In a recent chapter in a book about empathy, the South African-born historian Stephen Aschheim, who now lives in Israel, remarked that ‘atrocities, perhaps especially our own, are more acceptable when performed in distant places and acted upon ‘uncivilised’ populations… The closer to home that they are perpetrated, the more problematic they become.’ For decades now, Australia’s detention regime has effectively moved the government’s handling of asylum seekers out of sight – beyond the gaze of journalists, activists, lawyers and the public. This has enabled the government to lie about the people detained, using variations of the ‘uncivilised’ trope, without much fear of censure by the people themselves. And in an even more cynical twist, it has allowed successive governments to represent themselves as both muscular and fair, in standing firm with a policy that ‘stopped the boats’. But they haven’t stopped the boats and they haven’t stopped the deaths, they have just moved them out of our watch.
In They Cannot Take the Sky, a collection of oral testimonies by detainees, the atrocities are brought home – and it is Australia’s system of refugee processing and detention that is exposed as brutally uncivilised. There have been a growing number of exposés of life in the detention centres on Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island in recent years, some of them by whistle-blowers with firsthand experience inside the centres, others by people who have gone through the system as refugees and have since become Australian residents. At this year’s Sydney Film Festival, we saw Behrouz Boochani’s film, Chauka Please Tell Us the Time, shot from inside the Manus Island detention centre with a phone and named after the Chauka bird native to the island. They Cannot Take the Sky joins this pantheon of protest and denunciation. It stands against the cynical political campaign to silence, isolate and demonise refugees and asylum seekers.
They Cannot Take the Sky gathers thirty-five stories of men and women who have experienced Australia’s detention regime. Some are now living in Australia and others remain locked up. Each oral history, told to one of the book’s editors, transcribed and translated, bears witness to the resilience of the human spirit and to its fragility. Together these stories are a condemnation of the border policies that have permitted the long-term incarceration and criminalisation of refugees and asylum seekers. Ariobarzan, an Iranian democracy activist, who endured torture at the hands of Iranian military intelligence, says the three years he has spent on Manus is worse. He is shocked that he gave up his country for this. ‘This is the greatest crime that Australia committed against me’, he says.
They have made me regret why I fought against my government. Why did I leave my family because of my beliefs? I lost my former life because of the absurd propaganda that democratic countries state at their podiums – empty words.
That loss of trust is palpable throughout They Cannot Take the Sky. ‘Everybody now is scared that this is not a real process, that this is just wasting time’, says Aziz, who has been on Manus since 2013. ‘That they have been keeping us here for three years, and finally we’ve figured out that the process, it was just fake.’ The absurdity and senselessness of the situation people like Aziz find themselves in is what hits hardest in these stories. Many have already been recognised as refugees – yet they are stuck in limbo without any foreseeable way out. Most of those held in Manus are young men, and they chronicle the way hope has turned to frustration and then to despair. Their dreams are the kinds of dreams that young people who have had to give up everything carry: to study, to have a family, to work.
Imran is a Rohingyan man who fled Myanmar when he was eighteen. He has been on Manus since he was nineteen, and is 22 at the time of publication. He has taught himself to write and read English, laughing that the first time he wrote eight lines on the back of a form, it had 24 mistakes. He writes fourteen hours a day, and has completed 23 chapters of a book. But he now says, his journey was a mistake. ‘If I knew I would never see them again, I would never – I would have chosen to die in my mother’s lap, rather than die slowly in this strange and lonely place.’ Another young man, Benjamin, arrived on Nauru with his father and sisters when he was eighteen, and is also now 22. His father has had a stroke, and the family is slowly imploding. ‘I wasted all of the best time in my entire life’, he says, ‘the time that I was about to make my future happen, the time that I promised myself I would study hard and become the best.’
Omar, too, has been on Manus since he was seventeen. His family remains in a refugee camp in Darfur. ‘I want to study for my future. Education is light.’ His ambition is international law. ‘Do you know why I want to study international law? Because I want to work with international organisations like Amnesty or UNHCR. I want to help. I want to help people.’ But despite his many letters, no university can or will accept him for a scholarship to study online, because he doesn’t have a visa. ‘I need a future’, he tells us. ‘I want to study and I want to help myself, my family, my people, people generally. Why not? Seeking asylum, that’s a crime? Under what kind of law?’
