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Australia’s Shame

An Australian-run camp where asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat are detained, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, November 2016
Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times/Redux
An Australian-run camp where asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat are detained, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, November 2016

Let us suppose that I am the heir of an enormous estate. Stories about my generosity abound. And let us suppose that you are a young man, ambitious but in trouble with the authorities in your native land. You make a momentous decision: you will set out on a voyage across the ocean that will bring you to my doorstep, where you will say, I am here—feed me, give me a home, let me make a new life!

Unbeknown to you, however, I have grown tired of strangers arriving on my doorstep saying I am here, take me in—so tired, so exasperated that I say to myself: Enough! No longer will I allow my generosity to be exploited! Therefore, instead of welcoming you and taking you in, I consign you to a desert island and broadcast a message to the world: Behold the fate of those who presume upon my generosity by arriving on my doorstep unannounced!

This is, more or less, what happened to Behrouz Boochani. Targeted by the Iranian regime for his advocacy of Kurdish independence, Boochani fled the country in 2013, found his way to Indonesia, and was rescued at the last minute from the unseaworthy boat in which he was trying to reach Australia. Instead of being given a home, he was flown to one of the prisons in the remote Pacific run by the Commonwealth of Australia, where he remains to this day.

Boochani is not alone. Thousands of asylum-seekers have suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Australians. The point of the fable of the rich man and the supplicant is the following: Is it worse to treat thousands of people with exemplary inhumanity than to treat a single man in such a way? If it is indeed worse, how much worse is it? Thousands of times? Or does the calculus of numbers falter when it comes to matters of good and evil?

Whatever the answer, the argument against Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers can be made as trenchantly on the basis of a single case as on that of a thousand, and Boochani has provided exactly that case. Under atrocious conditions he has managed to write and publish a record of his experiences (experiences yet to be concluded), a record that will certainly leave his jailers gnashing their teeth.

Given the fact that the foundational event of the Commonwealth of Australia was the arrival on the island continent’s east coast of a fleet of uninvited vessels captained by James Cook; given further that since the end of World War II Australia has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of them from Europe but many from Asia and Africa too, it is hard to comprehend the dogged hostility of the Australian public to the latest wave of refugees fleeing strife in the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Indian subcontinent, and northeast Africa. To call their hostility racist or xenophobic explains little. Its roots lie further back in time, suggests the historian Jane Haggis:

The sense of victimhood, of being exiled—unwelcome at home, by virtue of being a convict, an ill-paid worker or an economically precarious tenant farmer…and of having struggled too hard to earn the land…meant Australia never totally embraced the discourse of humanitarianism and of human rights that came to define one sense of the Western self during the twentieth century…. The sense of exile, of expulsion from Europe to the bottom of the world, of being victims rather than members of God’s elect, [shapes] Australia and Australians’ historic sense of themselves as a national community [and] feeds a hyper-vigilance to maintain…“First World privilege.”

Hostility to refugees is clearly to be seen in the positions taken by both main political parties, which respond to protests against the way they treat refugees with the mantra “We will put the people smugglers out of business, we will end the drownings at sea,” refusing bluntly to address what is unique about their common policy: that people are to be punished for seeking asylum, and that the punishment will be and is meant to be as harsh as possible, visible for all the world to see.

Poll after poll attests that a majority of Australians back stringent border controls. Fed by the right-wing media, the public has swallowed the argument that there is an orderly immigration queue that boat people could have joined but chose not to; further, that most boat people are not genuine refugees but “economic migrants”—as if fleeing persecution and seeking a better life elsewhere were mutually exclusive motives.

Under the uniquely complex, quota-based system that Australia follows for dealing with humanitarian cases, there is indeed an orderly queue for applicants waiting to be processed in camps overseas supervised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and the system for processing these humanitarian cases does indeed function smoothly if somewhat slowly, though when we bear in mind that, by the latest count, there are 70 million persons displaced from their homes worldwide, Australia’s quota of about 12,500 humanitarian acceptances per year is modest, well short of Canada’s (28,000). As for the argument that boat people are trying to jump the queue, the fact is that—until the policy changed so that arriving by boat effectively nullified any future application for asylum—the actions of asylum-seekers who arrived on Australian shores without papers and were subsequently found to be “genuine” had no effect on the quota for acceptances from the camps. Simply stated, boat people have never been part of any queue.

