In a recent finding by Papua New Guinea’s Chief Justice, Sir Salamo Injia, the Manus Island detention centre was declared to be formally closed. The finding was compelled by a previous PNG Supreme Court decision that found the detention centre to be illegal because it breached PNG’s constitutional rights. These two legal moves would, ordinarily, give those of us watching the travesty of justice that has been unfolding in Australia’s offshore detention centres grounds for hope. The situation, however, is far from sanguine.
The latest finding, indeed, exemplifies the arcane operations of law to fabricate legal fictions that have no grounding in reality, despite deploying the literal application of the rule of law: PNG’s Chief Justice declared Manus detention closed ‘despite the fact that roughly 860 men remain in it’ (ABC News 13/03/17, our emphasis). In juridically declaring the detention centre closed, nothing has changed for the refugees and asylum seekers detained there except for a nomenclatural change: they have been told that they no longer inhabit a detention centre, even as they have not been moved from their existing compounds; rather, the detention centre, in name only, has now reverted back to its original military purpose: a naval base. A certain brutal and circular logic here fulfils itself: a naval base becomes a detention centre that, in turn, reverts back to a military facility.
In the context of this militarised logic that violates all international norms and conventions on the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees there remains one constant: Australia’s abrogation of its responsibilities and its sanctioning, by design, of institutionalised practices of abuse and torture against its asylum seekers and refugees, precisely in order to instrumentalise them into international signs of deterrence.
Through what can only be called the exercise of legal fiat, a detention centre ceases, in name only, to exist, even as all the material infrastructure of the detention centre is left intact and in place: ‘The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection,’ despite the Chief Justice’s finding, ‘still lists the centre as being operational and housing 861 men.’ Broadspectrum, the camp operator, continues its routines of abuse — turning them up a notch. As we began to write this commentary, we heard reports that inmates of the camp are being subjected to the punitive restriction of access to food; in the words of Behrouz Boochani, a wall or fence has been constructed so that the men are served their meals ‘from small holes in the wall, just like for criminals’. An Amnesty spokesperson warns that such a restriction of adequate food could ‘amount to a violation on the prohibition against torture’.
Through the PNG court’s legal fiat, the systemic abuse and torture, and the suspension of rights in the compounds of Mike, Oscar, Foxtrot and Delta are only intensified where they do not continue as business as usual. In other words, the detainees have, through this legal sleight-of-hand, been moved to nowhere. Here we are here in the realm of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’: the ‘alternative fact’ to the existing fact that the men are still held captive in a detention centre is instantiated here through a juridical finding that has only come to pass in order to address a breach in PNG law. This juridical address, however, stands in stark contradistinction to the PNG’s Supreme Court previous finding that Manus detention centre was, unequivocally, illegal and thus breached PNG’s constitutional law.
Two forms of law are materialised by this case: the rule of law that is disjunctive to justice, and the rule of law that is driven to deliver justice, precisely because it acknowledges the breaching of constitutional rights. Standing in the shameful shadows of these two PNG legal findings is the abject spectre of Australian law that, virtually at every turn and despite the most admirable of attempts by a cohort of tireless refugee lawyers, has failed to offer either protection or justice to its refugee charges.
In the space between these two forms of law, the men of Manus detention centre fall through: to nowhere. In the locus of this nowhere, their lives are arrested. The refugees and asylum seekers of Manus continue to lead arrested lives: arrested on arrival by boat to Australia’s excised immigration zones and dispatched to offshore immigration prisons; arrested in the annihilating space of indefinite detention, where there is no time, and where everything is held in a state of suffocating and oppressive suspension; arrested into a state of paralysing immobility in which there is no glimpsing of a future; arrested in a space where they have been converted into commodities of exchange in a ‘deal’ with the Trump administration that has, thus far, delivered them no exit from their detention or suffering.
Brinkmanship: the political practice of pursuing an already dangerous policy to the very limits of safety in order to up the ante against your political opponent.
What other term but ‘brinkmanship’ can best describe the latest announcement by the Federal Government to ban asylum seekers and refugees in the offshore immigration detention centres of Manus and Nauru from ever entering Australia? The ban would block them from obtaining any visa that would enable them to enter the country, including tourist and business visas.
