Book review: Manus Days

I am pleased to support the recent launch of a new book by Michael Coates. ‘Manus Days’ recounts his experience working at the Manus Regional Processing Centre. Michael gives this website an exclusive look into the experiences that led to this book.

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Just about everybody in Australia has an opinion about this country’s policy of offshore immigration processing.

We’re ready to give those opinions and many of them are held with strength and conviction.

But many who raise their voices on this issue have no knowledge of the hard facts and even fewer have genuine first-hand experience.

Future government policies relating to offshore immigration processing will have a large impact on the social fabric of this nation. Perhaps that is why the issue is so divisive. To some, it is a deeply moral and emotional issue. To others, it is simply pragmatic and practical.

At the heart of the conflict is our innate sense of what is right – compassion to all and the notion of a “fair-go” versus the need for security and due diligence. The one thing that almost everyone has in common, be they an activist or a supporter, is that their view is largely academic. Until the day I first set foot on the humid Pacific Ocean outpost that was Manus Island, I was exactly the same.

So how had I come to be a part of this whole mess? How had I ended up on the literal front-line of the so-called Pacific Solution?

My reason for wanting to work in the centres had nothing to do with the politics, and certainly nothing to do with my own thoughts on its morality. My motivation for signing up to Operation Sovereign Borders was perhaps the most basic of motivations – money. That and the desire to be doing something out-of-the-ordinary.

It was the closing months of 2013, and I was in the midst of a quarter-life crises. I was twenty-seven, and in the year since discharging from the Australian Army I had had my share of highs and lows.

Things had started off very high. I had spent three months road tripping across America, then cruising the Caribbean with rock-stars. Following a quick visit home for Christmas I jetted off again – this time to South Africa. I was still receiving a salary from the army in lieu of unclaimed leave, and spent the next few months in the loving embrace of the bars and beaches of Cape Town, sharing a beach house with Scandinavian backpackers and generally having the gap year that most young Australians these days seem to have a decade earlier in life.

But coming home, the reality of having to start from scratch was a harsh reminder that the real world was not going away.

Who would have ever thought that Julia Gillard’s revamp of the Pacific Solution would have come knocking?

In one of those back flips that politics is famous for, Labour had been forced to reintroduce offshore processing to deal with the influx of unauthorised boat arrivals. Nauru wasn’t the only offshore processing centre being given a new lease of life by this policy back flip of course – word had already began to spread along the grapevine about the reopening of the facilities on PNG’s Manus Island and the subsequent recruitment drive required for that.

I was understandably enthused to open my e-mail to find that they were seeking “security specialists” with a background in defence or law enforcement who were comfortable with remote deployment. Nothing more was said except that it was an “exciting offshore opportunity”.

My South Pacific adventure was about to begin.

While the last days of the Manus Regional Processing Centre unfolded over television and social media, I was able to see things that the average viewer did not.

The man giving an impassioned and well-articulated speech? This was the same man who for years had presented to me as a brain-damaged fool, apparently unable to string two words together or even fathom where he was. What a remarkable recovery.

The forlorn man holding up a sign, denouncing his criminal treatment at the hands of the Australian government and reminding them that they had a responsibility to care for him? The same man’s room I had searched after the riots, where I found child pornography for the first time. The same man I had followed through the streets of Lorengau to shield him from local children.

Activists always like to say that if you met these men and listened to their stories, you could not help but want to bring them to Australia.

These activists have not been to Manus Island.

They have not spent days with them and seen them as their unguarded selves.

Anyone can present a filtered view of themselves when communicating over the internet – just look at internet dating. For a lot of activists communicating with the transferees over Facebook, I suspect that those filters won the day.

I saw behaviour from so-called asylum-seekers that sickened me. Not just the violence, the sexual assaults, the treatment of the locals – but the manipulation of well-meaning but naïve people back in Australia who seemed so desperate to believe what they were being told.

These were the same kind and compassionate folks that set up hate pages on Facebook to identify the homes and families of people like me so they could harass them in an equally empathetic and compassionate ways…

Manus Days

Read Michael Coates’ story about Manus Island at Connor Court publishing.

Author: Michael Coates

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