Australia, exceptional in its brutality

The 19 July law caused Australia to be seen, internationally, as a nation that does not respect human rights. According to the 2013 law, people who arrive in Australia by boat after that particular day will never settle in Australia, but instead be sent to Manus Island or Nauru. For nearly three years, this cruel policy has had violent and catastrophic consequences for those of us subject to it.

These devastating consequences mean a critique of this utterly inhuman situation (which supports a budding fascism in Australia) is vital. From this prison, I notice an analytic vacuum amongst many of those supporting us. I hope that this investigation of the damaging impacts upon those of us incarcerated in Australia’s black sites will help develop a civil resistance movement that takes into account the crucial need for serious interrogation and insight.

In order to give a deeper understanding of the 19 July policy, I will use Giorgio Agamben’s theory, the ‘state of exception’. Agamben identifies the First World War as the moment that saw the creation of the ‘state of exception’ by governmental order. He argues that this has since become a common and essential practice in western democracies. After the First World War, many of the western democratic states resorted to making exception laws in various crises scenarios including armed conflict, economic recession, natural disasters and intra-state conflicts. Consequently, in the liberal democratic systems, this tendency has been transferred from legislative and judicial powers to executive power, which has resulted in the proliferation and dominance of such power.

To implement the state of exception, Agamben argues, governments frame challenges and subjects in the language of national security or national interest – a political process where the language of war is used to justify an increase in government powers. Issues are represented through a militaristic language and the government is given rights to solve any issues seen as relating to security by any means. The state of exception invests one person or government with power over others, powers that supersede and reject constitutional, human or civil rights. It’s a blurry place, and something that we see in our situation incarcerated on Manus, where we are both bound to, and at the same time abandoned by, Australian law.

Through this framework, the 19 July asylum seeker ‘transfer arrangement’ can be understood not as a law, but as a policy or government order. The government of Australia passed it through special power and has implemented it over recent years with legal support from both judicial and legislative powers. The most recent example of this argument is the High Court decision in regards to the Nauru case in 2016. The High Court found in favor of Australia after the government passed retrospective legislation for the first time in the nation’s history. Over recent years, it seems that the parliament of Australia has passed whatever the government desires in relation to migration law, extending the powers of the executive and in particular the minister for immigration and border protection. A series of harsh policies towards asylum seekers have been introduced by successive governments and passed by successive parliaments, culminating in the immigration minister being given never-before-seen powers under the state of exception, becoming the most powerful person in Australian politics.

With this extension of powers the Australian government has employed key terms of national security and national interests many many times in the process of exiling and expelling asylum seekers to the tiny islands of Nauru and Manus. Within what has been labelled an exceptional situation, we could explicitly claim that the content of law, or in other words the Australian constitution, has been suspended; however, the presence of the constitution or its force has remained. Thus, the political system – the borders of law and the pure existence of it – are appearing and acting beyond their defined contents and different from their intended nature. By removing an exceptional element or a part of the constitution, a gaping wound is inflicted on its body.

The state of exception is ‘the preliminary condition for any definition of the relation that binds and at the same time abandons the living being to the law’ claiming to ‘maintain the law in its very suspension’ producing violences that ‘shed every relation to law’. The nature of this law and its ferocious ramifications are evidenced in the unidirectional way that this law works. It is a law devoid of all forms of mutual respect. It employs language used to manipulate and control not only ourselves – as the bodies upon who the everyday violences of this law are played out – but also the Australian public, who are subject to particular terms such as ‘illegal maritime arrivals’, reiterated and repeated to produce meanings that will suppress other knowledges –and our voices. Crucially, the law is devoid of any real relevance or relationship to the issues that we who are forced to flee and seek refuge encounter. Further, the law has clearly and intentionally been designed in an ambiguous form. It avoids giving explanations, does not allow for the dissemination of information – so that those who were on the seas as this law was being made and implemented were unaware that it would even affect them – and is devoid of any clear parameters of many factors, such as how the law should be exercised or its consequences. As a result, refugees have remained in detention centres for nearly three years with no end in sight.

Our legal status as individuals has been suspended and we become legally un-nameable beings, transformed into animals devoid of dignity.

If we think of Hamid Khazaei, we can see how his death was used to send a message to the world. He had an infection in his body for six months! Without his requests for proper treatment being acted upon, he became a witness to the poisoning of his own body. One day he fell down and lost his balance. The day after that he had to sit in a wheelchair. On the third day he could not even sit in the wheelchair. On the fourth day he lost his ability to talk. On the fifth day he was on a plane and on the sixth day he lost his life – the doctors could not help him. The message sent to the world was that this is what will happen to you if you try to come to Australia for refuge.

The law of 19 July 2013 relies on such violence and is executed every day, despite the fact that it is contrary to the democratic and liberal concepts and principles Australia professes. It is against all of the principles and standards of human rights and human achievements in the course of history and its violent domination is growing day by day. The nature and essence of this violence in the system is displayed prominently and obviously in front of the Australian political stage. To clarify, the immigration minister occasionally appears as a political figure with the gesture of a dictator, or as a populist representation in the form of a demon, and afterward, he disappears.

The manifestation and the emergence of this violence, which in a systematic form has been one of the ramifications of this law, is devised based on new and profound scientific approaches. It seems to show a resumption of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century violence in Europe, where experiments were enacted to gain scientific insight into and development of other kinds of violence and torture. These island camps on Manus and Nauru can be conceived similarly to the wheel cages that criminals, those accused and those sentenced to death, were put in and taken to cities to represent and advertise the power of violence.