Most of those who head for Australia’s back door do so via Indonesia, where they spend as little time as they can: Indonesia routinely arrests sans-papiers and sends them back to their country of origin. At the height of the boat traffic to Australia in 2009–2011, some five thousand people a year were setting sail from ports in southern Indonesia, in leaky boats provided by smugglers. No official figures are available for deaths at sea, but Monash University’s Australian Border Deaths database estimates a total of some two thousand since the year 2000, with a spike of over four hundred in 2012.

The preventive measures undertaken by the Australian navy to head off asylum-seekers are shrouded in secrecy; therefore we do not know how many of them have persisted in embarking for Australia since a harsh new policy of interning and processing them offshore was put into practice in 2013, but there is every reason to believe that the number has fallen drastically. It would appear that when the navy intercepts a refugee vessel, it immediately transfers the occupants to a disposable boat with a minimum of fuel, tows it back into Indonesian waters, and casts it off.

Australia’s treatment of refugees is constrained by a number of treaties. First among these is the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, ratified in 1954 though with a number of reservations. This convention confirms the right (already enunciated in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948) of any victim of persecution to seek and enjoy asylum. It also binds signatories not to return asylum-seekers to the countries from which they have fled, a requirement known as non-refoulement.

While adhering to non-refoulement, Australia has over the years exploited two lacunae in the convention, namely that it does not confer on an asylum-seeker the legal right to enter the country where asylum is sought, and that it does not oblige the country where asylum is sought to grant asylum. Successive Australian administrations have therefore taken the position—validated by Australian courts—that a person who enters Australian territorial waters without the requisite papers is in Australia illegally, whether or not that person has come to seek asylum.

The question of asylum was repeatedly debated in the United Nations in the 1960s and 1970s. Australia voted alongside its allies the United States and the United Kingdom in favor of the right of asylum, while consistently reserving its position on the actual admission of asylum-seekers. In 1977 it spelled out that position: Australia “will wish to retain its discretion to determine ultimately who can enter Australian territory and under what conditions they remain.”

Christmas Island, a sparsely populated island south of Java, was incorporated into Australia in 1958 despite being some nine hundred miles from the Australian mainland. It is to Christmas Island that most boat people seeking Australian asylum steer. To forestall them, the Australian parliament legislated in 2001 that for the purposes of the Refugee Convention, Christmas Island will be deemed to be not part of Australia. Once a refugee vessel has entered the waters of Christmas Island, its occupants are thus both illegally in Australia and also not yet in Australia. The Australian navy is empowered to detain such “illegal non-citizens” and remove them to a location outside Australia, where they may be held indefinitely, without recourse to judicial review.

Because Australia does not have a bill of rights, challenges to its refugee policies on the basis of international law have tended to fail in the nation’s courts. They have succeeded only when it has been proved that provisions of the country’s Migration Act have not been met. However, such court rulings have typically been followed by appropriate adjustments to the Migration Act.

As if this were not enough, the government legislated in 2014 to strike from the Migration Act almost all references to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The revised act states that “it is irrelevant whether Australia has any non-refoulement obligations in respect of an unlawful non-citizen,” i.e., an asylum-seeker. The legality of Australia’s asylum policy is thus, in the eyes of the government and, it would appear, of the courts as well, ironclad.

Australia is a vast, sparsely populated continent. Since it became an independent nation in 1901, it has had to manage two contending forces: a need to increase its population and a fear that its way of life might be undermined or swamped or corroded (the metaphors are legion) if too many strangers are allowed in.

In the early years, the latter fear expressed itself in frankly racial terms. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, the cornerstone of the policy commonly known as White Australia, was aimed in the first place at blocking immigration from Asia. A generation later the focus shifted to European Jews. When he came to power in 1933, Hitler declared that the only future for Germany’s Jews lay in emigration. But like other Western countries, Australia refused mass Jewish immigration. At an international conference held in Évian in 1938 to discuss the fate of Europe’s Jews, the leader of the Australian delegation made his country’s position clear: “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.”

The truth is that Australia did have a racial problem, and had had one ever since British colonists established themselves on the continent. The problem was that the colonists held themselves to be intrinsically (in the language of the day, racially) superior to Aboriginal Australians, and did not regard this conviction as a problem. Their unproblematic racism—a problem that was not a problem—easily extended itself to Jews, who might be white but were not the right shade of white.

