Why I chose to become a security officer on Manus Island
Working with refugees, I heard some of the most horrific and tragic of stories. The death of Reza Barati deeply shook me, and prompted me to be the first officer to speak out
I was employed by G4S in my home state of Victoria when the call came out for staff to volunteer and work in the newly opened detention centre on Manus Island. I thought for a while about what an adventure it would be, before realising that my three children and wife would have to do it tough without dad – so I decided not to apply, and kept toiling away. But that nagging thought was always in the back of my head.
A few months in, the positions were still open. A work colleague had been sent there just weeks previously, which gave me the impetus to finally put my hand up – at least I would have a buddy to chat to. I will admit that applying was largely down to personal reasons, namely my resume, my wallet, and my curiosity. But I’ve also always been a person striving to be useful and help others, either in a working or social environment, and I thought a job on Manus would tick those boxes.
Arriving in Papua New Guinea was a massive culture shock: armed personnel everywhere, massive fencing surrounding the hotel complex, guards with guns welcoming us on our arrival – and I still had 800kms to travel. I felt apprehensive, but also quite excited. Getting off the plane on Momote airport Manus Island was like watching an old black and white film, nothing but a wind sock and tarmac. After collecting our luggage, we stood around waiting for someone to contact us, but no one came. I still remember thinking, “well, this is a good start”. The worst was yet to come.
The weeks looked like this: 6 x12 hours days with one day off followed by 6 x 12 hours nights with one day off for four weeks on end. There was no daily routine. We would gather in groups in the mornings to be briefed about the previous shift, which was no help at all – operation managers thought it was best that no information was passed on to those working on the following shifts, just in case it caused misinformation and angst among staff. Not counting the few of us that did not resign in the first 12-24 hours after our arrival, the attrition rate was almost at 50%.
My days were spent in a compound, meeting the needs of asylum seekers, our “clients”. I simply referred to those in detention as “people” – there was a push to de-humanise them with labels and numbers, but I could not and did not bring myself to use them.
I listened to the most horrific and tragic of stories from their homelands – stories about mothers and sisters raped, kidnapped and taken away, and fathers being shot or beaten for believing in a different god. I could never imagine having my home and community burned, blackened and charred in this way, but some had experienced just that.
Every day, I would be reminded of how humans can kill one another. I talked to Afghans who, because of their ethnicity, fled their country after the Taliban took over their province. The reason they boarded a boat was to be safe and live a peaceful life in another country that they were told about. The same underlying stories were told to me by various other nationalities – all wanted to escape the persecution handed out by the majority.
I often think about one particular interaction I had with a very young Iranian who asked for my help in reading and learning English grammar. At first I was a little apprehensive, not knowing how to communicate effectively. But as the hours passed we found each other working together and understanding each other. We were both so wrapped up in this small but profound encounter that I spent nearly 10 hours with this young man, an experience that has changed us both. I am shedding a tear whilst writing this, not knowing what has happened to this young man.
I was one of the lucky employees; I had the opportunity to train ex-pats and local personnel in how to operate as a safety and security officer. This opportunity took me away from the day to day interaction with the cruelty that was handed to those people fleeing persecution. I felt I had a chance to make a difference to their lives through training those that were employed to care for them, and tried to show compassion in my role.
Even though I was not there when it happened, the events which led to the death of Reza Barati deeply shook me. I feel that I have failed in my responsibility as a safety and security officer and training officer, which is why I have decided to come forward and be the first security officer to speak out.