This latest move by the Federal Government must be seen as an exercise in lethal brinkmanship that cuts along a number of axes:
it challenges the seeming opposition, Labor, to continue to maintain the bi-partisan choreography of state violence against asylum seekers and refugees that has seen it in lockstep with virtually every move made by the Federal Government;
it strategically assimilates what are scripted as the more extreme policies of One Nation into the normative fold of the Federal Government’s apparatus of biopolitical governmentality; as One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson, remarked: it was ‘good to see that it looks like the Government is now taking its cue from One Nation. Just like last time [in the Howard Government years]’ (ABC News http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-30/manus-nauru-refugees-asylum-seekers-to-be-banned-turnbull-says/7978228 ). In effect, it clearly exposes through this incorporative move the institutionalised racism of the Australian state that can so easily accommodate, through its Federal Government, what are otherwise branded as ‘strident’ or ‘extreme’ One Nation policies. ‘Centre’ and ‘margin,’ through this move, no longer hold; rather there is only a continuity and exchange of structural racism between these nominally different political parties;
it provokes One Nation, precisely because of the Government’s incorporation and normalisation of its policy positions, to generate even more violent policies in order to continue to differentiate itself and not be completely subsumed as a mere adjunct of the Liberal party;
it continues to enable the Government to abrogate its responsibility, under the terms of the UN Refugee Convention, for the transfer, settlement and care of the refugees on Manus and Nauru on the Australian mainland;
finally, and most disturbing of all, this policy, even without being enacted, already unleashes its own destructive and potentially lethal effects, thereby working to intensify the violent effects of current policies of ‘letting die’ of refugees on Australia’s Pacific gulags – as Mat Tinkler, Director of Policy and Public Advocacy, underscored: ‘We have grave concerns that this kind of announcement will push people over the edge’ (ABC News http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-30/manus-nauru-refugees-asylum-seekers-to-be-banned-turnbull-says/7978228 ).
RAPBS condemns this proposed policy and unreservedly calls for the immediate transfer of all the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru to the Australian mainland.
RAPBS congratulates Eaten Fish on his international award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning.
From the citation by Cartoonists Rights Network International:
The importance of the work of human rights defenders, artists, cartoonists and writers, such as Eaten Fish, within the prison camp cannot be overstated. Nor can the fact that they are at further risk of violence each time they create, speak, draw or write. Eaten Fish is one of those who’s work as a cartoonist brings to light the horrors that are happening around him. CRNI believes that his body of work will be recognized as some of the most important in documenting and communicating the human rights abuses and excruciating agony of daily life in this notorious and illegal prison camp. His work pushes through the veil of secrecy and silence and layers of fences in a way that only a talented artist speaking from the inside can.
Whatever else remains uncertain following the 2016 election, Labor and Liberal parties have avowed their unwavering commitment to the policy of offshore incarceration, thereby condemning close to a thousand men held in PNG, and several hundred people including children, women and men held on Nauru, to what is, in effect, a life sentence. The fact that the gates of the Australian-funded camps are technically open does not detract from the fact that these refugees and asylum seekers remain unfree and subject to all manner of dangers. They are, in their own words, ‘political prisoners’ of the Australian state, for the term of their unnatural lives. Both Government and Opposition declare, with a certain relish, that their policies may be ‘harsh’ and ‘tough,’ but are undertaken in a spirit of humanity, in the name of ‘saving — some other and unspecified — lives’, somewhere else, in some unknown future. This is the much-vaunted rationale of ‘deterrence’. Just what is entailed in these ‘harsh’ to be ‘humane’ policies remains largely out of sight. Politicians have become especially dextrous at fixing their gaze on the hazy horizon of deterrence to avoid focusing on the crimes being committed in its name under their very eyes.
This is the world that the courageous young artist Eaten Fish places before us. His artworks are wordless messages from a submerged world of fear and violence. They bring before our eyes, in unprecedented detail, that which is being kept secret and hidden from our sight.
