In flight

ON 9 APRIL 2013, a boat carrying sixty-seven asylum seekers from Sri Lanka made its way undetected through several levels of surveillance and border security to sail straight into the port of Geraldton. It was lunchtime, around 1 pm, and café-goers at the local Dome could hardly believe their eyes: the overburdened and ramshackle craft was nothing like the industrial vessels and cargo ships that criss-cross this busy regional harbour. [i] Customs officials and police were alerted and would lose little time in cordoning off the scene and impounding the boat. But, for a short while, the arrivals still remained on board and could be viewed and photographed for local media.

Caught in the brilliant afternoon sunshine, silhouetted against a giant ‘Welcome to Geraldton’ sign, the castaway boat has an almost festive look. A jaunty blue trim offsets the cracks and rust stains on its hull. There is a stir and energy to the figures moving on deck. Curious children peep through the railings. A woman unfurls a long, thick plait of hair. You can just read the name on the prow, Bremen, and a corporate logo. A makeshift banner atop the cabin declares the desired destination, NEW ZEALAND, and even bears an image of that country’s flag. The boat, it seems, was making for friendlier shores before engine trouble forced the passengers to try their luck here, after forty-four days at sea. A breeze lifts the makeshift flag. An emblem of hope and a statement of intent, it flutters, then flies, for now, in the uncertain shelter of this strange harbour.

In flight: a double-edged phrase, whose Janus-face looks back and forward, betokening both the fears it seeks to escape and the dare of joy ahead. Within fraught refugee geographies of peril and possibility, a voyage across oceans in a small boat, flight signifies at once the covert or embattled movements that attempt escape from desperate situations and the soaring hopes and aspirations of those in flight. Embodied movements of flight and escape are animated by flights of imagination and desire; they are the expressive media of high-flying hopes and dreams.

The possibility and peril with which flight is fraught is perhaps most clearly embodied in the story of two fourteen-year-old boys from Guinea who stowed themselves away in the wheel-bay of a plane bound for Belgium. Found on their frozen bodies on landing was a message addressed to ‘Excellencies, Messrs. members and officials of Europe’.[ii] It was labelled simply, In case we die. They signed it with their full names, Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara. The irony of this story, a number of commentators pointed out, is that in the absence of this carefully crafted letter the journey might have ended there. Discovered dead or alive, the boys would have been quietly deported, or their bodies quickly disposed of, like countless other anonymous arrivals in the global north ensnared in immigration and security checkpoints. Their lucid articulations of the violent neo-colonial and postcolonial geographies that entrapped them, and of the aspirations of others like themselves to which they sought to draw attention, would have remained unheard. Preparing for this all-too-likely eventuality, the boys determined that they would not die nameless and in silence. Their letter, at once apologia and manifesto, boldly claims for itself the space to speak.

Unlike the boys’ fragile, contraband bodies, the eloquent testimony of their letter succeeded in breaking through the silence and separation of the border. It drew global, if fleeting, attention to their dreams of flight. Reminiscent of a message in a bottle, the boys’ letter is a paper plane, an attempt to communicate across a vast divide and against the odds: a form of survival media. Flight and fancy: here they allude to an everyday poetics of survival that attends movements of terrified escape and the large and small acts of imagining that enable and sustain them – messages set afloat in plastic bottles, or held up high across the razor wire, the name of a destination blazoned on a ship’s mast, a letter stored on a frozen body – through the spaces of terror and blockage in which they are repeatedly ensnared. This essay weaves and veers across disjunctive, irreconcilable geographies of flight and fancy – and the embodied and expressive media they engender – drawing on the concept of the borderscape as a complex of shifting spaces, definitions, relations and practices.[iii]

THERE IS AN irony attached to the Bremen as it sits in Geraldton Harbour. Lankan fishing craft are not usually powerful enough to make the long voyage to Australia, let alone New Zealand. It turns out that the boat is a legacy of the Indian Ocean tsunami, when aid from neighbouring states and donor organisations poured into the ruined coastal communities of the region.[iv] In Western Australia, the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 was not known only through media screens. The overpowering tidal surges that devastated so much of the western and eastern coasts of Lanka were also felt off the coast of Rottnest Island by families on their annual Christmas holidays. Swimmers in Busselton had to be rescued from the abnormal tides it caused; in Geraldton boats sank in the harbour after breaking their moorings in the dangerous swells.[v]  

