Last night, Thursday 6 November, Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish artist imprisoned by Australia on Manus Island, skyped into a seminar being held on his work and his recent book No Friend but the Mountains at RMIT in Melbourne. The poet Janet Galbraith, a contributor to today’s special edition and a long-time collaborator with Boochani, read a paper by him which laid out a truth that we in many ways know, but don’t often recognise: that the system of excessive control, denials, dehumanisation and identity-emptying bureaucracy that determines existence in the Manus camp is the same one that we live with on the mainland, and that we experience day to day in our interactions with a myriad of institutions and authorities. Manus is at the centre of this system, however, Boochani said. The workings of this remote prison, on this isolated island, in a country colonised by Australia, is a manifestation of the logic of surveilled, policed neoliberalism that we all live in.

This week, the newly elected crossbencher Kerryn Phelps, along with independent Andrew Wilkie (an MP with a proud anti-war record) and other crossbenchers introduced to parliament the Migration Amendment (Urgent Medical Treatment) Bill 2018. Support for this bill has gained momentum, as Jordy Silverstein points out today. It’s struck a nerve. Something is switching over: people seem ready to call time on (at least) the most visible symptoms of the indefinite, mandatory detention of migrants seeking asylum: the health breakdowns, the psychological breakdowns, the self-harm, the suicides.

‘Let’s be reasonable’, the rhetoric around this bill is arguing. ‘Health is health – let’s get these people some help.’ It’s a hard position to argue with, in itself. We shouldn’t argue with it. But, as Silverstein continues, the temporary transportation of people to the mainland for medical treatment is not enough: not near enough, and never will be. Positing this bill as the limit of our possible political actions is a limit in itself. It’s a limiting of coherent, humane demands, like: close the camps. Provide permanent resettlement. Act with respect, care, empathy, solidarity.

Even the language in campaigns like #BringThemHere imposes limits that are harder to acknowledge, as Max Kaiser argues in his piece about how we frame ‘refugees’. The word itself is a limit, an othering. A ‘refugee’ is vulnerable, lacks power, can be accepted or rejected; is an identity determined by a legal category. But the people detained on the islands, or who are in onshore detention, or who are awaiting processing, or on temporary visas in the Australian community, are ordinary people and workers fighting for their lives and their rights. They’re our brothers and sisters, if we are paying attention. Pity and paternalism are not what are needed – solidarity is. After all, people seeking asylum in Australia are not the only ones who are trapped in dehumanising conditions. Anyone of us dealing with the welfare system, the court and prison systems, the public housing system, or the education and healthcare systems, can know the pain of being dehumanised inside neoliberal bureaucracy.

Fighting for kids to get out of detention, and for the closure of the camps even, are worthy fights. But as Kaiser asks, what happens to those who are released? What happens if their claims are denied? Does the left stand in solidarity then? Galbraith’s heart-rending piece speaks to the complicit dehumanisation enacted by workers inside the medical and detention systems throughout Australia. Complicity is pervasive; Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison are not the only ones morally culpable.

This is not new. These systems have a history and a home here. The colonisation of Aboriginal lands, families, cultures and bodies has been, and still is, enacted at every level of Australian society, including inside the social sectors and advocacy organisations that would see themselves as ‘helping out.’ Boochani, a person who has never walked on Australian country, and may never, knows a lot about this place that he has studied from the brutal vantage point of the Manus prison. He’s fighting dehumanisation by boycotting the systems of control and of ‘help’ by writing, filming, making art and making interventions instead. We can follow this lead.


This article is part of a special edition we are running, ‘If you’ve come here to help me: solidarity beyond borders’. See the other articles in this edition:

– ‘But what are we backing when we #BackTheBill’: Jordy Silverstein

– ‘How could it all have happened?’: Janet Galbraith

– ‘Beyond “refugees”?’: Max Kaiser

Sian Vate

Sian Vate is the deputy editor of Overland and works for United Voice Union. She has previously worked as a radio presenter and as a student campaigner. Her poetry has appeared in Cordite Poetry Review, otoliths, The Age and Artichoke. Her chapbook end motion / manifest was published by Bulky News Press in 2015.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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