Guest post by Claire Loughnan. Claire is a Lecturer in Criminology, at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her research has two key strands: it centres on the modes, practices and effects of living and working in carceral and confined spaces, including immigration detention, prisons and aged care; and it explores criminalized and racialized responses to border crossings, with a particular focus on the offshoring and externalisation of responsibilities for refugees. She is currently writing a book on the institutional effects of immigration detention and editing a collection of articles by Behrouz Boochani. Claire is a co-convenor of Academics for Refugees, a research partner with the Comparative Network on Refugee Externalisation Policies and a member of the Australia OPCAT Network. This is the third installment of the Border Criminologies themed series on 'Crimmigration and Australian Border Control'. 

Offshore processing was first introduced as an externalisation policy to deter ‘unauthorised’ refugee movement by the Howard Liberal government in 2001. It was effected through agreements between Australia and Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and although the policy was abandoned in 2007, it was subsequently revived in 2012. The decision  in 2012 to send only men  to Manus produced particular experiential and punitive effects for more than 1300 men detained at the Lombrum camp, between 2012 and 2017, located 500 kilometres from the mainland PNG.

This closed camp was declared unconstitutional  by the PNG Supreme Court in 2017, and the PNG government ordered its closure. Those still detained were to be relocated elsewhere on the island. Howeve, 400 men remained there for 23 days, despite the destruction of the camp infrastructure around them. Their decision to remain was an act of resistance, generated by the violence and hostility they feared from the community should they transfer to an 'open' prison. This hostility had been carefully constructed by Australian detention guards and management as a crucial element of what Kurdish writer Behrouz Boochani has described as the Kyriarchal system.  These forms of oppression are distinctly patriarchal and masculinist (kýrios is a term for ‘the lord’). Conditions  led to riots, attacks by locals and violence by Australian guards, and the preventable death of Iranian man, Reza Berati. The men had good reason to fear removal to an 'open' site. Paradoxically, they worried that the destruction of the instrumental violence of the fencing and security which had until then confined and harmed them, would be a source of vulnerability to direct violence, bloodshed and potentially death.

The men refused to be moved while the camp was dismantled around them. Water and electricity were shut down, medical and meal services were withdrawn. The relationships which emerged between the men were devoted to their collective survival. As Boochani reflects: we used our weakened bodies to resist our forced removal—even as power, water and medical care were cut off—rather than submit passively to this continued deprivation of our liberty.

Photo: Hoda Afshar

In reflecting on this moment, I draw on Makau Mutua’s proposal that the human rights regime rests on a triptych of the savage, the victim and the savior. As he writes: ‘The grand narrative of human rights contains a subtext that depicts an epochal contest pitting savages, on the one hand, against victims and saviors, on the other.’ Although Mutua applies to critique western intervention into ‘savage’ states (the intervention into Iraq is an example) his analysis helps extend our understanding of what Juliet Stumpf and others have argued: border policing and control ‘develops in tandem with the construction of risky, threatening other’. The men at Manus have typically been discursively framed  as the masculinised savage. Understood through Mutua's triptych of human rights, this prevents them from being read as the deserving recipient of rights. And as an orientalist framing, ‘savagery … acquires a race – the black, dark, or non-Western race’ which ‘functions to negate their humanity’.

Yet the polar and antagonistic opposite of the ‘savage’, that of the 'powerless, innocent' victim –  is intensely problematic for it relies on a reductionist reading of the men as vulnerable, a position which they reject, as well as one which the public imagination cannot fathom.  The demonstration of authentic ‘refugee-ness’ is demanded by laws which interpellate  as ‘undeserving’ those who are uncompliant  (they refuse to wait in an endless or non-existing queue) and agential (they refuse to comply with government directives which diminish their autonomy and voice). The victim is voiceless, faceless, or one who emerges as ‘desolate and pitiful’, both needing and deserving of rescue. But 'authentic' victimhood is only established on terms decided by those doing the rescuing. Under Australian law, asylum seekers arriving without prior authorisation are the undeserving.

These men are neither of these constructions in simple terms.  They are agential and caring, vulnerable in their openness with each other, yet strong.  In a visual essay published in early 2018 Boochani shows how the men resisted being constituted as the risky other, something which the 'crimmigration leviathan' relies on for its force. In stills from the film ‘Remain’, a collaboration between the men and Afshar, the viewer is confronted with images which powerfully unsettle the one-dimensional representation of the orientalised, undeserving refugee, instead inviting the viewer to witness the warmth and trust between the men. As Boochani observes:

For these twenty-three days before our violent removal we experienced, for the first time in over four years, some sense of autonomy. But it was not individualistic or rationalistic. Propelled by the deprivation of our liberty, we found an autonomy embedded in social relationships and shared experience. In giving primacy to relations of care and cooperation we did not compromise our autonomy but instead made it possible. We became free only in relation with others. This was compassion, egalitarianism and interdependence in direct opposition to oppression and domination. It was the embodiment of feminist values, but it emerged and was nurtured among hundreds of incarcerated men.

These words and stills from the film ‘Remain’ contest the simplified, uncomplex and conventionally gendered representations of these men. The feminine dimensions of their personhood are an affirmation of their full humanity, embodied and emerging in relation with each other, as simply human. These dimensions are 'not only unseen by the Kyriarchal system but actively subverted and suppressed’ by it. Afshar, reflecting on the process of filming them after their transfer to the East Lorengau centre, describes them as ‘some of most gentle, and fragile men I have ever met’.  This comprises an ethical rejection of the categorization of the men as either victim or savage. Both representations erase the complexity of their personhood and yet both are deeply implicated in the human rights regime underpinning refugee protection.

Many of the men were subsequently medically evacuated from PNG to Australia for medical treatment under Australia’s short-lived "Medevac"  legislation in 2019. Yet they are not receiving the medical treatment they need. Moreover the indefinite nature of detention, inadequate protective measures and confined conditions with no access to outdoor space, have led to heightened despair since the onset of COVID-19. Although experts have warned that the corona virus and the circumstances of their confinement have increased their vulnerability to infection and neglect, the men continue to be the invisiblised subjects of human rights.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Loughnan, C. (2020). “We are just human”. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/06/we-are-just-human [date]