The tsunami, I wrote at the time, underlined that on this coastline the Indian Ocean is an intimate horizon.[vi] Its lights and tides govern the rhythms of comings and goings – the vital outflow of minerals from the port of Fremantle and others to the north, the inflow of commodities. It shapes our quotidian as it also defines limits of the imagination, contours the borders of our being. Robert Drewe’s autobiographical novel The Shark Net (Penguin, 2003) beautifully captures the sensations of a small white boy in a small, determinedly white town, gaping into the waves on Cottesloe Beach. Across the charged waters, where sharks and other invisible terrors lurk, he can sense Africa, the ultimate unknown, meeting his gaze.

In the nervous years after 9/11 and the Bali bombings, the 2004 tsunami briefly allowed Australians to reflect back to themselves a gratifying self-image from other shores. Announcing that Australia had the largest international aid package, Prime Minister Howard exulted: ‘The response of Australians to this disaster has just been so overwhelming and so generous and so decent and so good that it makes you very proud indeed to be an Australian.’[vii] At the commemoration for the dead on Bondi Beach, then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr assured the crowd that the images of the ceremony would ‘go round the world’ to demonstrate to all that ‘Australia is a good neighbour’.[viii]  Any doubts about Australia’s status in the region (these were our ‘deputy sheriff’ years) would be assuaged by an overwhelming display of Australian goodness and benevolence.[ix] In John Howard’s rhetoric the note of self-congratulation is inescapable, remaking connectedness with the region into an act of nationalist consolidation. The focus shifts from the suffering of the dispossessed and bereaved to a celebration of Australian goodness and benevolence as defining Australian characteristics.

THE CLEAR DEMARCATIONS between here and there, us and them, that were drawn in the official responses to the tsunami solidified in the ensuing years, as the Indian Ocean was patrolled, surveilled and increasingly militarised in the effort to secure the borders. In these years Western Australia has become home for several new detention centres, large and small, remote and suburban: boat arrivals are incarcerated at Leonara, Northam and Port Hedland, in addition to those in the WA-administered Indian Ocean jurisdictions of Christmas Island and Cocos Island.

A small and unremarkable holding pen that looks like a government office is located inside Perth airport, just next to the domestic departure terminal. Although designed as a ‘transit facility’ to accommodate detainees from Christmas Island brought to the mainland for serious medical treatment or court appearances, many of the ‘temporary’ inmates have lived there for months and even years, rather than the specified limit of thirty days. There is a peculiar cruelty to this centre, where inmates are held in tantalising proximity to the everyday lives of those from whom they seek asylum. In their confined and enclosed surroundings they hear, but cannot see, the rhythms of this fly-in fly-out state, with its taken-for-granted comings and goings, its serviceable routines of business and pleasure.

Once, visiting some of the detainees from Sri Lanka at this cramped site, many of them fishers from the same tsunami-struck coast from which the Bremen originated, I was beset with questions about the ocean the men could sense but not see: How far is Perth from the sea? Is there a lagoon? Do they have the same fish as we do? How big are the fish? The questions reminded me of a sensation I often experience at South Beach in Fremantle, close to where I live: a deep sensory recognition of the texture of light as the sun sets, or the braiding of waves caught in a certain play of currents.

Nearly a decade after the tsunami, when donated boats, tossed by the same dangerous, unpredictable ocean tides, carried refugees to the shores of WA, any residual sense of connection or responsibility to the region has all but disappeared from public memory, to be replaced by indignation and fear at the failure of the cordon of border security. In these months, asylum boats, like sharks off the beaches of Cottesloe, trigger frenzied calls to defend the beaches and our way of life.

