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Manus, Nauru and an Australian Detention Legacy

It could be called a gulag mentality, though it finds form in different ways. In the defunct Soviet Union, it was definitive of life: millions incarcerated, garrisons of forced labour, instruments of the proletarian paradise fouled. Gulag literature suggested another society, estranged and removed from civilian life, channelled into an absent universe. Titles suggested as much: Gustaw Herling’s work was titled A World Apart; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago likewise suggested societies marooned from the broader social project. But these were intrinsic to the bricks and mortar, in many cases quite literally, of the Soviet state.

In the case of countries supposedly priding themselves in the lotteries of exaggerated freedom, the influence of this carceral mentality is less obvious but still significant. In Australia, where offshore processing of naval arrivals and its own offerings of gulag culture were made, six years have passed since Nauru and Manus Island became outposts of indefinite detention.

During the years, legislation has been passed encasing these outposts in capsules of secrecy, superficially protected by island sovereignty. Whistleblowing has been criminalised; concerned doctors have been expelled; suicides, sexual assault and psychological mutilations have been normalised in the patchwork monstrosity that involves compromised local officials, private security firms and funding from the Australian taxpayer.

A most obvious consequence of this is the cultivation of a thuggish lack of accountability. Australian politicians keen to visit the handiwork of their government have been rebuffed. Greens Senator Nick McKim had been trying to splash out some publicity on the anniversary, paying a visit to Manus Island. He noted a deterioration in conditions since his 2017 visit.

On Thursday, he was approached by two immigration officials who informed him that he would be deported. He had been attempting to see East Lorengau camp, was denied entry, and his passport confiscated. To SBS News, he expressed his disappointment “that they are threatening to deport me because I am here to expose the truth about the treatment of refugees, to lift the veil of secrecy that’s been draped over Australia’s offshore detention regime.”

A mistake is made in assuming clear dates of commencement in terms of a distinct Australian approach. Australia was, after all, itself a penal colony, an experiment in distant punishment and obsessive control. It made, in turn, prisoners of the indigenous population. Brutally, its various authorities relocated individuals to missions, camps and compounds. A paternal mentality, one that has never left, took hold: we know what is best for you, be it the Bible or the dog tag. Infantilism, exploitation and dispossession thrived as mentalities.

Despite being an active participant in the post-war movement to establish an international refugee regime protecting human rights, Australian approaches have remained, as immigration law specialist Mary Crock puts it, “controlled and highly selective.” For decades, Australian administrators and decision-makers remained unperturbed by jurisprudence relevant to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951. The country’s isolation, its continental expanse, and not sharing land borders, have offered governments an unparalleled luxury: “the ability to achieve near-perfect control of immigration.”

During the 1960s, Manus Island was set up to take refugees from West Papua. Salasia Camp, located near the current Lombrom detention centre, was established to isolate a certain number of West Papuan notables who had irked the Indonesian state’s efforts in claiming the former Dutch New Guinea colony. Australia, not wanting to aggravate their Indonesian counterparts in providing safe havens for West Irian rebels, kept matters quiet, sometimes turning back refugees while offering “permissive residence” visas to others.

Not that the officials of Papua New Guinea were thrilled: thousands of West Papuans who made their way fleeing conflict between the rebels of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (West Papua Freedom Movement) and the Indonesian military were left without PNG citizenship for five decades.

The arrival of Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing in the aftermath of the country’s reunification in the 1970s saw Australian officials flirt with variants of offshore processing. The 1978 system established in response to these arrivals ensured a monopoly on the part of the immigration minister to determine the refugee status of arrivals. Lawyers and advisors were given a distant second billing in the role. In the words of Professor Crock, “The regional processing regime established right across Southeast Asia was predicated on an offshore processing-type idea; stopping asylum seekers where they are, processing them there, and distributing them in an orderly fashion.”

There was the Tampa-Pacific solution orchestrated by Prime Minister John Howard in 2001; there was the re-commencement in fits and starts under dysfunctional, catty Labor governments: the Gillard administration reinstated offshore processing in 2012, while Kevin Rudd added his icing by insisting that no asylum seeker arriving by boat would ever be settled in Australia. But the earth had already been disturbed, the mind oriented, towards cruelty in the name of necessity.

While refugees tend to be the fodder of periodic periods of demonization, there are many reminders about a condition that Australia has made its own. Some of this features in the talismanic, urgently desperate writing of the Iranian-Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani. In 2018, Hoda Afshar snapped a picture showing Boochani as a Christ-like figure, seemingly awaiting crucifixion. Her subject chose to see it differently. “I only see a refugee, someone whose identity has been taken from him. Just bare life, standing beyond the borders of Australia, waiting and staring.”

The Australian Book Review has offered a Behrouz Boochani Fellowship worth $10,000, funded by lawyer and philanthropist Peter McMullin. In of itself, it suggests the absurd condition that is offshore processing, a state of mind that now draws funding for analysis, for commitment, for understanding. Having become as ordinary as the insufferably ugly Australian Hills Hoist, or bountiful cask wine, it will not be leaving any time too soon, itself a disfigurement rendered natural.


