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  • The Denial of Human Dignity in the Age of Human Rights under Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders
  • J C Salyer (bio)

In 2017, Mohammad was working in exchange for room and board at a small surf resort in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea (PNG). An Australian lawyer had made this arrangement for him so he could spend some time off of Manus Island, where he had been detained since attempting to reach Australia by boat from Indonesia to claim asylum. Four years earlier in Iran, Mohammad had been a university student who was politically active both by writing against the government and by participating in protests. When his father saw him on a television news broadcast attending a protest, he realized it was no longer safe for him in Iran, and at the age of twenty-five, he fled his home. Because, at that time, Iranians could obtain a visa on arrival in Indonesia, Mohammad went there and arranged to go to Australia by boat. His boat was intercepted by an Australian vessel on 23 July 2013, four days after the prime ministers of Australia and PNG signed the Regional Resettlement Agreement, which stipulated that Australia would refuse entry to asylum seekers who arrived by boat and instead send them to PNG. Under this policy and a similar agreement with Nauru, 3,127 asylum seekers were sent to Manus and Nauru as part of Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders (Amnesty International 2019). By January 2014, there were 1,353 people being detained at what the Australian and PNG governments called the Manus Regional Processing Centre at the Longbrum Navy Base on Manus Island, which had been an Australian naval base during the colonial period and became a PNG naval base after independence (Crowe 2019).

How and why Manus Island became a cornerstone of Australian policy toward asylum seekers stems from the complex relationship between political economic dispossession and the biopolitical strategies and ideologies [End Page 512] that are used to justify global inequality and to relegate the wretched of the earth to spaces of exception. For the refugees and asylum seekers subject to the Regional Resettlement Agreement, how they are seen and described both by Australian policy and by people in PNG is not how they see themselves. As a result, not only are their material prospects sharply curtailed, their own subjective personhood is defined by narratives and assumptions not of their own making, and the aspects of their life that they see as most salient are ignored, erased, and denied (West, this issue). At the same time, the decision to use PNG as the site for the Regional Resettlement Agreement is premised on it being seen as a deterrent to future would-be asylum seekers, which requires PNG to be seen as a site of danger and despair. Since the detention center was opened in 2013, the people of Manus have had their home and themselves denigrated as dangerous and undesirable—a narrative deeply at odds with their perception of themselves (Dalsgaard and Otto, this issue).

For both asylum seekers and Papua New Guineans, the narratives, images, and ideologies that have so substantively and materially affected their lives have their origins in broader narratives of fear. Sara Ahmed’s idea of affective economies describes how feelings and emotions are not properties innate to subjects or objects but rather circulate between subjects and objects so that the affective value of feelings and emotions get “stuck” to particular objects (2004). Particularly, Ahmed has shown how discourses around the category of asylum seeker circulate to create emotional responses of fear and hate toward individual asylum seekers as invaders, threats, and potential terrorists. Similarly, Paige West has shown how the dual image of “savage nature and savage native that derives from this nineteenth-century episteme endures today in the representational practices and rhetorical strategies that surround Papua New Guinea” and results in material dispossession and the denial of sovereignty (West 2016, 5). The siting of the Regional Resettlement Agreement in PNG links and magnifies both of these narratives and constructs both asylum seekers and Papua New Guineans as ontologically different kinds of people who are not entitled to the same sort of...


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pp. 512-521
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