Mr Fish says: 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
Eaten Fish’s greatly talented, highly innovative and inventive drawings from Manus Island have been published in academic journals and exhibited in galleries in Australia. His character even makes an appearance in the work of acclaimed cartoonist First Dog on the Moon. Now RAPBS has been authorized to reveal, for the first time, that Eaten Fish is the nom de plume of Ali, a 24-year-old Iranian artist who has been held on Manus Island for three years. Expert medical opinion is that Eaten Fish is the subject of trauma that caused him to seek refuge. His condition has been exacerbated by the lack of adequate care on Manus Island, and even more disturbingly, he has become the target of further violence, including sexual assault, during his detention. All previous attempts to seek help for him have failed, despite medical practitioners familiar with the case stating that he requires immediate assistance for Complex PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), severe OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), Dissociation with panic attacks and somatization.
RAPBS is today launching a campaign for urgent attention to be paid to the case of Eaten Fish and for his protection from further harm and danger. RAPBS calls for his evacuation from Manus Island and the provision of specialized care for the serious conditions from which he suffers.
A LANDSCAPE OF MENACE
Eaten Fish’s series of drawings, meticulously inked on pages torn from a notepad, document the myriad ways in which the inmates of Manus Island are rendered targets, driven to the edges of endurance in hellish surroundings. In their minute renderings of a teeming, nightmare world, charged with sexual menace, the drawings evoke the infernal paintings of Hieronymus Bosh. Under a scorching sky, graves marked with the names of Reza, Hamid and Omid, the three fatalities of our Pacific black sites, figure in almost all the works, grim reminders in an environment where even the sun seems to have turned against the inmates.
In a drawing of the health centre, medical staff are shown revelling and feasting while the injured and ill call desperately for help. A doorway leads directly to the graveyard, and a coffin lies on the floor. Inside a walled-in enclosure marked Mental Health, a hapless inmate can be glimpsed, to whom staff appear completely indifferent. Eaten Fish’s OCD leads to repeated washing and scrubbing of the body to the point where the skin is raw and bleeding. The condition has been exacerbated by his treatment on Manus. The response of health workers to these manifestations of extreme psychic distress is telling: two nurses reportedly told him he was possessed by demons and promised that they would pray for him. Other inmates responded with bullying and taunting designed to provoke his symptoms.
Among the most chilling are the drawings in which Eaten Fish brings to light the abuse of male prisoners that has been mostly ignored in the writings about the camps. Several drawings show prisoners being subjected to sexual violence in a series of collusions among guards, managers, health professionals and fellow-prisoners. Under the all-seeing eyes of CCTV, protectors and predators are indistinguishable. In ‘Manus Island Detention Centre Sexual Harassment’, two lurking figures behind the palm trees argue over a potential victim: ‘I love him so much, I know him very well. He’s going to accept to have sex with me’ one says; ‘Sorry buddy … he is mine’, the other counters. In the foreground, a third figure schemes, ‘I didn’t have sex for three years I’m sure he’ll help me … HE MUST LET ME TOUCH HIM’, while pretending a friendly interest in the artist’s drawings. The only objection is from a crab, a creature which often supports the character of Eaten Fish in the drawings and attests to the artist’s belief that it is only the small and lowly who truly see and know the world. In contrast, the god’s eye view of the presiding CCTV incites, ‘touch him sexually’, while the sun echoes, ‘Touch him, man’. The drawing is, literally, a cry a for help: a minutely drawn frame within the frame shows bound hands reaching over the fence, imploring ‘I need help, I need you’ to the indifferent scene outside.
In these works, Eaten Fish graphically draws attention to an insular world cordoned off from the rule of law and the applicability of any protective regime of rights. In the world of Manus detention prison, sexual assault, breaches of duty of care and trust, and the enslavement and commodification of inmates’ bodies are the norms that govern the camp. The cartoons materialise an amoral world in which predators pretend to be carers in order to ensnare their victims, violate them and exploit them – with the full knowledge that they can continue to do so with impunity. 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 alegal and amoral landscape, surveillance technologies become just one more instrument of voyeurism and abuse: we see, in fact, the cameras egging on the perpetrators. This raises the troubling question: who is watching behind these cameras and to what effect?
