My body is a few degrees south of the tropic of Capricorn. For just over three months now I have been working on farms in order to satisfy a strange quirk of the Australian visa system. The rules of visa subclass 417 require that I complete a minimum of 88 days of specified work in certain rural postcodes. Specified work can be be farming, mining or construction, so somewhat outside of my personal experience, physically challenging due to my ..sedentary nature, but certainly doable.
But there’s another much, much stranger quirk of the Australia border regime (let’s be clear that visa system morphs quickly into border regime when applied to black and brown people.) It can be summed up in three words that disguise their full-scale terror in that cold-ass way human rights violations tend to: indefinite offshore detention. 85% of undocumented refugee-people who arrive here by boat are found to be ‘genuine’ refugees, which means under UNHCR laws Australia is required to offer them refuge (but not permanent settlement.) The Australian high court has confirmed, by majority, however, that indefinite detention is constitutional. This affects people like Peter Qasim, who escaped persecution in Kashmir, India, but was considered stateless, having applied for asylum in 80 different countries including India, and been denied due to ‘lack of evidence or witnesses.’ Pause and consider how a person’s existence and their life required evidence. He was imprisoned for six years and seven months in Baxter Immigration Processing Centre outside Port Augusta, and then transferred to a psychiatric facility (naturally.) He was eventually released from detention on a ‘Return Pending’ visa. Return to a home state that, verifiably according to 80 countries, does not exist.
What is missing in this equation is that desperate, traumatised people don’t make decisions in a vacuum. None of us do. Survival weights.
In 2001, Australia instigated what is known as the Pacific Solution, a name apparently adopted without much worry about the historical precedent suffix solution when applied to the ethnic cleansing of outsiders. This system can be understood through the statement made by then Prime Minister John Howard that year: ‘We will decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come.’ Invoking the spectre of combatting trafficking to justify imprisoning thousands of people who have committed no crime, his ‘solution’ employed a mix of bankrupt client states (Nauru, a 34km square of phosphate in the Pacific) Australian territories former and current (Manus Island, Christmas Island) and private security multinationals with very patchy records when it comes to not murdering those in their care (G4S, Ferrovial.) Detainees, including children and babies, are referred to by politicians here using the term unlawful arrivals, but more on language later. A journalist visa application to visit Nauru costs $8000, recently increased from $200 and now non-refundable if denied.
I read about Omid Masoumali. Omid was 23 when he set him self alight in the courtyard of Nauru processing centre (prison) this May, having been held captive there for nearly three years since been recognised as a ‘genuine’ refugee. This is a bar which as you can imagine is extremely high here. Video came out of him screaming in agony as the flames engulfed him. Before flicking the lighter, he says “This is how tired we are. This action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it any more.” Omid was not seen by a doctor for 22 hours, and died of his injuries. A few days after his death, a woman named Hodan Yasin, 21, attempted the same thing.
When it comes to self-immolation as protest, it is visibility which is at stake. You may rend my body invisible but you will taste this smoke. You will see me. This method of protest is now so common that – get this – Australia imposes fines those found to have attempted it. Brutality as a ‘deterrent’ to desperate people has never, ever worked. What is missing in this equation is that desperate, traumatised people don’t make decisions in a vacuum. None of us do. Survival weights. This is the exquisite torture of incarceration since time immemorial. Even when you are forced to want to die your body’s cells will persist. Choice in an environment of tragically limited choice is still choice. Do you want the razor or the petrol? Their stories seem to follow a repeated pattern. A crisis of visibility. To be seen is to be human. To be denied humanity is to be slowly and systematically erased, even if in the form of the prefix ‘boat’ to your status as people, The fences are always just high enough.
