by Suvendrini Perera and Joseph Pugliese
Australia’s offshore holding camps for refugees and asylum seekers, located on its neighbouring Pacific territories of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, signify, in conceptual, spatial, and legal terms, as an architecture that is the very antithesis of shelter: they are spaces designed to engender fear, compound uncertainty, and maximize a sense of exposure to danger. Indeed, in the unvarnished terms of the policy under which they were created, their express purpose is to confer “No Advantage” in the search for safe harbour, and to ensure that no person seeking asylum by boat will “ever set foot on Australian soil,” even if she or he is determined to be a refugee under the terms of the UNHCR’s Refugee Convention.
A 2016 report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on Australian offshore detention has noted that, “Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom.” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently described the policy as one “that shames a nation with its pointless cruelty,” and harks back to a “long and unhappy chapter of its White Australia policy under which a vast land mass was portrayed as under threat of invasion by uncivilized ‘natives’ from across Asia.”
As outsourced offshore enclaves, located outside Australian borders on its former colonial protectorates of Nauru and Papua New Guinea, the camps are pitched on shaky legal ground, in a shifting territoriality somewhere between Australia and the impoverished client states that act as its overseers and landlords. An ever-changing cast of multinational companies, including Serco, Transfield, and Broadspectrum, are contracted to operate them. IHMS, the same contractor employed by the US military in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, is responsible for providing health services. Despite the nominal responsibility of the Nauru and PNG governments, all major decisions are referred to the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP). The neocolonial nature of this arrangement is underlined by the fact that Australian citizens are employed in all the managerial and supervisory roles throughout the camps, with quotas of local PNG and Nauru staff contracted for the menial roles of cleaners and guards. The ethno-racial, religious, and national tensions that this arrangement inevitably engenders among expatriates, locals, and inmates adds a further dimension to its architecture of displacement. Encaged in a grid of makeshift legislation cobbled together across two states, and administered by multiple agencies with conflicting priorities and agendas, displaced and confined in the improbable surrounds of a Pacific Island, asylum seekers experience an intolerable sense of constriction and dislocation.
The convoluted spatio-legal architecture of the offshore camps functions to obfuscate sovereign responsibility and endlessly defer accountability under law for the plight of the inmates, the overwhelming majority of who are recognised refugees. Thus, despite a recent ruling by the High Court of Papua New Guinea and an earlier decision by the Nauruan government, both ordaining that the inmates are not forcibly confined, they remain unfree, in a state of insufferable uncertainty, compounded by daily fear of violence. Their reality is that of a prison within a prison, within which, perversely, the brute physical structures of the camp, its barbed-wire fences, quarantine compounds, and confinement cells, at times represent a form of protection against the dangers of the surrounding towns and villages, where xenophobic resentment and epidemic levels of rape, beatings, and other forms of violence against refugees prevail. Self-immolation and multiple attempts at suicide and self-harm have become a predictable response to this experience of anti-asylum without hope of parole or escape.
The cartoons of a young Iranian artist, known as Eaten Fish, imprisoned on the Manus Island camp in Papua New Guinea recently received the Cartoonists Rights International’s award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning. In an interview in the Washington Post, Robert Russel, Executive Director of Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), predicted that cartoons “will someday be recognized as important, world-class chronicles of the worst human behavior since the World War II concentration camps.”
Eaten Fish employs a range of innovative means to document how the inmates of Manus Island camp are rendered targets in this prison within a prison, driven to the edges of endurance in hellish yet beautiful surroundings. The drawings are minute renderings of a teeming nightmare world, charged with sexual menace, in a manner that at times evokes the infernal paintings of Hieronymus Bosh. Under a scorching sky, graves marked with the names of Reza Barati, Hamid Khazaei, and Omid Massoumali, the three fatalities of Australian offshore detention, figure in almost all the works. The drawings layer the psychic terror experienced by the inmates onto the physical geography of the camp and its infrastructure of cordoned-off compounds, wire fences, and ubiquitous CCTV monitors.
In these works Eaten Fish draws attention to an insular world cut off from the rule of law or the applicability of any protective regime of rights. Sexual assault, breaches of duty of care, and the enslavement and commodification of inmates’ bodies are the norms that govern the camps — under the all-seeing eyes of CCTV and the various regimes of legal oversight and protection that the latter purport to represent. The recurring images of CCTV cameras that populate Eaten Fish’s drawings expose a brutal irony: the cameras are actually recording video evidence of criminal acts — to no effect. In this non-legal and amoral landscape, surveillance technologies become just one more instrument of voyeurism and abuse: in some images, the cameras incite and spur on the perpetrators. Who is watching behind these cameras? To what effect?
