Lessons of resistance, courage and hope from Manus Island by Kirsty Anantharajah
The most recent peaceful action by detainees in Manus Island is reaching its 50th day. This display of courage on Manus Island can provide perspective to illusions of powerlessness within public life in Australia; the resistance may also offer insights into how climates of powerlessness and apathy may be overcome.
The Australian public and illusions of powerlessness
The courage epitomised by the Manus resistance, and by many mainland activists, is not shared by Australian society at large. The public has, in general, accepted a state of apathy and moral powerlessness when it comes to Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policy. This has been fostered by an offshore system of detention, where responsibilities have been privatised, borders have been militarised and transparency has long been obfuscated. Reilly et al posit that a perceived lack of outlets within Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker systems for the public to practice compassion has led to a climate of apathy.[i]
This powerlessness, however, as proven by those most oppressed by these policies, does not need to be accepted. Fadak Alfayadh,[ii] is a refugee community organiser, writer, legal professional and activist, from a refugee background. Fadak, who was interviewed for this article, articulates that for Australia’s mainland citizenry, powerlessness is largely an illusion:
We are not powerless- completely the opposite. I am someone who lived under a dictatorship [in Iraq] and that’s powerlessness. Even then, so many people risked their lives, risked their families, and risked their livelihoods. And a lot of people died as a result. So what we are living under is not powerlessness. It is just that we are made to feel powerlessness.
The illusionary quality of mainland powerlessness is highlighted by the courage displayed on Manus Island; here, resistance continues despite the very conditions engineered to instil powerlessness amongst detainees.
Enduring courage in Manus
The Australian government is currently attempting to gradually shut down the detention facilities in Manus Island by October 31st, however, no appropriate resettlement plans are in place for its residents. This will potentially render many detainees homeless and vulnerable to harm from a highly hostile local community. As reported by the Guardian, detainees have received numerous threats that they would be harmed or killed if they were to leave detention compound to settle in the local community. The murder of Reza Barati during a riot in February 2014 by a gang of local police and guards, among others, exemplifies the gravity of this risk posed by various local elements in Manus Island.
In trying to force residents out of the centre, the government has intermittently shut down power and water to the compound, causing a deterioration of already substandard living conditions. This new attack on the security and wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus occurs on the backdrop of the fifth avoidable death of a detainee on Manus island, that of 31 year old Hamed Shamshiripour in August.
Fadak voices some of the challenges faced by those who are detained under Australia’s mandatory detention policies:
… they live in constant mental and physical torture. Physical torture, beatings, assaults and sometimes death have been proven to have happen -and we see them happen repeatedly.
But there is also the torture of the mind: when you imprison someone who is innocent and they only thing that they have done is seek asylum, and they are given a sentence. That’s what the torture of the mind is. Not knowing what the future holds after you have made such a life-threatening trip. It literally destroys your mental health and your will to live.
Despite this status quo, many asylum seekers and refugees continue to stage actions. As Fadak noted, the danger confronting resistors is significant: ‘their oppressors literally oversee and control every part of their daily life and they still resist. They are the true heroes of our time and the true heroes of the movement. ‘
The resistance on Manus is a counter narrative to the apathy felt by the Australian public. It provides evidence that even the most entrenched conditions of powerlessness, with courage, can give way to power and resistance. Fadak articulates the value of this resistance:
For every activist within the space, it should be the centre of the work we do here on the mainland. They are fighting for their sovereignty and their freedom, and they have proven that they have their own agency and drive to defend their own humanity. And what is most inspirational about what they are doing is that they are literally fighting the space that confines them, and the very space that oppressed them, from within.
The need for resilient hope
Moral courage, such as that exhibited on Manus Island, has power to instil positive change in the darkest of scenarios and systems. Many factors potentially inspire moral courage, as explored in the work of Judith White.[iii] One such motivator of moral courage is optimism, or hope. This is not a sentimental or insubstantial form of hope, but rather the resilient assurance of an outcome. The nature of this hope is expressed by activist and Manus detainee Ariobarzan in his chapter in Behind the Wire’s project, They Cannot Take the Sky: ‘The only way of defeating torture is resistance. One day the torturer will feel tired and you will win, that’s all.’
Hope has long been demonstrated from the Manus Island resistance. Hope, and a refusal to accept powerlessness, has been embedded in even the seemingly ancillary events of the resistance; not least, when power was cut off initially to the compound a detainee managed to rig a connection from a neighbouring building so that the action could continue.
Fadak also speaks of a resilient hope as an intrinsic part of her resistance:
It’s hard to be hopeful, but I am. I am absolutely hopeful that there’s a solution for this…We are going to win this because it’s not right and something that’s not right will not remain forever.
I am hopeful otherwise, I would not be resisting.
These loci of resistance, courage and hope, both offshore and on the mainland, challenge the Australian public’s acceptance of powerlessness.
[i] Alexander Reilly, Gabrielle Appleby and Rebecca Laforgia, ‘’To watch, to never look away’: the public’s responsibility for Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers’ (2014) 39 Alternative Law Journal 3.
[ii] Fadak is from a refugee background and works in law & human rights. Before her current work in community development, Fadak worked in the refugee rights sector for around 5 years. Her work in settlement services was vital to newly arrived refugees. Fadak was also the Director of Advocacy at RISE and she is passionate about building and mobilising communities. Fadak is an international and local speaker and commentator, and has had her work featured in Al Jazeera, The Age & Catalogue Magazine
Kirsty Anantharajah has degrees in Arts and Law (Hons I) from the Australian National University. She is currently based in Sydney where she is active in refugee legal protection. Kirsty is passionate about the Sri Lankan experience of rights. Her honours thesis was titled: Game playing in human rights regulatory regimes: Sri Lanka’s interactions with the Universal Periodic Review. Her writing surrounding various human rights issues in Sri Lanka has been published by OpenDemocracy, the Colombo Telegraph and Sri Lanka’s Law and Society Trust Review. Kirsty’s latest publication, ‘Crisis of Legal indeterminacy’ (in The Search for Justice: The Sri Lanka Papers Zubaan: 2016), was co-authored with Kishali Pinto Jayewardene, and examines Sri Lankan women’s experience of sexual violence and injustice during and after the civil war.
© Kirsty Anantharajah