The Évian conference confirmed that the traditional countries of settlement—the US, Canada, Australia, Argentina—would continue to the end to resist large-scale Jewish immigration. By the time the doors out of Europe closed in 1939, Australia had accepted some 10,000 Jewish refugees, a respectable quota by comparison with other Western countries, but minuscule in the larger picture.

Map of Australia with Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand
Mike King

World War II, the redrawing of boundaries that followed it, and the flight of populations left millions of Europeans displaced. The 1948 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the Refugee Convention of 1951 were intended to address the problem of these displaced persons (DPs). Between 1947 and 1952 Australia took in some 170,000 European refugees. At first the government gave priority to candidates who fit the physical stereotype of the white Australian, for instance people from the Baltic lands. But as the DP camps emptied, and as public opinion softened, migrants began to be accepted from Greece, Italy, Croatia, and other Southern European countries. Refugees from Communist regimes were looked on favorably: Czech dissidents fleeing the Russians in 1968; Vietnamese boat people after the fall of Saigon in 1975; Chinese students after the massacre on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Gradually a nation began to emerge that was no longer quite so Anglo-Celtic in its ethnicity.

Since the 1990s, however, refugee policy has again hardened, and has been complicated by the rise of Islamist terrorism. On August 26, 2001, shortly before the attack on the Twin Towers, a Norwegian vessel, the Tampa, picked up 438 passengers (mostly Afghan Hazaras) from a foundering boat and anchored near Christmas Island. The Tampa was soon boarded by Australian commandos, while the Australian prime minister announced that backdoor asylum-seekers would from then on be processed not on the mainland but in offshore facilities run by Australia in yet-to-be-decided third countries. After September 11, the refugees on the Tampa suddenly became Muslim boat people, and as Muslims became suspected terrorists. From then on, in the politics of the right, asylum-seekers have been tarred with the brush of terrorism. From that date too, broad support for the doctrine of human rights began to wane, not only in Australia but in Western democracies in general—witness Guantánamo.

The practice of offshore processing announced in 2001 was maintained until the number of boat arrivals had dwindled to such an extent that the camps could be closed. However, soon after this was done, in 2004, boats began to arrive again. Why? Because refugees had simply been biding their time, waiting for Australia to relax its guard? Or because as the civil war in Sri Lanka intensified, thousands of Tamils were fleeing for their lives? Which was the determining factor: the pull of Australia or the push of world events?

As the number of boat arrivals grew, the authorities became more and more nervous. Australia had to be made a less attractive destination. A panel of experts recommended what it called a “circuit breaker”: the resumption of offshore processing together with an end to compassionate border control.

Agreements were concluded in 2013 with Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the tiny island state of Nauru. The old camps would be reopened. These two countries would process the protection claims of people arriving in Australia by boat and would resettle them either on their own territory or in a third country. Australia could then argue that it was not responsible for the ultimate fate of the asylum-seekers, even though the camps would be financed and run by the Australian government through private contractors.

Manus Island belongs to an archipelago that forms part of PNG. It lies 650 miles north of the Australian mainland; the entire archipelago has a population of about 60,000. Between 2013 and 2016, when the PNG Supreme Court ruled that imprisoning asylum-seekers had been illegal from the start, several thousand people passed through the camps on Manus. However, when in 2017 the PNG police tried to close the camps, most of the occupants—some six hundred men—refused to leave, claiming to fear for their safety. Water and electricity were cut off, and a siege commenced that is vividly described in Boochani’s book. After a month, resistance crumbled, and the detainees were moved into compounds elsewhere on the island, where they have freedom of movement though, without papers, they cannot leave PNG.

Nauru, nearly two thousand miles from Australia, is one of the world’s smallest nation-states, with a mere 11,000 inhabitants. Since its deposits of rock phosphate gave out a decade or two ago, its economic viability has depended on money-laundering and on the largesse of foreign patrons. On Nauru, prisoners have been held in what are called “open facilities.” However, since the island is tiny (eight square miles), the advantage is slight.

The UNHCR has been extremely critical of Australia’s offshore policies. In 2017 it concluded that PNG and Nauru were intrinsically unsuitable as resettlement homes, given “the impossibility of local integration.” In other words, Papuans and Nauruans do not want refugees living among them, and refugees do not want to live in PNG or Nauru. New Zealand has offered to take 150 of the inmates, but Australia has vetoed this offer on the grounds that former detainees might make their way from New Zealand to Australia, thereby weakening the deterrent power of Australian policy.