This book is about encounters with power, big and small, intangible and tangible. It is about the small acts of torture – the overcrowding, the endless waiting day after day for news, the lack of access to phones or lawyers or doctors, the lack of privacy, the games:
In Maribyrnong detention centre while I was there none of the bedrooms had doors. It was open. And there was no switch to turn the light on or off. The security company turned the light off every night any time they wanted. Sometimes the light was on until two o’clock in the morning and sometimes ten o’clock.
Head counts in the middle of the night, or worse, a sudden order to pack a bag, to be whisked off and deported. Young girls used by Serco guards in exchange for internet access. And the terrible truth of sexual abuse in centres where unaccompanied minors have little or no protection. Munjed, a world-leading osseointegration surgeon (which means he attaches robotic devices directly on the skeletons of amputees so they can walk again), acted as an interpreter in sexual assault cases while he was detained. ‘It was sad, very sad. The cases were dropped for lack of evidence. I mean, how can you get evidence? It’s the child’s word against the detainee’s word and there were no witnesses.’
Many detail their attempts to get medical assistance for serious conditions in places where panadol and sleeping tablets are handed out for everything from broken bones, kidney stones, infections and amnesia. Getting to see a dentist is virtually impossible. Aziz says: ‘When I came here in 2013, they made an appointment for me to see the dentist and I got approval only yesterday. So that means two and a half years I have been waiting for this appointment.’
Mental illness in these centres is legion. Omar has memory problems; he can no longer remember what he was doing the day before. Sami, another young man on Manus who has had his refugee status now for two years, tells us that his best friend lost his mind:
He lost his memory one year ago. He didn’t call his family, he doesn’t know who his family is. We always told the IHMS (Immigration Health and Medical Service): ‘Please take him…’ The security and doctors don’t care. Today they put him on the flight to Australia. Why? If he went before, he would be treated, but now I don’t think he will recover.
For Sami too, the 1015 days he has spent in detention is ‘eating his mind’.
Then there are the lies that Immigration tells. After four and a half years in detention, Ali had an official visitor from Immigration, who told him he would never get a visa and should go back to his country.
Even if you are in detention for ten years, we’re not going to give you a visa. I said, ‘Could you tell me why?’ She said, ‘Yeah. Just, listen, the Australian government and the Australian people, they don’t like people like you.
But Ali got his visa, and today lives in Ballarat. Wahid related a similar experience.
I remember one day my case manager told me, ‘I have some bad news for you. There is a problem with your security check. You could be in detention centre for a very long time. So why don’t you think about going to a different country?
After filing a report with the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, an independent body that oversees the activities of ASIO, he discovered that there was no problem with his security check. He was released three weeks later.
Into this grim picture of harassment come moments of relief as detainees describe the unexpected kindnesses of teachers, guards, and Australian citizens who often go to extraordinary lengths to try to help. Visits from strangers, such as Pamela who visited Ali in Maribyrnong after reading his name in the paper, gave strength in moments of despair, and restored hope. ‘I’m sure, unless I get Alzheimer’s, I will never forget the Australian people I saw when I was in detention and also when I was released’, he says. ‘They were full of kindness. It’s not really easy to talk about it, because it was huge. I thought, I met a bunch of angels in Australia, you know, visiting three times a day. It made the heavy situation inside the camp a little bit lighter on our shoulders.’ Imran also had an angel, Rebecca, his caseworker in Manus, who helped him with his reading and writing. ‘One day she gave me a dictionary. Oh, it was so amazing [laughing]! I felt I like I had been given the whole world, because I needed a dictionary so much. I cried for a dictionary.’ The officers treated him like an animal, but Rebecca treated him like a member of her own family. ‘This is a place that was set up intentionally to torture vulnerable people, but I was blessed with…an angel.’
