Putin’s doodlebugs signal increasing desperation
Graduating to illiteracy? Just not on

Morrison’s Manus cruelty, by the man who got away

Jaivet's misspelt Manus ID Card
Jaivet Ealom - taken from his Manus identification card on which a sharp-eyed Australian immigration official misspelled his name


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.

Fitz - Escape from Manus coverIn 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.

The 'I stopped These' memento in Morrison's parliament house office (The Guardian)
The sickening 'I Stopped These' memento in Morrison's parliament house office (The Guardian)

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.

Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton in parliament - among the worst poiticians Australia has ever produced (ABC)
Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton in parliament - among the most unethical politicians Australia has ever produced (ABC)

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.

Fitz - Journey to Manus & the Escape Route

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.

Jaivet Ealom in Canada (smh.com.au)
His shocking ordeal behind him, Jaivet Ealom free in Canada (smh.com.au)

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


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Good news today. Let's hope a new federal government can build on it:


Philip Fitzpatrick

Politicians and other reprobates are known to rely on a suite of well-worn axioms as they go about their nefarious dealings and machinations in office.

One of these is the accepted wisdom that if a lie is repeated often and loudly enough people will eventually come to believe it is true.

Another is that if a problem is ignored for long enough it will eventually go away. This one is not so infallible.

Climate change and global warming has been resolutely ignored by the current Australian government both before and ever since they got into office but it doggedly defies erasure from the public mind.

Their solution has been to fiddle around the edges with the hope that a few tweaks, minor adjustments and the odd concession will speed up its demise as a topical issue.

They have good cause to think this is true, not least because it has worked in the past. They probably think that this one is just taking a bit more time to expire.

This idea that time and an unreliable public memory always works in favour of politicians and their ilk occurred to me when I was reading and then reviewing this book.

It is a good book but I couldn’t help thinking that time has passed it by. What it describes in vivid and horrendous detail is unfortunately yesterday’s outrage.

As a public stirring outrage, industrial scale mistreatment of refugees in Australia now seems to have reached its use-by date.

It had been surpassed by new outrages, like the treatment of women in public life and now the war in Ukraine.

As a society we seem to be forever trundling blindly along a road strewn with wreckage and carnage naively hoping to see green hills in the distance only to be fooled when we turn the next bend and run smack bang into another outrage in progress and some smirking politician promising to make it all go away.

The Greek poet Menander, who lived around 300 B.C. said, “Time is the healer of all necessary evils” but I don’t think that is true.

It is simply the memory that is taken care of, the evil remains and often resurfaces again when least expected.

That’s why some events, like what is going on in Ukraine, come with a sense of deja vu.

But do we really consign everything to history? Vladimir Putin is currently waging a war that dates back to the time of the Tsars. Christians and Muslims the world over are still fighting the Crusades.

Revenge is something that lingers through time, ready to resurface at a moment’s notice. It seems to be a primal human instinct which we normalise in terms like “closure” and “justice” that play out on tabloid television interminably.

Perhaps the appalling treatment of the refugees on Manus and Nauru will resurface on a day of reckoning one day in the future.

I wonder if that is a forlorn hope.

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