The operation of the camps was shrouded from the beginning under a blanket of secrecy. Inmates were to be known not by name but by number; circulating photographs of them was forbidden. For information on life in the camps, we have to rely on prisoners like Boochani and on those Australian doctors and social workers who have defied legislation that made it a criminal offense to report what they had witnessed.

On the basis of such evidence, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Manus and Nauru are not just processing centers but punishment camps where detainees—“clients” in the jargon of the bureaucracy—serve indeterminate or even indefinite sentences for the offense of trying to enter Australia without papers. The attitude of the Australian guards (“client service officers”), many of them veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, seems to be unremitting hostility, fueled by suspicions that among their clientele are Islamic terrorists masquerading as refugees. The local populations, Nauruan or Papuan, also seem to regard the refugees with an unfriendly eye. In 2014 the Manus camp was invaded by Papuan police and civilians who assaulted the inmates, killing one of them.

In the first year and a half after the agreement with Nauru and PNG, over three thousand people, including hundreds of children, were consigned to offshore detention. A pediatrician visiting the island camps reported a range of troubled behavior among children there: bed-wetting, nightmares, defiant behavior, separation anxiety, withdrawal, regression in speech, mutism, stuttering. Australia’s human rights commissioner concluded that the camps were too violent and unsafe to house children. The entire practice of putting children behind razor wire was damned by a UN special rapporteur. In the face of public disquiet, the Australian authorities began to remove children and their parents to the mainland. By February 2019 the last of them had either been resettled in the US or brought to Australia on an explicitly temporary basis.

Refugee policy was not an issue in the recent elections for the Australian federal parliament, which were won and lost on arcane issues in the tax code. News that Australian voters had returned to power the same set of jailers responsible for their misery provoked a spate of self-harm and suicide attempts among the remaining detainees. An Indian who tried to set himself alight was treated for burns, then charged with attempting suicide. Boochani reports that most of the refugees left on Manus have fallen into a state of despair and no longer leave their rooms. To date, fourteen prisoners, most of them in their twenties, have died on Nauru and Manus, some by their own hand. They died because the camps were unhealthy, dangerous, and destructive not only of their psychic stability but of their very humanity.

For years there has been a drumbeat of protest from within Australia against the demonization of asylum-seekers. One appeal came from Tim Winton, among Australia’s most widely read writers:

Prime Minister, turn us back from this path to brutality. Restore us to our best selves. Turn back from piling trauma upon the traumatised. It grinds innocent people to despair and self-harm and suicide. It ruins the lives of children. It shames us. And it poisons the future. Give these people back their faces, their humanity. Do not avert your gaze and don’t hide them from us.

Not everyone shares Winton’s sentiments. After being shown a poster targeting aspiring asylum-seekers that showed a boat in rough waters with the caption “NO WAY. YOU WILL NOT MAKE AUSTRALIA HOME,” President Trump tweeted, “Much can be learned!” Australia’s practices of imprisoning refugees and turning back boats have been applauded by the European right and in some quarters mimicked.

At the peak of the influx of boat people, Manus housed 1,353 prisoners and Nauru 1,233. For Nauru, the camp business has been particularly lucrative. For each detainee it houses on behalf of Australia, Nauru earns about US$1,400 a year in visa fees. Holding a prisoner offshore costs Australia about US$38,000 per year. If the same prisoner were brought to the Australian mainland while his or her claim was being processed, the cost would fall to US$7,000. Persisting with the offshore camps has clearly been a point of honor with the Australians, no matter what the expense.

In the last days of the Obama administration, it was announced that the United States would accept up to 1,250 refugees from Manus and Nauru. When President Trump took office in January 2017, the then Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, called to pay his respects and apprise the new incumbent of the agreement. President Trump was understandably baffled. Why could Australia not house the refugees itself? Turnbull replied:

The only reason we cannot let them into Australia is because of our commitment to not allow people to come by boat. Otherwise we would have let them in. If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here.

As Turnbull artlessly reveals, there is something arbitrary in welcoming people who have papers while treating people without papers not only badly but with spectacular heartlessness. Commentators have pointed to the contrived quality of the distinction and hinted at a motive behind it: that the sans-papiers are being offered up to the xenophobes and nativists to vent their rage on, while government and business are left free to run an orderly system of importing skilled migrants.