Nationally, refugees from Sri Lanka now are a target. Under the speciously named regime of Enhanced Screening, many of them will be returned quickly to the place from which they fled. Thirty-eight of those who arrived on the Bremen were summarily returned less than ten days after their arrival, triggering a warning from Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Trigg that ‘a screening process like this, rather than giving people access to the normal protections under the refugee-status determination system, risks involuntarily returning people who may, in fact, have legitimate claims for protection under international law’.[x]

However, an even more dangerous, if more accurately titled, policy was waiting in the wings: No Advantage.[xi]

And in May 2013, less than a month after the Bremen sailed into Geraldton Harbour, parliament took the extraordinary step of legislating the excision of Australia’s mainland from its own migration map. Any boat arriving in a mainland harbour would now be deemed to have landed outside the designated migration zone, in ‘an excised offshore place’.[xii] 

The surreal development was the outcome of a logic put in place over a decade earlier, in 2001, when outlying Australian territories where asylum-seeker boats landed, such as Christmas Island and Cocos Island, were retrospectively removed from the Australian migration zone.[xiii] This initial move, justified by the imperative of ‘controlling the borders’, was followed by the excision of hundreds more small islands and outlying land formations, including miniscule outcrops and reefs, to ensure that asylum seekers who landed in these parts of Australia would not land in Australia, but on the excised ground of a chimera, not-Australia.[xiv] Further legislation was made retrospective to ensure, even more fantastically, that places where asylum seekers had made landfall were excised in time: they did not exist at the time of their landing. Through such decrees the state exercises its will to sovereignty not only over its spatial but its temporal limits.[xv]

The excision of the Australian mainland from its own migration zone in 2013 was a culmination of this process of the desire for overweening sovereign control in space and time. Australia performs its absolute self-sovereignty through the ultimate disappearing act, extreme self-insulation through dissolution. In a paroxysm of anxiety over its borders, the state, in effect, has swallowed itself whole: Australia becomes not-Australia.

For asylum seekers arriving by boat, the Australian border functions as a set of makeshift geographies, rather than a static and clearly demarcated line. The border is defined by a set of sleights of hand (excision of territories, deterritorialisation from the migration zone); militarised practices (surveillance, interception, enforced turnbacks of boats in mid-ocean), and by a layered geopolitics built on relations between Australia and its former colonies and protectorates.

The shifting geography I refer to as the borderscape includes coastlines, seas, outlying islands and territories as well as varied claims to tenure over neighbouring lands and waters.[xvi]  This is where historical relations of sovereignty in a postcolonial world are constantly reinforced and remade through aid, trade, technology, infrastructure, as well as militarised practices for securitising and controlling the oceans. These create a violent, unstable, racialised border zone, traversed by the tortuous itineraries of castaway bodies and boats.

The complex geographies of the Australian borderscape with its hybrid spaces and no-places (excised coastlines and islands) and zones of ambiguous sovereignty (off-shore camps, neocolonial territories, international waters), find their virtual counterpart in what Joseph Pugliese describes, in an essay on Australian and European Union refugee regimes, as the technologically enabled proliferation of borders, ‘pre-frontiers’ and ‘externalities’.[xvii] Australian Customs and Border Protection policy, Pugliese notes, exercises its authority over what it terms a ‘border continuum’ and operates ‘ahead of the physical border, to identify and manage risks’.[xviii]

SUCH AN ABSOLUTE impunity attended the killing of Reza Barati, a twenty-three-year-old Iranian man of Kurdish ethnicity, beaten by guards and left to die in an Australian detention camp on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, in May 2014. Reza Barati’s passage to the chaotic and lethal conditions of a shoddy prison block on Manus Island was a painful and twisting one. It involved a journey from his home country to Indonesia, followed by a boat voyage from Indonesia to Australia, where he intended to seek asylum. The final stage of Reza’s passage was his enforced transportation from the detention centre on Christmas Island to a recently established offshore detention camp on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Other layered geographies and complex colonial histories of the shifting border between Australia and PNG in the Torres Straits also underlie the tortuous trails of Reza Barati’s journey to Manus.

