(Re)thinking refugee detention: Behrouz Boochani’s politics of ‘naming’ as an act of creation, resistance and critique of the Australian border system
Refugees are largely perceived by the media as an anonymous and unfortunate group of people who have lost their homes, fled their countries and are forced to submit to the authority of the country where they seek asylum. They are then often seen as ‘dangerous outsiders’ threatening the culture and traditions of the host country and disrupting its economy by sharing the nation’s resources.
The media coverage of the European ‘refugee crisis’ a few years ago failed to break away from these negative representations or offer a nuanced perspective about the complexity of global refugee politics. Journalistic language, which plays a dominant role in shaping the public discourse on refugees, is usually passed off as value-neutral and legitimises dehumanising stereotypes almost every other day. Refugees lose their voice the moment they cross borders. It becomes difficult for refugees to articulate their experiences without any form of mediation, their words represented within existing discriminatory frameworks, reproducing power hierarchies.
Literature has often played an important role in countering the negative representations of refugees by providing them with a hospitable space for presenting their own narratives. There has been a significant rise in refugee life writings (mostly written in collaboration with non-refugee authors and translators with the privilege to do so) over the last two decades. What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers, Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You, Gulwali Passarlay’s The Lightless Sky: My Journey to Safety as a Child Refugee, and Shatila Stories (a collaborative effort by nine Syrian and Palestinian refugees) are just a few, allowing refugees to articulate their own experiences as humans, denied other rights which would ensure their dignity.
Behrouz Boochani’s testimonial memoir, No Friend But the Mountains (2018), contributes to this emancipatory project by (re)conceiving Australian immigration policies manifesting in offshore detention centres. Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian novelist and journalist, was detained by the Australian government from 2013 for six years on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, along with hundreds of others who had sought asylum in Australia by boat.
On and off since the early 2000s, offshore detention has been the fate of refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran, and Pakistan (amongst other countries) bound for Australia. The detention facilities are maintained by private security agencies against whom there have been allegations of mistreatment and abuse towards refugees.
In his foreword to Boochani’s book, Australian writer Richard Flanagan argues that the very existence of the book is ‘a miracle of courage and creative tenacity’, as the government has systematically tried to prevent the reporting of what goes on in these offshore processing centres. Journalists have found it hard to gain access to these refugee camps because they are required to pay around $7,000 in a non-refundable application fee.
But it did not take Boochani long to understand the futility of just ‘informing’ journalists and the public about facts and figures, as the government will always find ways to mould the truth in its favour. Instead, Boochani decided to use literary language as a tool to make the world aware of the injustices suffered by him and hundreds of others. Along with Omid Tofighian, his translator and collaborator in publishing the book, Boochani names his conceptual framework the ‘Manus Prison Theory’. Tofighian describes it as ‘an empowering knowledge ecology’ that allows one to see through the violent bordering regimes, put in place by countries in collaboration with private security agencies. The aim is to stifle any attempt to grasp the complex reality of the violence against refugees, part of a larger logic of discriminations.
The act of ‘naming’, a significant component of the Manus Prison Theory, has manifold implications in understanding the mental and physical tortures inflicted on refugees. Boochani renames the ‘offshore processing centre’ a ‘prison’. This allows him to analyse an ‘irregular’ system inside the centre, which routinely wears down the refugees both physically and mentally with the aim of pushing them towards accepting refoulement, the return to their country of origin.
Inside the ‘prison’, the refugees are made to endure the terrible heat during the day, by being confined in an overcrowded space and at night by switching off the generator. They are made to stand in endless queues for basic needs such as food, sanitation and contacting one’s family, and fight amongst themselves because of the prolonged hunger created by the lack of food for all. Refugees in the ‘prison’ suffer from depression owing to restrictions on any recreational activity; they are aware of every movement being subjected to surveillance and many other such micro- and macro-level disciplinary measures, primarily designed to create suspicion and hostility amongst the refugees. Referring to the practice of subjecting Mao-era prisoners to semi-starvation, Yenna Wu points out that it compelled the prisoner to behave like a desperate animal who has ‘lost his sense of identity and moral compass’. The Australian government has repeatedly denied allegations about human rights violations while emphasising their commitment to a ‘strong’ asylum policy.
The implication of Boochani’s (re)naming politics goes beyond the oppressions endured by refugees. His theory, still in its formative phase, contextualises the logic and proliferation of such detention centres as a continuation of Australia’s violent colonial history. Racial violence has been the foundation of a settler-colonial Australian state which has ‘incarcerated, tortured, watched, punished, raped and policed’ Indigenous populations for generations. Exclusion by incarceration has been the norm for ensuring a narrative of social cohesion and racial uniformity amongst an apprehensive white population in a ‘young’ nation.
Boochani also manages to give voice to the narratives of his fellow refugees. Since it might be dangerous to reveal their identities, he creates fictional characters (The Prime Minister, The Cow, The Penguin, The Cadaver, The Irascible Iranian, The Robust Muscular Guy) based on their characteristics and often combining two to three distinct identities into one. This ensures that the stories do not get lost, even though their voices might be absent. The specificity of the story makes the readers understand how people respond to, resist and mostly crumble under the repetitive, dehumanising methods inflicted upon them.
While the politics of generating empathy is very often looked upon with suspicion, the ongoing global discrimination of refugees makes it imperative to recognise works such as Boochani’s, which foreground the ‘human’ under the ‘refugee’ who fights to preserve a sense of self in adverse conditions.
According to Boochani, ‘naming this prison as a prison shows the lies of government language. It helps to understand the structural and systematic torture of Australia’s detention regime.’ Through his book, Boochani tries to engage people with the larger violent logic of the system which reduces refugees to lesser humans. But more than this, the book shines a light on the system which aims to keep ‘citizens’ ignorant of the atrocities carried out in their name, by manufacturing consent through sustained xenophobic propaganda. Boochani remains hopeful that his naming theory will be enriched by academics and others driven towards fighting hierarchical and oppressive structures across the world.
Further reading and resources:
Paik, A. Naomi. 2021. ‘“Create A Different Language”: Behrouz Boochani & Omid Tofighian’. Public Books, 14 April. https://www.publicbooks.org/create-a-different-language-behrouz-boochani-omid-tofighian/
Doherty, Ben. 2021. ‘The Tampa Affairs, 20 years on: the ship that capsized Australia’s refugee policy’. The Guardian, 22 August. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/aug/22/the-tampa-affair-20-years-on-the-ship-that-capsized-australias-refugee-policy
Raghukumar, Kadambari. 2021. ‘We see a process of decolonization in New Zealand – Behrouz Boochani’. RNZ, 17 May. https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/voices/audio/2018795607/we-see-a-process-of-decolonisation-in-new-zealand-behrouz-boochani
Subhadip Mukherjee completed his Masters’ Degree in English from Delhi University in 2020. He is currently preparing to embark upon his PhD journey by focusing on contemporary literary and non-literary writings by and about refugees with a strong intent to undertake an interdisciplinary approach. He also wrote news reports and was an editor at The Migration News: People on the Move (media outreach portal of the Global Research Forum on Diaspora and Transnationalism). You can follow him on Twitter: @SubhadipMuk.