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What we owe the refugees on Manus

Anne McNevin reviews Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, which this week won both the Non-Fiction Prize and the Victorian Prize for Literature at the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. 

Anne McNevin 30 January 2019 3107 words

“A colossal encounter.” Jason Garman/Amnesty International

In 1997 the French philosopher Étienne Balibar gave a short speech expressing solidarity with the Sans-Papiers of Saint-Bernard. The Sans-Papiers were asylum seekers and migrants, threatened with deportation, who had begun a hunger strike in the Church of Saint-Bernard in Paris. From there, they issued statements explaining why they were resisting deportation, why they refused to be branded as clandestins, or “illegals,” and why they referred to themselves as Sans-Papiers (“without papers”).

Many of the Sans-Papiers were from former French colonies in North Africa and had lived and worked legally in France for years. In many cases, their status had been changed by a series of laws that targeted the country’s immigrant population, laws introduced in response to rising racist and anti-immigrant sentiment and the efforts of mainstream politicians to court those sympathetic to the far-right Front National.

Refusing to retreat into the shadows as if they had something to hide, the Sans-Papiers instead made themselves extremely visible. They drew on the language of human rights and French republican citizenship in order to stake their claim to be part of France. They described themselves as economic contributors; as colonised subjects who were not in France by accident; as linguistically, culturally and religiously diverse bearers of rights whose status could not be reduced to the “papers” and bureaucratic process through which they had been criminalised.

The Church of Saint-Bernard was ultimately stormed by the French police, and many of those taking refuge were deported. But the Sans-Papiers refused to go quietly. Their church occupation exposed the deportation process for what it was: an act of violence rather than a bureaucratic process that could be rationalised away. The political claims made by the Sans-Papiers continue to find expression in the contemporary struggles of refugees in France, Europe and beyond.

Balibar’s speech was published under the title “What We Owe to the Sans-Papiers.” What was owed, he argued, in addition to the rights that were due to the Sans-Papiers, was a debt of gratitude for having invigorated the collective practice of citizenship. For Balibar, these public acts of defiance represented a courageous and generous civic gift. “They have helped us immensely,” he wrote, “with their resistance and their imagination, breathing life back into democracy.” They had compelled French society to confront the continuities between its violent colonial past and its border-policing present. They had questioned what democracy really meant if migrants and former subjects of France, whose labour had shaped the course of French history, could be so easily disregarded.

In 2018, on the other side of the world, it is worth asking similar questions. What might be owed to the refugees on Manus Island? What might be owed to those who are stuck on Nauru or in Indonesia, and to others who have made it to Australia and called on our government to make good on its claims to uphold democratic freedoms and respect human rights? In recent months, the groundswell of support for the children on Nauru who have entered a kind of catatonia has focused attention on whether refugees are owed, at a minimum, life-preserving care. That the debate has come to this — to the question of whether life-preserving care is owed — tells us something disturbing about baseline commitments to rights and freedoms among Australians.

Unsettling questions about who is entitled to basic rights and freedoms seem to be producing ever-narrower responses in countries across Europe, North America and Oceania, as displacement and migratory pressures test the limits of a shared democratic ethos. Refugees in Australia’s offshore camps speak to this moment in more ways than one. They also command attention for what they demand — as refugees and as humans — and for what they refuse to tolerate. Their demands and refusals offer the rest of us something akin to a civic gift, something that offers democratic repair, if we are willing to accept it. Let me explain what I mean.

In the closing months of 2017, Kurdish-Iranian journalist and refugee Behrouz Boochani published a series of articles in the Guardian and the Saturday Paper. These were diary accounts of a protest on Manus Island, during which more than 600 refugees refused to leave what they described as the prison in which they had been detained for as many as four-and-a-half years. The prison — or “refugee processing centre” — had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea and was slated for closure.

The court’s ruling seemed like a win for humanitarian advocates who had long been campaigning for an end to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and seemed like a check on the Australian government’s attempts to create jurisdictional ambiguity via its “Pacific solution.” In order to comply with the ruling, the prison gates were opened and plans were made for the prison’s gradual closure during October 2017, including the transfer of remaining inmates to an open “refugee transit centre” on the outskirts of Lorengau, the capital of Manus province.

For three weeks, the refugees remained on the decommissioned site while the compounds around them were demolished, power and water were cut, sympathetic locals delivering food were turned away by police, and immigration officials were captured on film soiling the refugees’ makeshift wells with rubbish and oil and sabotaging pipes and pumps. Weak from dehydration, starvation, sleeplessness and exposure, Boochani described conditions as “living in a hell hole” and the prison as “a war zone.”

Those conditions became only more apparent after the publication in August this year of Boochani’s book, No Friend but the Mountains. In this chronicle and critique of his five years on Manus Island, written in WhatsApp message instalments sent to his translator in Sydney, Boochani reveals the systematic humiliation and debasement of incarcerated refugees in excruciating detail.

