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Behrouz Boochani and Omid Tofighian

Many people around the world have been in isolation for months and in many places people continue to die from COVID-19; the suffering of black people in the US is increasing under the pandemic, and the recent video of a police officer murdering George Floyd became the tipping point which led to protests and uprisings. These protests have spread around the world and taken on a particular kind of power in Australia due to systemic violence against Indigenous peoples, particularly in relation to policing and deaths in custody. These events are examples of how security, military and prison systems are connected, and how real change needs to address them together. 

The lives and dreams of human beings imprisoned in Australia’s offshore and onshore immigration detention centres – which contract for-profit businesses for management, maintenance and security – have been totally destroyed, with no end in sight. Prisoners were killed and others injured in very brutal ways under the supervision of companies such as G4S, Transfield/Broadspectrum, Wilson Security, IHMS, Paladin and many more. Refugees have been crushed, never given access to legal avenues to appeal and never provided with an acceptable justification for their imprisonment. Protests and campaigns in support of the refugees have not been successful in changing the system – a new strategy and better tactics are necessary.

What Australia has been doing represents a perverse kind of obstinacy. It is an unjustifiable political program feeding a border industrial complex that ensures the continued incarceration of human beings. Australia is a country where politicians and the public are privy to so much damning evidence of violence in these camps, including rape, and nothing has been done to end the abuse and change the situation for the people within them. In light of recent events, serious questions need to be asked about the relationship between the detention industry and the systems and institutions in Australia. A new worrying development is the growth of the surveillance industry which will affect displaced and marginalised people in even more destructive ways. There is a close relationship between the way imprisoned refugees are treated and the technologies of control designed and implemented for citizens. The relationship between the border and the nation shifts regularly and without logic; sometimes the prison camp is active and functions as a laboratory for testing technologies of control, and sometimes it is passive so that government policy dominates life in the prison. This critical analysis is part of what we refer to as Manus Prison theory. 

Technologies of border security, like all technologies, are products of society, but in many discourses – especially legal and governmental discourses – there is a tendency to speak of them as neutral. The argument that it is the fair or unjust use of those technologies that require scrutiny ignores the fact that the very design and purpose of those technologies already embody social hierarchies and inequities. Technologies of border security are racialised instruments that disproportionately impact certain groups of people and exist as forms of discrimination and exclusion, at the same time feeding into narratives of privilege and power. The interconnection between the corporate and government sectors is disturbing when one considers the fact that profit is such a dominant factor when producing, implementing and maintaining technologies and infrastructure of border security (not to reduce the significance of deeply imbedded ideologies, norms and systems of oppression). We are also witnessing how the coronavirus pandemic has created opportunities for institutions of power to manipulate technologies of border security for the purposes of controlling citizens – in these cases, human rights violations and the perpetuation of inequalities is concealed and normalised among dominant groups in society. Therefore, protection of refugee rights and pushing back against border violence is in fact a way of protecting everyone’s rights and promoting humanity. 

There are many examples one could use as case studies of the border-nation dynamic: the raids on the ABC; the consistently passive role of the Labor party in the face of the Liberal party’s border regime; the quarantining of Australian citizens in the Christmas Island detention centre; new examples of deportation and stripping of citizen rights; the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, by an Australian white supremacist; and many new extreme laws to stop protests. 

The systems used to govern the prisons on Manus, Nauru and onshore share aspects and conditions similar to the current COVID-19 situation. First, the shadow of death weighs heavily on the imprisoned refugees for the entire time they are held in these prison camps – from the moment they wake up in the morning until the moment they fall asleep, and even when they are asleep and caught deep within their nightmares. The omnipresence of death is an inseparable part of life under these detention systems. Every prisoner senses death in a different way; no doubt, the one who has to deal with a pre-existing illness experiences a more destructive form of death. These circumstances represent a threshold, a situation where a human being feels they are on a precipice. The situation with COVID-19 is exactly like this. Now we all listen to the news every day, news about the impending death of humans; we hear of their deaths within our very own cities or countries, we realise the pandemic’s magnitude. Certainly for the elderly, the ill, and people in developing nations now living with quarantine laws, acquiring enough food is an ordeal – this is similar to the life of those on Manus. Now compare this with the feelings of people who know that they can overcome the virus if they are ever infected. A young, healthy and wealthy person living in a developed country has less to be afraid of in comparison with people who are living in more vulnerable circumstances.  

Another point to consider is that the Manus Prison system was founded based on competition and hate. In this system, humans have to compete even just to get something to eat and have other basic needs met, otherwise they will deteriorate or perish. In such circumstances, people are positioned between human and animal. Principles of morality and human values begin to collapse. While there was competition and loathing, the culture of brotherhood always prevailed in Manus Prison. This culture helped refugees support each other during periods of collective hunger strikes and other protests, and it helped them unite against the system. This culture of brotherhood ultimately enabled collective resistance. It is a contradiction, but refugees were living in this space with these two cultures: hate and competition on the one hand, and collective resistance on the other. If we compare this situation with the current struggle with COVID-19 all over the world, it seems that societies like Australia are at the height of competition; it is worth considering how citizens began to swarm on supermarkets in vulgar and distasteful ways to fight for toilet paper. Actually, in these situations human beings have deteriorated – it is difficult to speak of humanity in these contexts. Now imagine what would happen if society continues to be affected by COVID-19, if society lacks food and basic goods and is plagued by famine.

What is clear about the fight against the border industrial complex and the struggle to hold governments accountable for protecting all citizens during the pandemic is that both highlight the need to engage seriously with abolition movements, on a philosophical and practical level. This urgency for dismantling ideologies and technologies of securitisation, militarisation and incarceration, and investing in community well-being and empowerment, has become even more prevalent since the protests and uprisings in response to recent murders of Black people around the globe. Refugees held in Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Christmas Island and in onshore detention are at serious risk of contracting the virus and the Australian government has not taken steps to release them. There is a high possibility that staff in these facilities will infect each other – and by extension their family and friends – and the imprisoned refugees. COVID-19 presents a mortal danger to refugees around the world, including those held by the Australian government in offshore and onshore detention, and those stranded in places like Indonesia whom Australia will not resettle. The coronavirus pandemic has made it clear how interrelated we are as communities of human beings. When underprivileged groups suffer, there is a good chance it will impact others as well. 

There are calls for broad systemic change. We must fight for a society in which racism, violence and marginalisation are no longer profitable, where refugees and asylum seekers are treated with dignity, and where there are no more Black deaths in custody. Governments must no longer be able to exploit bodies for power, and the private sector must no longer be allowed to profit from abuse.


Behrouz Boochani is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Social Sciences at UNSW, author and journalist who was incarcerated as a political prisoner for more than six years by the Australian government on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea). In November 2019 he escaped to New Zealand but his future remains uncertain; his book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador 2018) has won numerous awards including the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature.

Omid Tofighian is an award-winning lecturer, researcher and community advocate. He is Adjunct Lecturer in the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW; his published works include Myth and Philosophy in Platonic Dialogues (Palgrave 2016), and he is the translator of Behrouz Boochani's multi-award winning book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison (Picador 2018).


Part of this work was delivered by Behrouz Boochani as a speech at the recent UN Business and Human Rights Asia forum, Covid-19 and the Expansion of the Surveillance Industry. 

Main image courtesy of Hoda Afshar. 

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