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  1. Pamela

    Thankyou for this important reflection.
    My heart is breaking at the cruel futility of it all.

  2. Phil

    July 19, 2019 at 3:44 pm

    Thankyou for this important reflection.
    My heart is breaking at the cruel futility of it all.


    This is nothing new in Australia. We have had our own people incarcerated no not always in cages or on islands but, incarcerated in their own minds, not able to this very day drink, in some of what are considered ‘ Whiteman’s Hotels ‘ ( There is a case in the NT courts now ) . The original owners of this land were treated much like the refugees and worse. I am old enough to have seen Aboriginals rounded up and placed in paddy wagons and driven out of the city limits not circa 1788 but 1965 in the fair city of Adelaide. They were treated not like Flora and Fauna before 1967 but like so much vermin.

    The worst were the times I saw white men chase girls as young as twelve, for pleasures of the flesh. It made me ashamed of being a white man in their land. One can only imagine the atrocities that were carried out on them by the first settlers. There was a famous massacre not far from where I live in Pinjarra. WA numbers vary on who you read but fifty, would no doubt cover it.

    My only point here is, if we can treat the original owners of this land today and in the past like this, what hope do foreigners have?

    I despair.

  3. Wam

    I have a problem with the words ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seekers’. They are not interchangeable with the former forced from their home the latter choosing to leave. Boats that showed healthy young men were confusing?

    The McKim track record suggests he is an AA senator. Such rating usually needs salt with anything said.

    Still it is only a few weeks since a senile ex-tassie senator out did Palmer to the tune of 23-6 so it is perhaps to early to expect a woman to make a comment on detention.
    Phil think of the pommie children sent here after the war and so terribly mistreated. What cance do Aboriginal children have?

  4. Phil

    ‘ Phil think of the pommie children sent here after the war and so terribly mistreated. What cance do Aboriginal children ha ‘

    I had a friend who died some years ago ‘ A Doctor Bernardo’s ‘ As you know they were all lied to. He fortunately found his mother but not his father. They were different times but no excuse. I approx. ten years ago found a half brother I didn’t know I had. He didn’t know either and alas my father passed away before he met us. It was the result of a fling after the war. I found him through genealogy research.

  5. guest

    WAM, a refugee is a person seeking refuge; an asylum seeker is a person seeking asylum. It is a nonsense to try to split hairs and see them as somehow different.

    Yet governments have tried to separate those who arrive by boat from those who arrive by plane. The difference is often just that some arriving by boat did not always have legitimate papers – and there are reasons why not.

    As for trying to decide who is a refugee/asylum seeker according to the condition of their health, that is a discrimination too far.

    Australia has made a foul mess of the whole affair, so that calling boat people “illegals” is a lie and claiming that imprisoning innocent people indefinitely is “saving them from drowning” is an appalling bit of false virtue signalling.

  6. Andrew Smith

    Part of the white nationalist PR goals, and unethical behaviour.

    By coincidence an ‘admirer of the white Australia policy’ (and visitor), eugenics, white nationalism and similar immigration restriction policies, passed away recently, John Tanton.

    His influence has become entrenched in the White House (in fact inside), while both Downing St. and Canberra now follow the same.

    ‘John Tanton, the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement, has left behind a legacy that spawned more than a dozen nativist organizations, driven an anti-immigrant agenda for four decades, and found friends in the White House.’

    Begs the question, who is manipulating whom?

  7. wam

    Duh!! guest
    I usually put a hole in both ends.
    If you see no difference in the rhoyinga women and children fleeing into Bangladesh fearing for their lives from attack and an Iranian man, with money to travel, who leaves his family home and seeks asylum after paying his passage. Then for you the words are interchangeable. My brain says there is a difference. To me it is a fact that Tamils are but a step away from the Tamil part of India, Any comment?
    Cannot quite understand your interpretation of my observation that the pictures of boats that caused Gillard to open the centres seemed to contain young strong single men whose family were home. Did they not appear as such to you??

  8. RosemaryJ36

    Wam – If you were Iranian you might be being persecuted by the religious authorities with your life at risk and you could not even apply for a passport.

  9. Kyran

    We should never tire of reminding any who care to listen of the obscene historical irony that Manus, before its recent ignoble history as a cruel and inhumane detention centre for non-criminals (no charge, no trial, no conviction), was the venue of the last of the Pacific region’s ‘war crime trials’ after WW2. That Doc Evatt had a part in convening and prosecuting those trials, then went to the newly emerging UN to contribute to the UN’s Declaration for UNIVERSAL Human Rights.

    The incidents of self harm and attempted suicide have increased on Nauru and Manus since our last election. Nauru and Australia are to be visited by the UN in coming weeks as part of their obligations to signing up to the OPCAT Protocols, a token gesture that is unlikely to change a single damned thing about these barbaric policies.

    Martin Niemöller’s caution begat George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, and now we live with the consequences.

    The most recent death (as far as we can be sure) was not in our off shore inhumane warehouses, but in one of our on shore gulags.