At first glance, the refugees’ refusal to be released from the prison seemed puzzling. Why continue to endure such atrocious conditions — the very conditions that they themselves had maintained were in breach of their human rights — when alternatives were available? Sympathetic commentators emphasised the deficiencies of the “transit centre,” which was still under construction and could not guarantee adequate security, sanitation or essential mental and physical healthcare for already weak and traumatised refugees. The “open” centre, supporters argued, would leave refugees vulnerable to attack by aggrieved Manusians who had not only threatened violence should the refugees move there but had already been responsible for violent attacks on refugees. Such commentary emphasised the failure of PNG authorities to take refugees’ complaints of violence seriously and bring perpetrators to justice, and the generally underdeveloped state of healthcare, law and justice.

Immigration minister Peter Dutton refused to accept the substance of such claims and described them, in any case, as matters for the PNG government. He accused ringleaders among the refugees of pressuring others to resist, and accused Australian advocates of irresponsibly inciting the rebellion and egging the refugees on.

In his accounts of the protest, Boochani took the time to address “misperceptions” across the political spectrum about the refugees’ motivations. He dismissed Dutton’s accusations as a facile “form of degradation” that reduced refugees “to children who cannot [understand their situation or] make decisions on their own.” He also rebuked those who actively supported refugees for their focus on “peripheral” issues. While the refugees’ fear of violence on Manus was real, and while the “transit centre” was undoubtedly inadequate in all the ways mentioned, the protest, Boochani explained, was “not about… the conditions of imprisonment.” It was a call for freedom — a genuine freedom rather than an open gate that merely provided a wider perimeter within which to spend one’s days, exactly as one had before.

With credible fears for their security in Papua New Guinea, and with minuscule odds of being accepted for resettlement elsewhere, the refugees on Manus were stuck where they were, indefinitely. Whether their accommodation met the best or worst of standards made no difference to the limbo in which they were imprisoned, separated from loved ones and unable to move their lives forward. “Inflicting torture by the use of time is the best and complete explanation of this situation,” Boochani had written almost eighteen months earlier, referring to the mental pressure, self-harm and suicides caused by complete uncertainty about when or if their incarceration would end.

When the refugees occupied the decrepit prison and refused to move, they were also refusing to be enlisted in a performance of their release. They were not allowing superficial improvements in the conditions of detention to obscure what was a form of incarceration without trial. When police finally entered the prison with sticks and iron bars, beating and dragging the refugees on to buses for removal, their decampment from one prison to another was revealed for exactly what it was: an explicit and intensified moment in a broader relationship of violence and domination.

In his accounts of these events, and of prison life in general, Boochani refuses to buy into the denigration of locals with claims about their brutality and the backwardness of law, justice and healthcare in Papua New Guinea. As he notes, even before their transfer to Manus the refugees were instructed by Australian officials about the range of tropical diseases that lay in wait, and about the savage, even cannibalistic ways of the local Manusians, all as a means of inciting sufficient terror to compel the refugees to give up and go home.

Boochani also describes the overt hierarchy between Australian and Papuan prison guards, and the briefings that the Papuan subordinates received about the dangerous “terrorists” within the prison population. In this pyramid of status, he reveals the small moments of complicity between Papuan guards and prisoners — a head turned here, a cigarette smoked there — concealed from Australian overseers. It was Papuan guards who administered a “red-hot wire” to deaden the nerves of Boochani’s chronically aching tooth, a treatment he chose over the indignity and deferrals of the prison’s outsourced medical clinic, the life-threatening failings of which have since been well documented.

Boochani’s point is not to deny the Papuan guards’ involvement in the violence of the prison, or to deny the fear they inspired in the prisoners. He is candid about both. His point is to show how racialised hierarchies pit prisoner and local against each other in ways that sustain and legitimise the violence. Everyone within this system becomes implicated, including the refugees themselves. Forced to endlessly queue and compete for everything — food, water, squalid toilets, razors and medicine, dispensed cup by cup, tablet by tablet, and never in sufficient quantity — refugees also turn on each other. Boochani describes in intimate detail how some refugees take perverse pleasure in others’ humiliation, particularly when the victims are those whose self-respect has survived intact the longest. “The prison dictates,” Boochani explains, “that the prisoners accept, to some degree, that they are wretched and contemptible.” In this context, the debasement of others is an equaliser that “appeals to the oppressor in all of us.”

Boochani insists that the violence to which the refugees are subject and in which they have become implicated also afflicts the Australian people in whose name the offshore encampment of refugees persists. He challenges Australians to examine those parts of their history and those parts of their present that are founded on the debasement, dispossession and incarceration of others. He invites Australians to see the continuities between past and present, and between the diminished forms of life that spread outwards from the prison and Australia itself.

For Boochani, the conditions of possibility for offshore detention can only be understood in connection with Australia’s history of settler colonialism, on the mainland and in the Pacific. It is not simply that parallels exist between the forced removal and incarceration of refugees on Manus and the treatment of non-white others throughout the history of post-settlement Australia. As other critics have argued, a continuum exists between historical forms of resource extraction in the Pacific under colonial arrangements and the current extraction of value from offshore islands as part of a wider prison–industrial complex.

