Guest post by Gillian Whitlock from the University of Queensland. Gillian has an ARC grant to work on the archives of asylum seeker materials held at the Fryer Library of her home institution, the University of Queensland. Her current project based on the archives, The Testimony of Things, will examine representations of asylum seekers through material testimony in the Nauru archives and beyond, to other borderscapes in Europe and North America.
In December 2007 the newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the closure of two detention camps on the South Pacific Island of Nauru, ‘Topside’ and ‘State House,’ that had been established under his predecessor John Howard. The practice of transferring asylum seekers intercepted at sea to third countries in the Pacific for processing was a key part of the so-called ‘Pacific Solution,’ promulgated in 2001.
There were three essential components of the Pacific Solution: the excision of thousands of islands in Australia’s oceanic borderlands from its migration zone; the policy of towing back boats to Indonesia; and the removal of ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’ to offshore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The majority of the people accommodated on Nauru and Manus Islands arrived in late 2001 and early 2002, and between 2001 and September 2003, during the height of the ‘Pacific Solution
’ a total of 1,544 asylum seekers (mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq) were accommodated there. When the Rudd government dismantled the ‘Pacific Solution’ in 2008 a ministerial press release noted that a total of 1,637 people had been detained there, and 70% had been resettled to Australia or other countries. The conditions of the offshore processing centres, lack of independent scrutiny, and the mental health impact of offshore detention have always been major issues of concern.
Offshore processing was reintroduced by the Gillard government in 2012, and Nauru and Manus Island facilities were re-established in haste. The current Coalition government headed by Tony Abbott has declared ‘war’ on ‘boat people’ and implemented a policy called ‘Sovereign Borders’
to ‘stop the boats.’ Vessels are again intercepted and returned to Indonesia, and once again there are reports of self-harm in these remote offshore detention centres. As before, surveys suggest that such border protection strategies are supported by a majority of the Australian population (The Independent
16/1/14 p.31). This is illustrative, as Suvendrini Perera argues, of an insular and settler imaginary that is easily converted into ‘borderpanic.’
There have always been strong humanitarian campaigns in protest to the Pacific Solution. The Australian Human Rights Commission, for instance, releases ‘snapshots’ that record human rights issues arising from Australia’s approach to asylum (see here
the most recent snapshot from 2013). In the wake of the decision to close the centres, humanitarian activists have made accessible the archives generated by their campaigns between 2001 and 2007. These provide rare insights into the offshore detention centres, mostly from the perspective of the asylum seekers themselves. There are currently several archival collections: the Julian Burnside/Kate Durham and Elaine Smith collections
at the University of Queensland’s Fryer library; and the Records of Rural Australians for Refugees, 2000-2008
(some closed to researchers until 2060), the Papers of Grace Gorman, 2001-2003
Papers of Marion Le, 199-
at the National Library in Canberra.
These are extraordinarily heterogeneous collections. In the Fryer archives, for example, one finds letters exchanged between asylum seekers and activists, hand-made gifts, photographs taken from within the detention centres (with disposable cameras), drawings and artwork, Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs correspondence, hard copies of email correspondence and stubs of Telecom phonecards that were such a precious resource on Nauru. The Burnside Durham collection contains major artwork of contemporary humanitarian activism such as Kate Durham’s installation SIEV X
, and Ross Gibson and Carl Warner installation ‘protection
.’ The latter was commissioned in response to the Fryer archives and features photographs taken by asylum seekers in detention, ‘masked’ as required by ethical protocols.
A precious resource to researchers in the humanities and the social sciences, the collections offer a rare glimpse into the offshore centres that are so rigorously excluded from public scrutiny. They provide insights into networks of humanitarian activism and the kinds of dialogue achieved with those seeking asylum. While conducting my research, the Fryer collections have led me to reflect on the testimony of ‘things,’ reading not only the letters but the eloquence of the objects that remain―the ‘residues’ of border control in the South Pacific that researchers draw attention to at other border crossings
. There is a paradox here, and an enabling one: these archives of humanitarian activism draw attention to the precariousness of the human in rights discourse, to the fragile contracts that secure human status for those who are not sovereign subjects.
Interested in more on Australia's immigration policy and the offshore detention centres? See this post by The Border Crossing Observatory and also this post or a documentary on Australia's Offshore Refugee Processing Centres on the Border Criminologies blog.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
Whitlock, G. (2014). Letters from Nauru. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/letters-from-nauru/(accessed [date]).