Australia’s refugees are fighting invisibility with a spectacle of suffering. On Manus Island, an Australian-run offshore detention site in Papua New Guinea, hundreds of detainees went on hunger strike in December and January, refusing food in protest of prison conditions described as the “Guantánamo Bay of the Pacific.” They demanded both freedom and protection, fearing that the Australian government would shunt them into even more brutal conditions, under a plan to forcibly resettle them in Papua New Guinea. The strikers were reportedly crushed in January in a security crackdown.
Meanwhile another group of sixteen asylum seekers, at the Wickham Point detention center near Darwin, have also withered away as they starved themselves in protest. The refugees, all Iranians aged 25 to 30, arrived several years ago but were all returned to detentionto be held indefinitely as their cases wend their way through the legal purgatory of the stateless. They cannot be returned to Iran, and yet the Australian government insists on keeping them detained — not wanting to seem overly compassionate lest the government attract even more “aliens” to their shores.
The wave of protest has roiled for over a year throughout a shadowy prison system that seems to operate with impunity — in a country founded as a penal colony. Now the imprisoned have become the wardens and locked up those who came behind them — a barbarity underscored by the region’s namesake, a reference to the theory of humankind’s universal origins.
And then there are those who are exiled before they even arrive: Australia has recently tried to turn back refugee boats before they reach shore, to avoid the dilemma of having to host the desperate migrants on Australian soil. This has created another human rights crisis in itself, sparking a legal debate over the government’s powers to turn away “aliens on the high seas,” especially when asylum seekers fleeing persecution might be ruthlessly shunned and sent back to face brutality or death.
For the detained, self-sabotage is sometimes the only way people feel they can express the agony of their struggle. Yet in a way their plight seems even stranger, their conditions so twisted, their extreme acts seem incomprehensible to those on the outside.
Perhaps a more concrete way to connect with their plight is through storytelling. Manus Island is also the subject of a film project that merges the graphic novel with cinematic documentary. Filmmaker Lukas Schrank is developing Nowhere Line: Voices from Manus Island, an animated film narrated by the voices of two detained asylum seekers who, over a crackling phone line, describe the trauma of navigating the seas and then the Kafkaesque immigration gauntlet.
One interviewee recalls:
When I was looking at myself in the mirror, I said “Am I in a safe place?” If I go back to my country, I don’t know what might happen to me, and if I stay here, I don’t know what might happen again to me.
Another way to picture these refugees is to view them when they are not driven to self-destruction, but rather, when they are at their most normal.
Artist Wendy Sharpe has sought to bring to public light a fuller picture of migrants by painting the portraits of 39 asylum seekers and refugees in the “Seeking Humanity” exhibit. Her aim is simple — depict each migrant as an ordinary individual. And yet, even in a society replete with selfies, for many, that tiny act of representation is precious, as they’ve spent months or years being robbed of their dignity, sense of personhood, and often, even physical aspects of their identity, from their clothing to their language to their holy book. Sitting for a portrait gave them a chance to represent themselves and control their own image.
Sharpe noted that they could pose in their best form, the way they once were in their homelands — before war, persecution or poverty uprooted their lives — or the way they wished to be — the student, the parent, activist they could not be in the place they came from. They were letting themselves be drawn on the surface, but inside, they were drawing their souls back out in a long awaited place of refuge, so that they could finally be recognized and recognize themselves.
Migration reshapes us in many ways, often twisting and distorting our sense of who we are. Yet migration is a process of reflection, too, opening space to view from a distance who we are and wish to be, and who we could be if we got free.