In the Pacific, colonial relations have created the conditions in which this is possible. In this economy, former colonies trade prison architecture for development aid. And in this economy, as in previous eras, racialised hierarchies rationalise those arrangements as civilising missions, development projects and humanitarian care. For Boochani, the violence that this entails cannot be contained offshore. The prisoners’ incarceration reflects a wider and more subtle form of containment. He reveals the sovereign identity of Australia and Australians, built on twin fantasies of total border control and a whitewashed history, as a cage in itself — a cage that locks its inmates into a corrosive way of life and keeps alternatives beyond the reach of confined imaginations.

Boochani’s writing has received widespread acclaim. Among the commendations, his journalism won the Amnesty International Australia Media Award in 2017 and the Anna Politkovskaya prize in 2018, awarded by Italian magazine Internazionale in honour of the Russian journalist killed in 2006. Yet the aspect of his writing that provokes a confrontation with a colonial past and present has prompted far less commentary than his general account of prison conditions. With some notable exceptions, responses to No Friend but the Mountains have emphasised the book’s rendition of the appalling treatment of refugees in the here and now as a springboard to advocate for an immediate change in Australian government policy.

Longer-standing campaigns rest on the notion that the offshore camps, among other aspects of Australia’s deterrence policies, represent an anomaly within Australian political culture. “This is not who we are as Australians, or indeed as human beings,” wrote twelve former Australians of the Year in an open letter to the federal government at the time of the Manus protests in November 2017. “We’re Better than This” was the title of a song recorded by Australian celebrities in 2014, calling on fellow nationals to rise to their better selves by ending the mandatory detention of refugee children both onshore and offshore.

These are strategic interventions that aim to end current forms of violence. Appealing to the vanity of a national “we” in a climate increasingly hostile to refugees and migrants, the slogans resist the reduction of the national narrative to expressions of border security and sovereign defence. But by failing to come to grips with the histories of violence and removal that have policed the national “we” in racially exclusive ways, they also have a pernicious effect. They reproduce an account of who “we” really are that necessitates either outright denial of alternative stories or the relegation of those stories to closed chapters of the past — exceptions in an otherwise progressive national tale.

The notion of offshore detention as an exception to the rule has a similar effect. It means we find it harder to anticipate the next expression of an us–them divide in which it is made to makes sense for some people to suffer grave forms of violence and loss that would never be tolerated for others. The very fact of being able to make those distinctions — between what is acceptable for us and what is acceptable for them — is who “we” are, and Boochani asks us to admit it.

His challenge comes not out of spite but out of recognition that any aspirations towards equality and freedom require nothing less. Any chance of avoiding future rounds of violence against those deemed not-one-of-us involves coming to terms with our capacity for inhumanity, whether it comes in the form of direct violence or bureaucratic inertia. Boochani’s book, together with his journalism, is an invitation to consider the corrosive effects of denial on ourselves as much as on others, and to consider the restorative potential of an honest confrontation with ourselves.

No Friend but the Mountains is written in a poetic form. Part of what it captures is how language is used to conceal and to rationalise the violence in Manus prison. From the numbers used in place of names to identify refugees, to the generic categories that mark refugees as administrative problems — “irregular maritime arrivals,” “transferees” and so on — language makes some people less human than others and some forms of violence less recognisable as violence.

In correspondence with his translator, Boochani notes that he resists this kind of language in his journalism where he can, and in his literature entirely. He refuses to refer to the “Australian Border Force” or “offshore processing centres” or “asylum seekers,” for example, referring instead to guards, prisons, prisoners and refugees. His choice of words expresses a reality that has not been legible in the same way in masses of reports, both pro and con the plight of refugees. Those reports have failed to move guards, governments and publics beyond piecemeal policy changes to a point of confrontation with the systemic violence in which we are all implicated.

In the opening chapter of No Friend but the Mountains, Boochani gives a poetic account of his week-long odyssey on a rotting boat, en route from Indonesia to Australia. The boat was crammed with people, with their sweat, their vomit and their stench. The journey elicited acts of care and selflessness from some on board, and survival-driven selfishness from others. The boat sank and left its passengers to the whims of the sea and of passing fishing crew, who knew that to rescue might invite their own prosecution, perhaps as people smugglers. In the midst of all this, Boochani describes “a colossal encounter” with himself:

a colossal encounter — where the essence of my being could manifest — where I could interrogate my soul — so that I could lay myself bare:

Is this human being who he thinks he is?

Does this human being reflect the same theories that he holds?

Does this human being embody courage?

Readers of Boochani’s book cannot avoid a colossal encounter with the reality of violence that is offshore detention. Boochani’s challenge is for us to engage with that encounter by shifting our gaze from refugees as objects of pity onto ourselves as part of collectives that are implicated in and diminished by violence done to others. The book’s poetics give occasion to grapple with what connects the violence on Manus with broader cultures of denial and historical amnesia.

To read this book, from that perspective, is to become undone in the sense of having to rethink the very idea of ourselves. It is also to become aware of the breadth of human resources with which we can be remade by doing the work of decolonisation and democratic repair. Ending offshore detention is urgent and essential, but it is also only a beginning. •

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