The violent end of Reza Barati’s journey fits the contours of a violent regional borderscape, across which refugee bodies are forcibly transported and traded in a regime that closely mirrors the very trafficking in lives that Australia purports to oppose. Despite the attempts to distance and displace, Barati’s outsourced life in a remote place remained constantly under the punitive gaze of the Australian state. The logic that led to Reza Barati’s death is one starting point from which to trace the contours of a vast and shifting borderscape with Australia at its centre. This border zone now stretches from Nauru and Papua New Guinea in the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, with Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Sri Lanka all within its reach.

Cambodia is the latest of the region’s economically and politically vulnerable states to be annexed to create a system of diffused and outsourced non-locations to imprison refugees, while buffering and insulating Australia from their contaminating presence. Nominated as a place of settlement for ‘genuine refugees’ who seek to come to Australia, the troubled state of Cambodia, like its impoverished Pacific counterparts, has become an agent of Australia’s multi-billion dollar trafficking in refugee bodies.

ON 26 SEPTEMBER 2014, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signed a $40 million agreement – sealed with a champagne toast – with the government of Cambodia.[xix] The pact allows for the removal of four of the three hundred people deemed genuine refugees currently held on Nauru to Cambodia for permanent resettlement. The toast was accompanied by the inauspicious sound of breaking glass, as a waiter dropped her tray on the floor in full view of waiting cameras.

Out of sight, the signing was attended by other, even more unfortunate events. On the same day, back in his village in Iraq, another asylum seeker from Manus Island, Hamid Kehazaei, was being buried by his family. At twenty-two, he suffered a heart attack after a cut on his foot turned into fatal septicemia because of inappropriate treatment at the Manus camp.[xx] While his family mourned for Hamid in Iraq, in the Australian camps on Nauru news of the Cambodia agreement unleashed a fresh wave of despair. Immigration officials had flown from Canberra to Nauru to deliver a harshly-worded video directive from Minister Morrison telling the camp inhabitants that Cambodia or Nauru were their only alternatives – unless they chose to return to the places from which they had fled.

Upon learning this news a fifteen-year-old girl attempted to poison herself and had to be rushed to the Australian mainland for emergency treatment. Five other minors attempted suicide by various means, their actions illuminated by the information piling up regarding sexual abuse, intimidation and other forms of violence towards the inmates that are rife in the Nauru camp. [xxi] Seven young people sewed up their lips. The father of one of them cut his own throat. This tally of horror continues even as I write the final pages of this essay, with the Nauru camp in a state of lockdown.[xxii]

Iraq, Sri Lanka, Nauru, Manus Island, Indonesia and Cambodia form a part of the vicious Australian borderscape within which increasing numbers of refugee lives are placed in situations of unbearable risk. The acts of the young men and women in response to the intolerable predicaments in which they find themselves, as they are trafficked and transported around this carceral zone, are received with media silence and official anger. In response to a report that thirteen mothers at the Christmas Island Detention Centre were contemplating suicide, Prime Minister Abbot declared dismissively that he would not be held over a ‘moral barrel’.[xxiii]

Yet rather than forms of extortion, such acts are better understood as one of the only ways castaway bodies are able to rebut the symbolic and material violence to which they are subject. The slogans and messages held by young inmates of Nauru declaring ‘Only our corpse might go to Cambodia’ or ‘Suicide is sweeter than Australia’s dirty policy’ are a form of ‘corporeal poetics’, of survival media.[xxiv] Together with the expressive poetics of scrawled messages set afloat in bottles, or transferred across the razor wire, survival media are at once means, medium and message. They inscribe themselves, corporeally and symbolically, across land, sea and air, through bodies that bleed and flame in displays of unbearable anguish.

