Manus Island 2013 – my reflections

In 2013, myself and 5 other cadets from Catherine Booth College, along with three staff, went to Manus Island, PNG, as part of our training, to work as part of The Salvation Army’s Humanitarian team working in the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre. Four years on, I’ve decided to share my diary from that experience. Names have been changed, and I acknowledge that the centre has changed a lot since then, but it is my hope that this will share a bit of light into how our government is treating Asylum Seekers.

Four years on, and I still feel like my time on Manus Island will never leave me. It’s something that is incredibly hard to move on from. But let me start from where I was, and move to where I am now.

Four years ago, I arrived back home. Following a flight from Port Moresby to Brisbane, and then back to Melbourne, we arrived back to a building in effective lockdown. There was an outbreak of Norovirus heading around Melbourne, and our college was not exempted. A number of families had come down with it, and as such we had to be warned that we would be exposing ourselves if we headed up to our rooms. I believe most of us ignored that warning, just wanting to go and see our families.

I believe we all got sick. Not a very pleasant return home.

We had a couple of weeks off before our corps placements began. Liesl and I were heading to Rosebud Corps. We felt like we did well, but the review that happened following our placement didn’t go as we had thought. It was only on reflection of that time that I realised that perhaps I had been affected by my time on Manus Island more than I realised. Should I have talked to someone? Possibly. But I didn’t realise until well after the fact.

After college, we were appointed to Devonport. It was here that I sought out ways to take my experiences on Manus Island, and put them to good use. I wrote to politicians, and met with the local member, talking to him about my time there, and why I feel convinced by my faith that we need to do more to welcome Asylum Seekers and Refugees (He was a former Pastor, so I felt the faith aspect was a reasonable one to discuss). I saw an ad for the local Amnesty International group, and I started attending that.

Ben being led out by the police after being arrested

And I got involved in the local Love Makes A Way group, based in Launceston – eventually taking part in a sit in at Senator David Bushby’s office. (I wrote and preached about this and you can find my sermon here.)

Since moving to Rochester, I still seek out ways to be involved and attempt to bring about change to our government’s policies which lock up innocent people, who have committed no crime by seeking asylum.

But my time in Manus will never leave me. I think for the most part, this is because I have no resolution.

For all of the people I met on Manus Island, I only know of two who were living in Australia. These were two young boys who stuck in my head, partly because while I was there, they had their Boat ID’s shaved into their hair. I think it was observing this that partly led me to ensuring I used the community members names whenever I could – when we reduce people to a number, we reduce their humanity, and we reduce our willingness to care.

But for the rest of the community members – I have no idea. I can only assume that most of those who I met in the Families Camp were most likely moved to Nauru. And I have to assume that most of those in the SAMs camp are still on Manus Island.

And that’s what eats me up the most. That these wonderful people, these people that have so many skills and passions, these people that were fleeing awful situations that could have added so much value to our society – I’ll never know where they are, I’ll never know what they’ve been able to do with their situation, and I’ll never know what might have been.

I sympathise with those still in the detention centres – while my experience was only a month on staff when I knew when my time was up, and I knew that I would be heading home – it still affected me mentally. I can’t even imagine how those who have been there for four years are coping, and what damage it has done to them.

And so, I will continue the fight. And I encourage you to as well. I hope that by sharing a bit of my experience – as limited as it was, in some ways – I hope that it has shed some light into what life is like in the detention centres. And I hope that you can see that things need to change. We need to hold our government to account to this, and have them step away from party politics and show some actual leadership and determine a real and humane solution.

One of the best things you can do is writing to or calling up your local member. You don’t need to have all the answers – all you need to do is let them know that this is an issue that you care about and want them to act on. The more people who let their local members know, the more they will feel they need to represent the desires of their electorate.

You can also donate to organisations that are actively helping Asylum Seekers and Refugees. There are many out there, but the three that I will promote are the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), the Centre for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees (CARAD), and Love Makes A Way.

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Author: Ben Clapton

I'm an Officer in The Salvation Army, currently appointed with my wife as Corps Officers at the Rochester Corps in country Victoria (20 minutes out of Echuca). I play violin and guitar, amongst many others, and love golf and running.

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