With evident reluctance, President Trump has honored the deal made by the Obama administration. As of April 2019, over five hundred refugees had been resettled in the US, with further departures expected, while 265 applications had been rejected on character grounds. According to Boochani’s recent count, there are still 370 asylum-seekers on Manus, seventy of whom had been accepted by the US and are ready to leave. Sixty men on Nauru have been accepted, leaving about two hundred on the island. The prisoners rejected by the US provide Australia with a legal headache. It cannot send them back to their countries of origin without violating its non-refoulement obligations, yet if no third country will accept them, they will find themselves in indefinite detention, in violation of international human rights law.

As a youngster, Behrouz Boochani tells us, he wanted to join the Kurdish guerrillas in their war of liberation but was not brave enough to take the final step: “To this very day I don’t know if I have a peace-loving spirit or if I was just frightened.” Instead he turned to a career in writing.

About the journalism that got him into trouble with the authorities and his subsequent flight from Iran he has little to say. At Tehran airport he masquerades as a casual tourist, carrying nothing but a few changes of clothes and a book of poetry. In Indonesia he spends a miserable forty days hiding from the police, waiting for a place on a boat. The boat that he boards is barely seaworthy: he and his fellow fugitives spend most of their time bailing out water. They are picked up by an Indonesian fishing vessel, transferred to a British freighter, then finally arrested by the Australian navy and flown to Manus Island.

Boochani understands at once that he and his companions have become hostages, to be used “to strike fear into others, to scare people so they won’t come to Australia.” His first impression of his new home is that it is “beautiful…nothing like the island hell that [the Australians] tried to scare us with.” Then, as he steps off the plane, he is hit by the suffocating humidity and stifling heat. Mosquitoes buzz everywhere.

No Friend But the Mountains provides a wholly engrossing account of the first four years that Boochani spent on Manus, up to the time when the prison camp was closed and the prisoners resettled elsewhere on the island. Just as absorbing is his analysis of the system that reigns in the camp, a system imposed by the Australian authorities but autonomous in the sense that it holds the jailers as well as the prisoners in its grip.

The aim of the system is to break the will of the prisoners and make them accept refoulement. It works by fostering animosities among them, eroding solidarity and leaving them feeling isolated. The simplest of means are used to create paranoia. The electricity running the fans that provide relief from the insufferable heat is switched on and off for no reason. There is drinking water, but it is always lukewarm. Occasionally chilled fruit juice appears, but according to no detectable schedule. With nothing else to do, prisoners become obsessed with finding patterns in these random events: “A twisted system governs the prison, a deranged logic that confines the mind of the prisoner, an extremely oppressive form of governance that the prisoner internalises.”

New rules and regulations are introduced from week to week, for which no one will accept responsibility: “No person who is a part of the system can ever provide an answer—neither the officers nor the other employees…. All they can say is, ‘I’m sorry, I’m just following orders.’” The daily routine includes four body-checks. The eyes of the Australian guards who carry out the searches are “cold, barbaric, hateful.”

Boochani’s fellow prisoners come from all over the world: Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Lebanon, Iran, Somalia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Iraq, Kurdistan. Having to live in close proximity with strangers becomes a torment. He withdraws further and further into himself.

Moral standards deteriorate on all sides. Now and then the mango trees that surround the camp drop their fruit within the perimeter. Even Kurds, normally renowned for their hospitality, pounce on the fruit and devour it without sharing.

The toilets become a place of refuge where a prisoner can be by himself and scream his lungs out. But they also become a place of self-harm and suicide. Boochani records a terrifying episode as the prisoners witness guards removing the body of a man who had slit his wrists with a razor. Among the onlookers he detects a pulsating excitement: “Their responses reveal an attraction to the thrills of a night of blood…. The scene is like a festival: a festival of blood, a festival of the dead.” For some prisoners, self-harm becomes “a kind of cultural practice,” a way of gaining respect. “The faces of those who have self-harmed show peace, a profound peace akin to ecstasy, akin to euphoria.”

Boochani’s narrative reaches a climax when in October 2017 the PNG authorities try to close down the prison camp. Two weeks of nonviolent protest culminate in bloody warfare. Boochani is thrilled by the militancy of his comrades: “For the first time the prisoners did not feel oppressed by the fences. For the first time the rules and regulations meant nothing…. A bond of brotherhood emerged among the prisoners in this fierce movement, performed in the theatre of war for all to see.”