In the circuitous cartographies they inscribe over land and sea, the new itineraries they map in the air, illegalised migrant bodies draw upon and adapt a panoply of media, including their own bodies, as they cast themselves away from the known into new lives and spaces. Their flight, in turn, invests the scenes and elements through which they move with new meanings and ontologies; sets in play new geographies, poetics and politics. Amal Basry, the SIEV X survivor who has inspired several writers and artists with her determined testimonies, told of a poignant instance she witnessed just before SIEV X went down:

I saw five people, a man and four women. They were standing together and writing something on a piece of paper. The boat was climbing up and falling down. [T]hey told me, ‘We are writing a letter to the angel of the ocean… Angel of the ocean, please help us. Angel of the ocean, please, look after our children. Angel of the ocean, do not be angry. Angel of the ocean, do not leave us. Angel of the ocean, please save us.’ And they folded up the paper and threw it into the water.[xxv]

After her rescue, Arnold Zable wrote in Violin Lessons (Text, 2012), Amal yearned to return to the ocean, where she and her fellow passengers left so much of themselves, in order to be able to continue with her task of her witnessing, of calling for accountability to the dead of SIEV X.

Letters cast into the ocean or set afloat in plastic bottles, networks of connection stretching between shore and sea, Facebook entries tracking a clandestine movement between worlds, these are the motley and evolving tactics, as much as the insistent eloquence of survivor testimonies, poems and images, through which illegalised bodies mark and remake the seascapes and controlling border geographies through which they move. Even when their movement leads, all too often, to new places of violence and terror, their flights engender new creative and communicative forms, stand as thresholds and entry points to unspeakable histories, spaces of embargo and blockage that make up the borderscape.

IN SEPTEMBER 2014, the Western Australian Museum announced that the Bremen, after being impounded for over a year in a shipyard in Geraldton, would become part of the state’s display of maritime heritage.

The decision breaks with the long-established practice of burning asylum boats, described by one journalist as the ‘torching rite’ of Australian sovereignty.[xxvi] This torching of boats is the treatment also meted out to illegal fishing vessels caught in the indeterminate border zone between Australia and Indonesia. In her book Troubled Waters (Allen & Unwin, 2005) Ruth Balint reported that in Darwin in the early 2000s, these boat burnings were ‘a public spectacle, and onlookers have been known to drape themselves in and wave Australian flags enthusiastically as the perahu [prau] explode in flames’.[xxvii] In the detention camp for Indonesian sailors at Willie Creek, north of Broome, ‘the fishermen are often made to douse and set fire to their own boats. They watch the flames with a mixture of despair and disbelief.’[xxviii]

The asylum-seeker boat stands as both metonym and medium for those who seek to flee aboard it. The act of boat burning as a staging of sovereign power conveys a powerful message of the punitive violence visited on castaway bodies. Held in a museum, the boat will stand, perhaps as another kind of trophy of sovereign power over the borderscape, perhaps as a source of shame and symbol of defeat, neutralised and out of place – high and dry. Or, described primly as representing ‘a stage’ in Western Australia’s relationship with the Indian Ocean, the boat may be easily framed by, and incorporated into, a ‘safe’ national narrative, in contrast to the unknowable fates to which the bodies who sailed on it have been consigned.[xxix] It may stand as a triumphal object that reaffirms the insular nation, Fortress Australia redux. Yet, like other trophy objects, human and non-human, assembled in the space of the museum, this boat, its meanings and resonances, are not to be easily controlled. With its jaunty trim, its hopeful flag, this survivor of oceans speaks to me still of the swell and roll of waves, of tides receding yet returning and, amid the churning of stomachs and hearts, the irrepressible billowing, beckoning of its makeshift flag of stars: in flight.

 30 September 2014

[i] Orr, Aleisha 2013, ‘Asylum seeker boat in Geraldton’, WA Today, 9 April,

[ii] Sullivan, Tim & Casert, Raf 2000, ‘For a Pair of African Stowaways, Only Europe Held Hope of a Future’, Los Angeles Times, 19 March, <>; Smith, Alex Duval 1999, ‘The Boys who Froze to Death at 40,000 Feet’, the Independent, 1 September.

[iii] On the borderscape see Perera, Suvendrini 2007, ‘A Pacific Zone? (In)Security, Sovereignty and Stories of the Pacific Borderscape’ in Rajaram, Prem Kumar & Grundy-Warr, Carl (ed.), Borderscapes: Insurrectionary Politics at Territory’s Edge, Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, pp. 201–227; and Brambilla, Chiara, ‘Exploring the Critical Potential of the Borderscapes Concept’, Geopolitics, DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2014.884561, 5-6.