The power and significance of Eaten Fish’s drawings are brought into sharp focus when they are juxtaposed against the (ineffective) CCTV cameras that monitor the inside and outside of the camp. A prisoner is compelled to use the device of the ‘cartoon’, a seemingly benign and unpretentious genre, as a means to bring to public attention the daily crimes that transpire in Manus camp — despite the fact that legally admissible evidence of these same crimes is available from the CCTV recordings. In spite of the ubiquitous CCTV cameras, we are reliant on the courageous cartoons of Eaten Fish to bring before our eyes that which is being kept secret and hidden from our sight.
A van marked Transfield, equipped with surveillance cameras signifying Australian oversight, is at the centre of another even more nightmarish drawing which hints at hidden depths of sexual terror in the camp. 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, consume and collude against the victim.
A third drawing, The Gift, makes an elaborate circuit of Oscar compound, taking in sentry posts, medical centre and partly obscured scenes of abuse, as a figure, identified by boat number, seeks to make a phone call on Mother’s Day. This drawing maps the currencies of sex, food, phone cards, cigarettes and other such commodities that make up the underground economy calculated to prey on the weakest and most vulnerable in the camps. Guards and supervisors appear as giant, forbidding figures. The words, ‘no chance, no change’ are repeated again and again. The drawing once more ends with an unambiguous appeal, in large letters: Help Me.
‘The Gift’, dated 2014, strikingly parallels a recent article by Behrouz Boochani detailing the destructive underground economy of cigarettes and phone cards in the camps. In this astute analysis Boochani examines how, ‘in order to force refugees to live in PNG, the authorities make them reliant upon other prisoners’ by instituting a system of shopping points: ‘Shopping points, cigarettes and drugs, legal and illegal, all become a part of this larger plan: the deprived prisoners, those who cannot buy cigarettes and telephone cards, have sold their shoes, clothes, dictionaries, MP3s, and other useful possessions to the rest who still have cigarettes’. Boochani adds that ‘Sexual abuse incidents and slavery cases have also been heard of’ as a consequence of this system that creates divisions among the inmates while also having the effect of increasing the profits the camp operator, Broadspectrum, who gains through the sale of cigarettes:
A few meters away, at Foxtrot compound, a young man is collecting the cigarette butts spread over the mass of soil next to the dirty toilets of the prison, in order to roll them in paper and suck in the smoke. He is also addicted to marijuana and does not have any cigarettes to smoke. There are many like this vanquished and addicted man in the quadrangle of Manus prisons.
Like Boochani’s writings, Eaten Fish’s drawings are unsparing works that attempt to bring before our eyes the forms of abjection, criminality and violence that have been fostered through the organization of the camps. They show the damage we inflict by design, licensed in the name of care for humanity.
Eaten Fish’s non de plume alerts us to the fact that detainees are being consumed on multiple levels: as prey to sexual predators; as deterrence shields by the Australian government; and as forms of disposable life outside the purview of legal rights or redress. In this last sense the name also suggests that, like several other refugees, the artist sees his existence in indefinite detention as a form of death. In this, the name Eaten Fish is reminiscent of a story told by Mark Isaacs in The Undesirables about an inmate named Parshan who was progressively broken by the regime. On the wall above his bed Parshan communicated his despair, drawing a gravestone inscribed with his name, and writing the words, ‘seven months ago dead’ on it. Some weeks later Parshan is found lying in his tent curled up in sweat-stained and blood-soaked sheets, having slashed himself across the chest and wrists. His cry for help was answered too late.
The artworks of Eaten Fish tell of a life of incarceration on Manus Island that is not a life. His message to us is simple:
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.
Professor Suvendrini Perera (Curtin University) and Professor Joseph Pugliese (Macquarie University) are two of the founders of Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites. This article is published by RAPBS (http://researchersagainstpacificblacksites.org/). Please acknowledge this site when quoting from it.