In a nightmarish drawing, a van marked with the name of the provider Transfield, equipped with surveillance cameras signifying Australian oversight, is at the centre of a scene in which a headless chicken labelled DIAC pursues a detainee, crying, “I only want Ali little fuck me and eat me.” A weeping figure laments, “Weeks ago I saw a dream…a big fucking chicken escaped from kitchen…it was looking for me. It told me that it loves me. I eating chicken every day for food. I hate chicken.” A helicopter marked PNG army hovers above. Apart from the graves marked “Hamid” and “Reza,” the figure is alone, behind a wire mesh, while the bright sunlight and postcard tropical scene outside mock his helpless desolation. The drawing evokes a cosmology of threat and terror in which Australian overseers, contractors, locals, and even the surrounding landscape conspire to prey on, collude against, and consume the victim.
A statement from Eaten Fish set in train the campaign to seek help for him through the medium of his artworks. He wrote:
Tell them I have got serious problem.
Tell them Mr Fish locked himself away because no-one understands him.
Tell them Mr Fish doesn’t want to fight.
Tell them Mr Fish is not sick, these people made him sick.
Tell them Mr Fish does not want to be assaulted.
Tell them I just want the normal life.
I want my right to be a healthy person.
— Statement by Mr Eaten Fish to RAPBS
In support of Mr Fish’s right to be a healthy person, Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites, the group we cofounded, launched a campaign to bring the nightmare world he was documenting into public view. First Dog on the Moon, the award-winning Guardian cartoonist who had been in communication with Eaten Fish over several months, furthered the campaign by setting up a site to which some of Australia’s best known cartoonists contributed: Matt Golding, Judy Horacek, John Kudelka, David Rowe, Cathy Wilcox, Safdar Ahmed, and many more riffed on the motifs and themes of Mr Fish’s own works. The cartoon campaign gained international attention via an impassioned article by Cartoonists Rights journalist Daniel Murphy. The article led to Eaten Fish’s successful nomination for the CRNI award.
Despite the international spotlight Eaten Fish’s art has attracted, he, along with nearly a thousand other men who came to Australia seeking refuge, remains imprisoned in Manus Island camp. Close to 500 others, including over 120 children, are prisoners on the companion camp on Nauru. In comparison to the makeshift and largely ungoverned outgrowths of The Jungle at Calais, or the two vast encampments hosted, albeit reluctantly, by Kenya at Dadaab and Kakuma, the Australian-run camps on Nauru and Manus Island are minor in scale. Yet, in their unyielding withholding of care, their resolute refutation of the notion of asylum, they represent a departure that calls for global attention: the chilling triumph of anti-shelter.
In the image with which we close our essay, “50 Years Later,” Eaten Fish offers an uncompromising vision as to what constitutes the material outcome of Australia’s merciless regime of withdrawing shelter from its refugees and asylum seekers. We mobilise the concept of “shelter” here in the broadest sense of the term — as offering protection, nourishment, and the viable conditions for the flourishing of life. The replacement of shelter with its antithesis, anti-shelter, marks the shift from positive to negative, from refuge to utter exposure, exposure to violence, trauma and the collective forces of disintegration set loose by a policy of abandonment and dereliction — of duty, law, and ethics.
“Fifty Years Later” this policy of anti-shelter will have produced its own necropolitical form of shelter: a field of graves offers Australia’s refugees and asylum seekers the refuge and peace they so desperately sought and were denied. This is, Eaten Fish says, the logical outcome of Australia’s policy of anti-shelter. A superannuated security guard gives a leap of triumph, supported by his walker: his work is done. A quiescent silence finally reigns over the camp. The protests and pleas of the imprisoned detainees have been silenced. He can now amble his way to a safe and secure retirement: the shelter of the Australian way of life beckons him away from this hellhole. Overseeing and surveilling this cemetery of failed asylum, of young lives blighted and cut short, their internment within a series of prisons within prisons now culminating in a coffins encrypted in a grave, are the unblinking eyes of CCTV cameras and satellite dishes. What is it they are relaying? A message of funereal deterrence for all prospective asylum seekers:
In the future, you will always already have been dead. Don’t even bother to set off in your rickety boats seeking asylum on our shores. You will have escaped one form of death, only to be embraced by the slow death of anti-shelter.