A prefatory note to the book informs us that strict measures have been taken to conceal the identities of detainees. The characters “are not individuals who are disguised…. Their identities are entirely manufactured. They are composite characters.” Boochani’s wish to protect his fellow detainees from reprisal is understandable, but it is nonetheless a pity that we are given no reliable facts about them. Was Boochani an exception, for example, in having a university education? And what led these people to undertake the perilous voyage to Australia, of all places?

Boochani is clearly a loner. Oppressed by the meaningless clamor of prison life, he longs “to isolate [himself] and create that which is poetic and visionary.” He flirts with the idea of himself as a poet-prophet, but it is not clear what he might be prophesying. By his own confession, he is not a brave man, yet it is clear that in those desperate days at sea he behaved with great courage. His motive for seeking asylum in Australia remains unexplored. As autobiography, No Friend is not the summing up of a life but a work in progress, the absorbing record of a life-transforming episode whose effects on his inner self the writer is still trying to plumb.

Behrouz Boochani, 2016
Ashley Gilbertson/VII/Redux
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist held on Manus Island, November 2016

It is significant that the medium Boochani chooses for his story is a mixed one: analytic prose on the one hand, traditional Kurdish folk-ballad on the other. He writes:

The amazement and horror felt during the nights on Manus has the power to thrust everyone back into their long distant pasts. These nights uncover many years of tears deep in our hearts and open old wounds…they draw out the bitter truth; they force the prisoners to self-prosecute. Prisoners are driven to crying tears of bitter sorrow.

Getting No Friend But the Mountains off the island and into the hands of readers in Australia was an achievement in itself. The text was typed in Farsi on a cell phone that Boochani kept hidden in his mattress, and then surreptitiously dispatched, one text message at a time, to a collaborator in the outside world.

Boochani’s translator, Omid Tofighian, provides an afterword containing useful information about the genesis of the book and Boochani’s place in the Iranian and Kurdish literary traditions. It is as though, to save himself from the madness of the camp, Boochani had to draw upon not only his innate creativity, not only his immersion in Kafka and Beckett, but also submerged memories of “the cold mountains of Kurdistan” and the songs of resistance sung there. (Here the title of the book becomes relevant.)

If we approach No Friend as if it were a conventional refugee narrative or refugee memoir, Tofighian tells us, we misread it profoundly:

In contrast to the thriving “refugee industry” that promotes stories to provide exposure and information and attempts to create empathy…Behrouz recounts stories in order to produce new knowledge and to construct a philosophy that unpacks and exposes systematic torture and the border-industrial complex. His intention has always been to hold a mirror up to the system, dismantle it, and produce a historical record to honour those who have been killed and everyone who is still suffering.

As for Tofighian’s own contribution, “translation [is] for me…a duty to history and a strategy for positioning the issue of indefinite detention of refugees deep within Australia’s collective memory.”

Tofighian contrasts the greater island of Australia with the lesser island of Manus:

One island kills vision, creativity and knowledge—it imprisons thought. The other island fosters vision, creativity and knowledge—it is a land where the mind is free. The first island is the settler-colonial state called Australia, and the prisoners are the settlers. The second island contains Manus Prison, and knowledge resides there with the incarcerated refugees.

This is a bold and persuasive claim: that through their experience on the island the prisoners have absorbed an understanding of how power works in the world, whereas their jailers remain locked in complacent ignorance. The claim rests on an extended conception of what knowledge can consist in: knowledge can be absorbed directly into the suffering body and thence transfigure the self. The prisoners know more than the jailers do, even if they do not have words for what they know. As Boochani puts it, the prisoners

have modified their perception and understanding of life, transformed their interpretation of existence…. They have changed so much—they have transfigured into different beings…. This has occurred for everyone…. They have become distinctly creative humans, they have unprecedented creative capacities…. This is incredible, it is phenomenal to witness.

Tofighian’s afterword upends the image of the translator as the humble, invisible helpmeet of the author. Not only does he present himself, along with two other Iranian colleagues, as a full collaborator in the project, but he also—somewhat hectoringly—gives instructions on how to approach the book: not as an affecting record of suffering and tribulation but as a “decolonial intervention,” “a decolonial text, representing a decolonial way of thinking and doing,” written to spur us “to resist the colonial mindset that is driving Australia’s detention regime.” Boochani supports this mode of reading when he identifies himself less as a writer than as a political scientist who has chosen to employ the language of literature.

