#NauruFilesReading: Articulating the Violence of Australia’s Refugee Policy

nauru-files-reading-600x450#NauruFilesReading: Articulating the Violence of Australia’s Refugee Policy

Nadine El-Enany and Sarah Keenan | Criticallegalthinking.com | 25 October 2016

This year Australia House, London, has been on the receiving end of a high level of protest activity over Australia’s policy of indefinitely detaining refugees on remote Pacific islands. Protests have ranged from guerrilla projections of the faces of dead refugees and secret footage from inside the Nauru and Manus detention centres, to regular vigils, a boat incursion and an occupation. In late August, London-based anti-racist activists carried out a durational performance involving the reading of the Nauru files, a database of over 2000 incident reports leaked from the Australian refugee detention centre on Nauru, a performance which has since been mirrored in several cities across Australia. A group of seven women transcribed the Nauru files, while more than 30 anti-racist activists participated in the reading. Many more attended the performance, providing support and sustenance throughout the day. The reading produced a sound archive of documented incidents of abuse, self-harm, humiliation and squalor that is everyday life for refugees on Nauru. The performance was a gesture of solidarity with detained refugees. The duration, monotony and repetition entailed in the reading of each file echoed the normalisation of the violence and tedium endured by refugees in indefinite detention. This short film of the performance draws from the 10 hours of footage and sound recorded on the day. A programme for the performance and photos from the day are available here.



Australia detains refugees indefinitely on Christmas Island and on two remote Pacific islands, Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, as part of its offshore detention policy designed to deter refugees from arriving in Australia by boat. There are currently 755 refugees detained on Nauru, including 128 children. A documentary revealing the appalling impact of detention on the mental and physical health of children held on Nauru was aired in Australia last week. Also last week, Amnesty International published a report documenting the horrific conditions on Nauru, which it found to amount to torture. Anna Neistat, who directed the investigation on the island, stated “On Nauru, the Australian government runs an open-air prison designed to inflict as much suffering as necessary to stop some of the world’s most vulnerable people from trying to find safety in Australia”. These refugees are from countries including Iran, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Refugees on Nauru are regularly subjected to abuse, violence, sexual assault and rape. Self-harm and suicide attempts are common. Two refugees have died on Nauru. Omid Masoumali was a 23-year old refugee from Iran who died after self-immolating and receiving inadequate treatment in April 2016. Rakib was a 23-year old refugee from Bangladesh who died in May 2016 after overdosing on paracetamol. A 19-year old Somali refugee, Hodan Yasin, self-immolated in April 2016 and survived with burns to 70% of her body.

Australia House, London, marks Australian diplomatic territory in the heart of the colonial motherland. The current Australian High Commissioner, Alexander Downer, was one of the architects of the system of offshore detention. Despite its heinous effects, and in the wake of worldwide condemnation, he continues to vocally defend it. The narrative of abuse exposed by the reading of the Nauru files outside the Australian High Commission contradicts the image Downer seeks to convey of Australia as a progressive nation and a desirable destination for tourists, students, highly-skilled workers and international investors. Instead, the reading embodied the ongoing racist violence that has defined this settler colony since its inception.

Nadine El-Enany and Sarah Keenan are Lecturers in Law, Birkbeck Law School, University of London