They Cannot Take the Sky reminds us again and again that the people Australia has locked up are just that: people. I don’t mean that in a banal sense – of course they are people. But there is a tendency amongst the most well-meaning of us to want ‘our’ refugees to be ‘model’ refugees, almost childlike in their goodness, and only thus deserving of our sympathy. This is simply the flipside of the coin that our politicians use to tell us that all asylum seekers are illegals and terrorists. Neither argument is true. There is an ugly truth about the effects of long-term detention in this book: that dignity and suffering do not always go together. People crack, they turn on each other.
‘People were very, very mean’, says Donna, who ended up in Port Hedland detention centre as a thirteen-year-old with her family. ‘it was like an every-man-for-himself kind of thing.’ And she continues: ‘It was as if everyone blamed the other people in the detention centre for their problems. Like they were thinking, I fled my country but why are you here too? Why are you taking my place?’ Nima is a young man from Iran, who left his country because his homosexuality was punishable by death, and it had become public knowledge. When he got to Nauru, he was harassed repeatedly by other asylum seekers, and had no safety against repeated sexual attacks. ‘I fled Iran for that reason but here again I was psychologically and physically abused’. He and his partner, a Kurdish man, are now living in the Nauruan community, where homosexuality is illegal. Since 2015, when they were beaten up by locals, they have been too scared to leave the one room they share. ‘Now in this room, for so long, we have mental problems. We are hurting ourselves’.
There is a terrible irony at work here. Nima, a homosexual fleeing persecution in Iran, is now persecuted with Australian collusion rather than granted protection as is his right. Sajjd is a thirty-year-old man who has been on Manus for over 34 months. He says he is now living in the community, despite having refused settlement in PNG. He has no visa and no documents except a refugee ID card. He is not entitled to work or get benefits. ‘Australia knows I am here illegally, yes. Even the PNG government know that I am here illegally.’
In fact, as Sajjd’s story among others makes clear, the notion of the word illegal, a word the Australian government has traded on for so long, has lost all meaning. We need to ask, how have we as a society allowed this to happen? As Behrouz Boochani, whose contribution opens this book, reminds us, ‘the whole of Australia made this trouble: Australian courts, Australian universities, all of Australia put us here.’
If we were to trace this development historically, we might go back to the beginning of the detention regime in the 1990s, when a Labor government under Paul Keating created the first detention centres on Australian soil to temporarily house asylum seekers while they were processed and checked. As hellish as they were, they were not the legal sinkholes they have become today. It was the close of the twentieth century that marked the turning point. The stories in this book all date from the end of the nineties until today, when Australia’s detention regime became progressively more draconian and the rhetoric used to justify it more inflammatory. When the Tampa lobbed into view in 2001, carrying 438 men, women and children it had rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry in Australian waters, the Australian public was already primed for battle. Images of rotting ferries crammed and capsizing under the strain of dangerously heavy loads of exhausted passengers had become regular events in the national media. These were part of the new global refugee movements emerging from wars in the Middle East and Sri Lanka, among others, and though numbers were tiny in comparison with the rest of the world’s seascapes, politicians feverishly claimed their arrival constituted a national emergency.
This rhetoric worked, because it played into far older anxieties in the Australian psyche about fears of invasion from the north, on the one hand, and coincided with and played on more contemporary global concerns about terrorism on the other. Over and again we heard that these were people who were illegally trying to sneak in through our ‘back door’ instead of respectfully entering through the front, that they were illegal and undeserving. ‘Nope, nope, nope’, Tony Abbott put it in response to whether Australia would accept stranded Rohingyans at sea. ‘If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.’ There are no front doors in Myanmar for Rohingyans, but this seemed hardly to matter. What mattered was that the Australian government successfully presented itself as the nation’s strongman, ‘protecting our borders’.
Our borders are out of control was the underlying message that has sustained an irrational politics of fear around refugees. Our northern sea borders became the invisible line behind which enemies lurked in a perpetual state of waiting and plotting to infiltrate a vulnerable Australia. If the borders held strong, then the nation itself could hold strong against the global movement of a dangerous, multitudinous Other. As historian David Walker has observed, in this kind of universe where a supposedly embattled nation fights for the security of its borders, the rights of refugees are ‘a luxury the nation can no longer afford’. The logic of this kind of survivalism is to reduce the world to a battle between them and us where ‘their’ role is to subvert, undermine and weaken ‘our’ will to survive as a nation.