The question is, how novel and how valuable is Boochani’s analysis of what he calls the “intersecting social systems of domination and oppression” that reinforce each other in the prison? That people who run prisons try to break down the solidarity of prison populations by encouraging mistrust of all by all and diverting the inmates’ attention to trivia is hardly news. What has not been done before, claims Tofighian, is to connect the warped psychic regime of the prison with “Australian colonial history and fundamental factors plaguing contemporary Australian society, culture and politics.”

This is, to my mind, an empty claim. The book contains no analysis at all of contemporary Australia, a country that Boochani—and who can blame him?—wishes never to set foot in. No doubt the Australian guards at the camp detested the prisoners and wished them ill; but that is true of many prison guards vis-à-vis many prisoners. What is more of a mystery is why so many Australians wish refugees ill. To answer this question one needs to know a great deal more about Australian history, the tensions within Australian society, and the maneuverings of Australia’s political parties than Boochani, isolated on his island, has been able to inquire into.

In May 1994, during the first session of the parliament of the newly liberated South Africa, Nelson Mandela read into the record a poem written in 1960 by the Afrikaans writer Ingrid Jonker (1933–1965). The poem mourns the death of a child shot by police during a protest meeting and foretells his resurrection. Mandela read the poem as a gesture of reconciliation with white Afrikaners, who were dubious about how welcome they would be in the new South Africa. “She was both an Afrikaner and an African,” Mandela said of Jonker.

There is an aspect of Jonker’s poem that few of the parliamentarians listening to Mandela, or indeed Mandela himself, chose to take seriously. The poem ends with the lines: “The child, become a man, treks through the whole of Africa. The child, become a giant, travels across the entire world, without a pass.” The pass to which Jonker refers is the hated internal passport that black Africans were required to carry, without which apartheid as an administrative system would have collapsed. The meeting at which the child was killed was held to protest against having to carry passes; now, in 1994, the reborn child strides unstoppably across the world, disdaining a pass. Not only does Jonker’s poem look forward to the defeat of apartheid; it also looks forward to a day when the borders of the nation-state will crumble before the march of a free people.

The new government headed by Mandela never for a minute considered abolishing or even questioning the nation’s borders, as defined years earlier by the erstwhile colonial power, Britain. Liberated or not, any child who treks through Africa without a pass will be stopped when he arrives at the South African frontier.

Despite its teetering economy, South Africa remains attractive to migrants. Of the 58 million people residing within its borders, some three million are immigrants of various degrees of legality, half of them from Zimbabwe. To obtain a visa that entitles him or her to work in South Africa, a Zimbabwean needs a passport, a letter from an employer, an address in South Africa, and proof of funds. Most find these requirements impossible to meet. As for getting accepted as a refugee, this is complicated by the reluctance of the South African government to concede that political repression exists in Zimbabwe. Thus, papers or no papers, Zimbabweans have for years been crossing South Africa’s inadequately monitored northern border unannounced, at a rate of some seven hundred a day.

Immigration is a burning issue in South Africa. Politicians blame foreign migrants for high crime rates, for overrunning the cities, for exploiting the social welfare system, for taking jobs from the locals. In 2008 there were outbursts of mass violence against foreigners that left scores dead. The South African authorities have responded to the challenge of undocumented migration with sporadic roundups and mass deportations. The exercise has been largely futile. Most of those expelled promptly turn around and come back.

I mention the case of South Africa, not untypical in the postcolonial world, to illustrate what can happen when—unlike Australia—a country lacks the will and/or the means to close its borders to less affluent neighbors. Zimbabweans and other African migrants who find their way to South Africa reside there only precariously. They are at the receiving end of resentment and sometimes of violence from the locals. They are ill advised to appeal to the police for protection. On the other hand, they have yet to find themselves dispatched to a godforsaken island as punishment for entering the country through the back door.

Cross-border migration is a fact of life in today’s world, and numbers will only increase as the earth heats up, former pastures turn to desert, and islands are swallowed by the sea. There are messy but humane—or at least human—ways of reacting to this world-historical phenomenon, just as there are neat but inhuman ways.