(Heads up: I am going to talk about sexual violence in this paragraph.) On Nauru, many detainees live amongst the Nauruan community in units with no security. Many female detainees are held alone in single units. Even in facilities that represents the border incarnate, the boundaries we need to feel human are rarely afforded to those held there ‘for processing.’ There have been six ‘weddings’ between guards and women, and hundreds and hundreds of reported rapes. Last year, a Somali woman held at Nauru and referred to only as ‘s99,’ was raped during an epileptic seizure. Instead of providing her with medical care in Australia, she was transferred to Papua New Guinea, where seeking to procure an abortion is punishable by up to seven years in prison. Many women speak of being threatened with dogs. Then there’s Nazanin, who was picked up by police after being raped on Nauru, who then left her in the back of a police van while they watched a firework display for 45 minutes. Then there is Abyan, whose treatment was deemed cruel enough to warrant an Amnesty International campaign. She’s another Somali woman, raped on Nauru and after much public pressure lasting more than a month, was bought to Australia for an abortion. Six days into being here, she was suddenly flown in the middle of the night back to Nauru on a $100,000 charter flight. The immigration minister Peter Dutton claimed Abyan had told advocates she had ‘changed her mind’ about the abortion and thus was no longer allowed to stay in Nauru. When this was challenged by Abyan and her Lawyer, Dutton claimed she was trying to engineer a ‘migration outcome.’ Abyan said she was denied counselling and the right to see a doctor. She is still on Nauru.
Coming to a new country and trying to understand the politics in the air in this way is of course an inquiry of immense privilege. I can survey the scene with a held nose, try to interrogate and never fear I may do so through the keyhole of a hot, squat brick building on Nauru. In all this there is an unanswerable question. Why? This country is 2,485 miles wide and 2,398 miles long. Much of it is completely empty. This is not hyperbole. It ranks only above the busting-at-the-seams metropolises of Antarctica, Mongolia and the Falkland islands in the global population density rankings. There are small rural towns that have had to shut down because there are simply not enough people there to run a school and some shops (thanks, mining companies.) You can drive for days (if you are not locked up.) I have watched various news and politics programmes for three months and have yet to see a single person question the underlying reasoning for indefinite detention. Control. No laughs at the fact that this is enacted by an overwhelmingly white government made up nigh-on exclusively of people whose families immigrated here two or three generations ago. By boat.
All this presents a chicken and egg dilemma. What came first, the fascist voter or the fascist politician?
The question, if we can call it that, of who gets to live in peace and who is incarcerated comes down to language as much as laws. ‘That racist island’ could be equally applied to Britain as it is Australia, but it plays out markedly differently. I was struck when I first arrived by the frequent use of the term ‘boat people’ in the reporting around this. It seemed crass, unthinking, prejudiced. But I soon learnt it is a term with a history. There is a confronting lack of bait-and-switch to the bigotry here that is almost (almost) refreshing in what it lays bare. I learnt that FOWF is a bumper sicker style meme here, which stands for ‘Fuck off we’re full.’ This exists in the UK (which just scrapes the top 50 for population density, by the way) but at least in mainstream media narratives is replaced by a carefully-crafted dog whistle narrative of a white working class (because black and brown people of course must all belong to some …other class?) with ‘legitimate concerns’ used to justify a state mandated register of immigrants enforced not by besuited state agents but by primary schools teachers forced into doing their work. To be called racist in Britain is death; a fate worse than. So all kinds of elaborate ploys must be constructed to allow the racism to happen. Sarah Ahmed and other profoundly great writers of colour have theorised this strange delusion brilliantly to understand the way academic institutions reproduce racism, where the diversity policy stands in for the diversity itself. It’s an argument that holds perfectly for the neo-liberal state. How many times have you heard ‘But Islam isn’t a race!’ (Side note: every refugee-person held on Nauru whose story I read identified themselves as Muslim.) In 2005, the UK Conservative party campaigned using billboards with the slogan ‘It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.‘ Methinks the lady doth protest too much, etc. Not insignificantly, ten years later, in the most recent British election, the opposition Labour Party produced mugs – yes, for tea – with all their party pledges printed on, resulting in the existence of a mug bearing only the words ‘Controls on Immigration.’ Instead of bumper stickers, the UK weaponises more respectable, appropriate language while letting suspicion do the talking. The media there recently cast a national side-eye on the decision to allow a small group Syrian and Afghan refugee children who had been living in the destroyed Calais camps in Northern France into the UK, making the suggestion that ‘national hospitality is being exploited’ by suspicious brown men pretending to be younger than they are. Their suggested solution? That forced medical and dental examination should be mandatory to ensure that these children are really children. This point was made by printing these children’s faces on the front of several national newspapers on the day they arrived.