[iv] Probyn, Andrew & Tillett, Andrew 2013, ‘Asylum fishing boat built for four’, the West Australian, 11 April,

[v]2004, ‘WA feels the tsunami's ripples’, the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 December,

[vi] See Perera, Suvendrini 2004, ‘The Good Neighbour: Conspicuous Compassion and the Politics of Proximity’, Borderlands 3.1.

[vii] Howard, John 2005, ABC Radio, 6 January.

[viii] Carr, Bob, ABC Radio, 14 January.

[ix] Perera, ‘The Good Neighbour’.

[x] Hall, Bianca 2013, ‘38 Geraldton boat arrivals sent back to Sri Lanka’, the Sydney Morning Herald, 19 April,

[xi] On the No Advantage policy, see Refugee Council of Australia, <>

[xii] The Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Act 2013. See

[xiii] Perera, Suvendrini 2002, ‘A Line in the Sea: Australia, Boat Stories and the Border’, Cultural Studies Review 8. 1, pp. 11-27.

[xiv] ‘There are foreign people in Australia thinking foreign thoughts. Some are locked up in Villawood, at the detention centre. Some are restrained in Perth. In those places, you see, they are not really in Australia. They are in the empty ungoverned space of their bodies, I guess, confined within not-Australia’. Cohen, Bernard 1993 ‘Aliens’, Westerly 4, p. 33.

[xv] See Rajaram, Prem Kumar 2007, ‘Locating Political Space Through Time: Asylum and Excision in Australia’, in Rajaram, Prem Kumar & Grundy-Warr, Carl (eds.) 2007, Borderscapes: Insurrectionary Politics at Territory’s Edge ed. Prem Kumar Rajaram and Carl Grundy-Warr, Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, pp. 263-282.

[xvi] Perera, ‘A Pacific Zone?’

[xvii] Pugliese, Joseph 2013, ‘Technologies of Extraterritorialisation, Statist Visuality and Irregular Migrants and Refugees’, Griffith Law Review, 2013, Vol.22, (3), p.571–597.

[xviii] Pugliese, Joseph 2013, ‘Technologies of Extraterritorialisation, Statist Visuality and Irregular Migrants and Refugees’, Griffith Law Review, 2013, Vol.22, (3), p.571–597.

[xix] Hawley, Samantha 2014, ‘Australia edges closer to a refugee deal with Cambodia’, ABC news, 30 April, <>.

[xx] 2014, ‘Hamid Kehazaei treated as death in custody’, the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September, <>.

[xxi] 2014, ‘Nauru detention centre: Labor, Greens demand investigation into claims of sexual abuse against women and children’, ABC News, 30 September.

[xxii] Pye, Daniel 2014, ‘Cambodia and Australia sign refugee deal’, Al Jazeera, 26 September, <>.

[xxiii] Davey, Melissa, Farrell, Paul, Laughland, Oliver & Safi, Michael 2014, ‘Tony Abbott on the asylum mothers on suicide watch: we won't give in to moral blackmail’, the Guardian, 9 July.

[xxiv] On the ‘corporeal poetics’ of refugee bodies see Pugliese, Joseph 2004, ‘Subcutaneous Law: Embodying the Migration Amendment Act 1992’, Australian Feminist Law Journal 21, pp. 23–34.

[xxv] Zable, Arnold 2012, ‘The Ancient Mariner’, Violin Lessons, Text, Melbourne p. 173.

[xxvi] Hernandez, Vittorio 2012 ‘Navy Burns Asylum Boats’, The Advertiser, 20 July, <>.

[xxvii] Balint, Ruth 2005, Troubled Waters, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, p. 98.

[xxviii] Balint, Troubled Waters, p. 99

[xxix] ‘A tiger by the tail?: Museums as platforms for Freedom of Speech – by Alec Coles, CEO, Western Australian Museum’ National Archives of Australia, <>

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