Book review: Escape From Manus. The Untold True Story

Jaivet Ealom, a member of the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar, arrived as a boat person at Christmas Island in 2013, after fleeing from his native land. He was bewildered to find that the detention there was in a modern, all steel, prison. He, together with other passengers from the boat, were held there as prisoners for five months. As many of the boat people had suffered terrifying ordeals at sea, it was cruel to put them straight into jail. There was more cruelty to come.

Families were then sent to Nauru, and unattached men were sent to Manus Island, which, in some respects, was a tropical concentration camp: they lived in makeshift quarters, first tents, then shipping containers, there were armed guards, flood lights at night, and spot body searches. If a mobile phone or cash were found on anyone, they were put in solitary confinement. But Manus was unlike a concentration camp in that there were Salvation Army personnel for prisoner welfare, the contract for which was worth $74 million to the Salvation Army, and prisoners were permitted use of a computer for 45 minutes per fortnight.

There were about 1300 men when Ealom arrived, and he was in an unenviable position. Those found to be genuine refugees were offered freedom in Papua New Guinea. Ealom, as with other Rohingya, had been deprived of Myanmar citizenship by the ruling military Junta. Even worse, Ealom had no identification papers at all. Consequently, he was deemed stateless. He was informed by the authorities that he was not a refugee, and as the months passed, it became clear that he would spend his future in detention at Manus.

He thought that prospect was too bleak to be endured, and attempted suicide. While he was recovering from the attempt, someone who had worked for the Salvation Army (its contract had gone to another corporation) suggested that he read Viktor Frankl`s Man`s Search for Meaning, which gave him a new lease of life.

Later, he met three people who were to help him achieve freedom. One was Tessa, who worked for the authorities as a migration agent, but who was a member of the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network. There were two other women, both Papua New Guineans, who worked for Playfair, a company contracted to help detainees through the legal and bureaucratic requirements of PNG immigration.

To his delighted surprise, one of the latter turned up in the camp to talk to him in person. (He only ever contacted Tessa electronically.) These three women related to him sympathetically as a human being, which was a welcome change. They were sources of valuable advice, and put him in touch with indispensable contacts during his escape.

In April 2016 the PNG Supreme Court ruled that the detention of refugees on Manus Island was illegal and in breach of the country`s constitution. In May 2016, Australia opened the gates of Manus detention centre. The prisoners stayed inside. It wasn`t safe to go out. The Islanders were deeply suspicious of them. They had been guarded by armed men for years. They must have been dangerous. The main effect of the freedom was that prisoners could use their mobiles with impunity.

Ealom`s escape took him through Port Moresby, Bougainville, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Hong Kong, and finished in Toronto. It reads like a thriller. His reception by immigration in Toronto was nothing like Christmas Island. The immigration officer could see that he was hungry, and went out and bought him a Subway and Coke. Ealom walked out of the interview a free man.

Australia`s Manus policy was badly wrong. It was inhumane and cost billions. If the right thing had been done by the refugees initially, and then the consequences managed, it would have been better for all.

The book is well written and easy to read.

Published by Viking and Random House Australia. 2021.

ISBN 978 I 76104 021 4

347 pp. $29.99

Reg Naulty, Canberra and Region Quakers.

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