    A young man left Afghanistan as little more than a boy of 13 and, for the past ten years, has been little more than inconsequential fodder for Pezzullo and his hand puppet Dutton. A Facebook post had more detail, which I believe for various reasons to be accurate.

    “Abdul Aziz is the latest victim of Australia’s inhumane refugee detention policy. At only 23 years of age he sadly took his own life last night, at the infamous MITA (Melbourne International Transit Accommodation) facility, Melbourne’s very own onshore concentration camp. One can only imagine the mental and/or physical abuse he endured.
    Abdul’s death is in every single Australian citizen’s name. We all have blood on our hands.
    I am truly ashamed to call myself Australian.
    Scott Morrison is the only Australian who can end this loss of life yet has the audacity to preach to us about love. This travesty is his definition of “love”!
    RIP Abdul Aziz 💔”

    Within days, another refugee attempted self harm and we read of a baby born in detention who has never left the confines of a detention centre other than for medical care. The self harm and attempted suicides are allegedly (as the government will not comment, confirm or deny) increasing, both onshore and offshore. One more time, Bob Dylan’s plaintive plea, How many times ….?, becomes a musical interpretation of Niemöller’s caution and Orwell’s warning.
    Some days later, another post appeared on Facebook.


    When I call your name, my heart comes up to my throat.
    So how I can desire to have life?

    This harsh policy has taken away lots of my hopes.
    So how can anyone here wish to have life?

    How can I desire to live my life…

    You have cruel Plains to share for those who come across the seas….
    So How can Anyone wish to have peaceful life in these plains?

    how can I Desire to have life…


    Ok Yes, I will go away from you and forget you.

    But I know that one day you will regret what you did and what you made me do.

    I hope for you that these inhuman policies change and that you will again be Advance and Fair.

    And I hope, Like each flower growing in the garden,
    May God bring that Spring in the lives and in the hopes of these desperate people❤

    Abdul Aziz RIP❤

    Onshore, offshore, who gives a shite. This is barbaric. The major parties tell me and any who would care to listen that this is done in my name to make me safer, a message their media sycophants and spruikers hasten to amplify by endless repetition.
    And these gits have the gall to think that because they say it, it must be true.

    Six years. Six fecking years of this bipartisan barbarity. Today is another opportunity to at least assuage a troubled conscience, however tokenistic and inconsequential it may be. The likelihood is that the rallies being convened around the country won’t even make the nightly news – Scummo’s latest epiphany will likely be deemed far more important.

    “I only see a refugee, someone whose identity has been taken from him. Just bare life, standing beyond the borders of Australia, waiting and staring.”
    Thank you Dr Kampmark and commenters for the reminder.
    His name was Abdul Aziz.
    Take care

  10. wam

    true rosemary thanks for that.
    I must note that young men may not have a passport and sneak through a mob of countries, earning enough to pay the passage to Australia?
    Armed with your insight, the Ahmad story from the hew york times is probably fake news because he could have flown here for a fraction of that cost?????:
    “Ahmad took his other brother’s passport and hopped on a plane for Malaysia. Three days and $12,000 later, he was on a boat heading toward Australia.”
    I am not saying it is wrong for these muslims to escape religious persecution to practise their form of islam in australia just the disingenuous use of the terms refugee and asylum seeker by the pro-migrant mob and their complete disregard for the third level travellers seeking a better economic life by pooling resources so a young man may travel and bring his family later.

  11. Josephus

    An Iranian now safely working in Sydney told his story; a closet atheist, he told his family. They betrayed him, perhaps to save their own lives. The son fled, somehow got on a boat. People who seek asylum are not fanatics, quite the opposite. In Iran and Saudi atheism is a capital crime – apostasy too, I think.

    Today we think of those still marooned , those educated and outspoken people who fled for their lives only to be shut up by others who are the real fanatics, and who refuse to let New Zealand take them in.

    Dutton et al will one day answer for their cruelty. Not quite Nuremberg, but it is a matter of degree.
    What did the government say or threaten to make PNG deport Senator McKim, who had a valid visa and no wicked intent, quite the contrary?

    One thinks of the gulag history of this huge country and despairs… Nor do I understand how respectable First Peoples customers can be herded into full-rate filthy hotel rooms in Queensland, the clean rooms kept for whites, yet the brutish white bosses/staff are not sent to prison. Seems the law allows only the plaintiff to complain, who usually hurts inside but dares not complain. Pro bono lawyers and others cannot advocate on their behalf.

    Bill of Rights! A Voice! An end to racism! More MPs like McKim. Why did this lot win the election? Why is Labor so weak? Democracy without transparency and knowledge is a disaster.

  12. Josephus

    wam I once met an Iranian young man refugee who is now teaching dance in Sydney. He ‘came out’ one day in Iran telling his family he was an atheist. His family dobbed him in, out of fear apparently, so he fled, and survived. Walk in someone else’s shoes.
    My own mother fled to save her life- from a different tyranny that would have sent her to her death, too.

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