These charges are read by members of the Australian polity who call our government to account, under the terms of its international human rights obligations such as the Convention against Torture, the Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, for human rights abuses in the camps it funds on Nauru and Manus Island.
In order to highlight the structural connections of these places with other extra-legal or illegal places of confinement in the war on terror, we refer to these as black sites. These are sites that operate at arm’s length from the state, in territories where ultimate responsibility and sovereign authority is obfuscated or endlessly deferred, and where there is no legal or public scrutiny.
Black Sites are mostly located on formerly colonised and racialised territories. These sites are characterised by secrecy and lack of accountability. They are often run as commercial operations by private contractors who again operate between domestic and foreign places of confinement and between zones of peace and war. The name of the group, Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites highlights these links.
Last night Behrouz Boochani sent RAPBS three photographs accompanied by a statement expressing his determination to resist being removed from Manus camp to what amounts to a life sentence of “permanent settlement” on PNG.
“I arrived in Australia 3 years ago and asked Australia for asylum under international law. The Labor government of Australia exiled me to their prison camp in Manus Island PNG by force. I have been imprisoned here for almost 3 years and have been under a lot of pressure to fill in the protection application in PNG but I have constantly denied to do so. I did not arrive in PNG and did never give the PNG government my case for asylum. I have never wanted to resettle in this country.
This is part of my fight. I have worked hard and tirelessly during the last 3 years to send out Manus voice. I wrote lots of articles and pieces in my real name and fake name. I have worked hard with film-makers, fellow journalists, organisations and lawyers but now I want to send out Manus voice by my body. I don’t have any other way”.
These photographs stand as poignant testimony to Boochani’s indomitable spirit. His fragile body has been wracked by years of starvation, pain and illness and subjected to cruel and inhumane conditions of confinement in the infamous Chauka isolation cell. Yet it will not be broken.
What we see in these photographs is evidence of Behrouz Boochani’s unshakable moral force and fighting spirit.
As we write these words, Boochani has climbed into a tree to escape the PNG police who have been sent to evict him forcibly from the compound and eventually from the camp. A group of other inmates stand around the tree, in the pouring rain, to show their solidarity, putting their own bodies on the line.
RAPBS calls on all of us in Australia who support the “humane values” which Behrouz is determined to protect with the whole force of his body and will: STAND WITH BEHROUZ.
Professor Suvendrini Perera with Professor Joseph Pugliese, Janet Galbraith
Mr Boochani, Kurdish Iranian journalist imprisoned in our black site on Manus Island for the past 3 years has requested that RAPBS send out the following statement to the media.
Tomorrow morning [24th April] they will move me to Oscar. I want to resist. They must take me by force. They said ‘you only have 15 minutes. If you resist we will take you by PNG police by force.’
I received a positive refugee status determination on 18 April 2016 from the PNG immigration. I arrived in Australia 3 years ago and asked Australia for asylum under international law. The Labour government of Australia exiled me to their prison camp in Manus Island PNG by force. I have been imprisoned here for almost 3 years and have been under a lot of pressure to fill in the protection application in PNG but I have constantly denied to do so. I did not arrive in PNG and did never give the PNG government my case for asylum. I have never wanted to resettle in this country.
This is part of my fight. I have worked hard and tirelessly during the last 3 years to send out Manus voice. I wrote lots of articles and pieces in my real name and fake name. I have worked hard with film-makers, fellow journalists, organisations and lawyers but now I want to send out Manus voice by my body. I don’t have any other way.
I don’t want to lose my personality. I don’t want to be a nameless detainee. ‘By the 19 July law our legal status has been suspended and we become legally un-nameable beings. We are made into non-beings without dignity. Think of Hamid Khazaei, his body was used to violently send a message to the world’ (Boochani, unpublished article, Nauru and Manus Islands and the law: The State of Exception).
This is a fight for Western democratic values of freedom, equality, the right to safety, the right to asylum, the right to freedom of speech and movement, and mutual respect. I will resist not for myself but for humanity values. I left my country because I am a liberal writer and I will always fight for democratic values even with my body.
I fight to show people that Australia has tortured people in this hell prison for three years.