I should mention that all journalists, human rights defenders and politicians against offshore detention have unintentionally been in line with this policy and the government’s purposes as they are playing a critical role in advertising the violence and exporting it to the globe. As they discover and come to understand the violence in these two wheel cages, Manus and Nauru, they advertise it on a regular basis. The government, in this tremendous advertising and political game, discerns what type of violence to examine, to produce and to export. Certainly, the most eye-catching headlines are the little children and women who have been raped, the burned body of baby Asha and the crushed body of Abyan, with their bodies the objects of debate in political dialogues in the Australian parliament.

Somewhere beyond its borders and on the accursed Manus and Nauru Islands, Australia is currently producing and examining violence and advertising it to the world. Simply put, Australia wants to tell the world that for anyone who comes to Australia by boat, the destiny that awaits them is life in a hellish prison on one of these islands.

Those of us stuck between are refugees, who remain bleak and defenceless, our lives exposed to the unconditional power of death in an indefinite form.

Behrouz Boochani
Delta Prison, Manus Island, in the heart of the Pacific Ocean
Translated by Moones Mansoubi from Farsi
Edit by Janet Galbraith. Additional edits by Overland.

Note: I have recently become aware of the work of Professor Suvendrini Perera from Curtin University in Western Australia, who has been writing on the ‘state of exception’ since the first implementation of what Australia has called ‘Pacific Solution 1’ and ‘Pacific Solution 2’.


Read more at Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites or Writing Through Fences.


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Behrouz Boochani

Behrouz Boochani is Adjunct Associate Professor of Social Sciences at University of New South Wales (Australia) and writer in residence at the University of Canterbury (New Zealand). He is an author and journalist who was incarcerated as a political prisoner by the Australian government on Manus Island and then held in Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea). In November 2019 he escaped to New Zealand where he was granted asylum in 2020. His book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador 2018) has won numerous awards including the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature. He is also non-resident Visiting Scholar at the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre (SAPMiC), University of Sydney; Visiting Professor at Birkbeck, University of London; member of Border Criminologies, University of Oxford; Honorary (Principal Fellow) within Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne; Honorary Member of PEN International; and winner of an Amnesty International Australia 2017 Media Award, the Diaspora Symposium Social Justice Award, the Liberty Victoria 2018 Empty Chair Award, and the Anna Politkovskaya award for journalism. Boochani is also co-director (with Arash Kamali Sarvestani) of the 2017 feature-length film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time; collaborator on Nazanin Sahamizadeh’s play Manus; and associate producer for Hoda Afshar's video installation Remain (2018).

More by Behrouz Boochani ›

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  1. Sadly this Australian Government has a track record of “doing whatever it takes” to be effective in framing its policies. Hence it actually boasted proudly that “we have stopped the boats.” Their was not then, nor are there now, serious journalists or senior members of the judiciary taking the government to task for framing and implementing an immoral policy in breach of its international responsibilities. That some are even now citing the asylum seeker/ refugee situation in Europe to justify what the Australian government has done is symptomatic of how far the Australian public has been led by the tautological argument that “the end justifies the means.” When it suits, the Government has demonised asylum seekers who have arrived by boat in spite of hard evidence in support of their status. That the main opposition party (Labor) offers little by way of a humanitarian option that respects the rights of asylum seekers and refugees speaks volumes about the way they believe the Australian public will vote. Only The Greens appear to be showing any real alternatives that respect those seeking asylum on Australian soil.

  2. Reading this has been a huge education. It is true, I have nowhere seen this level of analysis of what this country is doing. Thank you Behrouz.

  3. Thank you so much Behrouz Boochani. I am very grateful to you for writing this. Your words so clearly explain the absolute hell,the pure evil and cruel treatment imposed on our asylum seekers by our Govt. We must continue to spread the truth. Thank you again.

  4. Dear Behrouz, I hope and trust that you will be free one day soon. I note that another boat of asylum seekers has arrived in the Cocos Islands today. The first for two years, I think. There may be others we don’t know about, but on the whole people are not dying at sea trying to get to Australia. If our motives are pure and humane (ie stopping people dying) then we need to show that by instituting other means for people to apply to come either in their own troubled lands, or where ever they have fled to for sanctuary. To my knowledge we haven’t settled the 12000 Syrian refugees we had promised to accept. Instead we are cherry picking people and accepting very few. This is disgraceful.

  5. Thank you so much, Behrouz Boochani, for your brilliant article, which I feel has profoundly educated me. I have read it three times and plan to read it again and again until I know it by heart. It has inspired me to think carefully about what I say and write. I really needed this guidance. Thank you.

  6. Dear Behrouz, Australia has always been a country that does not respect human rights. Aboriginal people have witnessed it all. There is no humanity with this government but there is in the people. Stay strong in spirit, keep on making your voice heard so the people with respect and humanity can spread your word. I am grateful that you are still able to be heard and will help to spread your word. With you in Spirit.

  7. Great article Behrouz. I find myself increasingly shocked, saddened and shamed by The New Brutalism so evident in Australian policies surrounding the treatment of asylum seekers. We need more articles like this that speak out against the normalisation of violence against the most vulnerable and marginalised people, from the inside. My heart is with you.

  8. Thank you Behrouz, for your article. My heart breaks at the barbaric inhumanity of not only our government but also a significant minority of Australians who supports it. As a former migrant, I’m ashamed of my adopted country.

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