We must keep staring down what some of us are capable of doing to others and why.
In some senses, everyday Australian bigotry feels like a simpler demon to do battle with. We can at least know the full shape of its horror, the full horror of its shape. Is a stationary beast who knows its own name (Australia) preferable to a shapeshifting snake in a suit (Britain)? On camera, Australian politicians do a good job of embodying the latter, with an additional cheeky, oh-so-relatable glaze of slang where everything is an agonizing metaphor. Or, hey, maybe they are both just experiencing much economic anxiety due to the forces of globalisation, she scoffed. I was inclined to suggest America sits somewhere in between these two poles, but Trump just threw a brick with a swastika through the Overton Window, so all bets may be off there. Governments are moral vacuums that create power bases by appealing to the perceived values of their electorate. How little they think of us. The centralising of the ‘take back control’ ethno-nationalist ticket in the UK, USA and Australia (where, incidentally, not voting is punishable by a fine) in recent years signals a fundamental disrespect for the humanity of the voter. I do not for a second deny the existence of hate but I also hold that no human is born bad. All this presents a chicken and egg dilemma. What came first, the fascist voter or the fascist politician? (The media? Fascist nest, of course.)
All these thoughts run through my mind like LED declaratives, hopeless non-salves scrolling across my peripheral vision. I squint to process them in this ramping-up heat, simultaneously certain about everything and nothing at all. Borders become gates when accidents of birth (read: whiteness) mean I will likely never sit in a cell with a razor in my mouth. I will also never be labelled a migrant and that is because of my passport. I am subject merely to a bizarre but ultimately harmless trial of undertaking some manual labour to prove I deserve to see another bit of the world. To even contrast our circumstances is crass in the extreme, and that is not my goal here. But a border is as a border does. To a different degree; I think of friends scared shitless about the tens of thousands of dollars they will need to save for partnership visa applications, in various countries, collating proof that they are ‘of good character’ and plundering the heteronormative playbook to appeal to the assessors who will decide: Is your love real? I chose to move across the world, as far as is possible, and it is considered a lifestyle choice, and that is because it is. Of all the people to turn back, if you follow that flawed logic, I would have swallowed that decision and got on with it. But no, lock up the already traumatised, detain those fleeing Al-Shabbab, paint them as the encroaching terror, sigh when their minds crumble, fine them when they set themselves alight.
We must keep staring down what some of us are capable of doing to others and why. Right now there is a common caution being peddled that ‘we will look back on this time with shame.’ In current circumstances I find it too easy a get-out device. It suggest that this is just a nightmare, that the sun will once again rise.
My workplace this month is an enormous industrial citrus farm, where red earth coats everything and ample pesticides have put paid to any weeds. Red earth gives way to concrete in which sit thousands of perfectly identical trees. Row upon row of oranges that were grown for juice, often swarming with flies that burrow into the flesh of the fruit and don’t appear until you squeeze. Yesterday, within the fake nature of my uncanny citrus valley, I found the abandoned nest of a myna bird. I didn’t stop to think before I put my hand on one of four tiny eggs. It fell to the floor, small flecks of blood spattering across a bright blue shell.
I think about Omid, Nazanin, Abyan and s99 when our first farm hosts take us to a pub. Over dinner we explain our visa requirement to their friends. One of them snorts. ‘Ah! Would have been much easier if you’d just come by boat. You’d get straight in.’