The Tampa affair was a defining event in the practice of Australian sovereignty and border politics, providing the sought-after catalyst for a more repressive political regime in relation to asylum seekers and the trigger for the enactment of a raft of new ‘border protection’ policies, among them, the Pacific Solution. The Tampa’s passengers became its first involuntary recruits: transferred to an Australian naval vessel, they were shipped to Nauru, a volcanic outcrop of an island in the Pacific, whose bankrupt government accepted millions of Australian dollars in return for the construction of a camp to detain refugees. Over the next four months the Tampa refugees at Nauru were joined by at least 1000 more. Some of them were to languish there for the next three years. A number were transferred to a second camp created on the island of Manus in Papua New Guinea. For a brief moment under a Labor government the camps were declared closed, but not for long.
Since 2013, anyone arriving by boat has been sent there, and told they can never come to Australia. And while even the PNG government has recently declared the detention centre in Manus illegal under PNG law, there is little change for the people held there. Sajjd, who is now living in the community on Manus, says: ‘The detention centre is surrounded by fences… I left that detention centre for another one where the fences are wider apart, so you can go as far as you can. This other detention centre is the island.’
More recently, the rhetoric of border protection has shifted. We are no longer just protecting our own borders, we are fulfilling our duty as a global citizen by ‘stopping the deaths at sea’. The chutzpah of this claim is mindboggling, but it has been used to such great effect that it has effectively stymied any useful discussion on the politics of detention in this country. The government’s ‘turn-back’ policy, which involves Australian officials intercepting boats carrying asylum seekers destined for Australia and turning them back around, has meant Australia is potentially breaching its international treaty obligations of non-refoulement to any place, including transit countries like Indonesia, where there is risk of harm. Given the types of boats we are talking about here, the practice is also unsafe. As Klaus Neumann and his colleagues recently argued in The Monthly, the turn-back policy simply displaces the problem to other countries in the region rather than address the problem of refugee protection in our region. Nor will closing off one route simply stop people attempting to seek the protection of Australia, which has long signaled to the world its commitment to human rights and international law. It could simply drive people to take other routes as dangerous or more so.
The other component to Australia’s border protection strategy is the implanting in the Australian psyche the notion that asylum seekers who are detained are dangerous ‘illegals’. Asylum seekers have been variously described as potential Middle Eastern terrorists, as violent African criminals, as illiterates. They have become the pariahs of our society. Michael Ignatieff has observed that ethics typically follow ethnicity, and that empathy naturally takes root within our own tribal or national confines. Those we have outlawed outside of these boundaries are less likely to be on our empathic radar. We find it easier to look away, to feel away.
Empathy has become a catchword in recent scholarly literature, in fields as diverse as evolutionary biology, psychology, philosophy, sociology, even history. I hesitate to use it here, when what we should really be talking about is action. But empathy, unlike sympathy, pity or even compassion, demands that we imagine ourselves into the state of another. Lynn Hunt tells us that imagined empathy involves an ethical act that ‘requires a leap of faith, of imagining someone is like you.’ This kind of imagined empathy is conceived on a concept of a universal humanity, that reaches cross national frontiers. They Cannot Take the Sky is a contribution to this project. Australians need to make this nightmare their own, and to own it.
Steven E. Aschheim, ‘The (ambiguous) political economy of empathy’, in Aleida Assmann and Ines Detmers (eds), Empathy and its Limits, Palgrave Macmillan: 2016.
Michael Ignatieff , ‘The danger of a world without enemies’, The New Republic, 22 February 2001.
Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History, W.W. Norton: 2007.
Klaus Neumann, Anne McNevin, Antje Missbach, Damir Mitric and Savitri Taylor, ‘For a Rights-Based Response to Asylum Seekers’, The Monthly blog, 28 April 2017.