the deliberately brutal thuggery it perpetrated against those people who came to its shores by boat to seek asylum.
In this context, it is worth noting that Australia was the only Western country that continued to train the military in Myanmar throughout the years of the Rohingyan genocide. Its Defence Department spent $400,000 (K1 billion) on this in 2018-19 alone.
Australia also spent $500 million (K1.25 billion) a year keeping those asylum seekers on Manus.
Scott Morrison’s Australia is not a nice place.
Javiet’s and Behrouz’s books are valuable records of this shameful period in Australia’s history. Hopefully more will be written as time goes on.
Further reading: Amnesty International, ‘This is Breaking People: Human Rights Violations at Australia’s Asylum Seeker Processing Centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, December 2013