Between 2001 and 2008, and again between 2013 and 2017, hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers were effectively imprisoned under Australian law, in an offshore processing centre at Lombrum Naval Base, on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG). This ‘offshore processing’ policy meant that anyone who arrived in Australia without prior authorisation, seeking asylum, had to have their claims for refugee status processed ‘offshore’. The Australian government also determined that no one who arrived in this way would ever be assured of resettlement in Australia. These offshore processing laws are an effective breach of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which explicitly states that no penalty shall be applied, based on how a person arrives on the land of state that is signatory to the Convention (article 32).
Australia’s offshore processing policy has resulted in the long-term detention and effective imprisonment of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in the neighbouring countries of Nauru and PNG. Many have now been detained for almost a decade.
However, in 2016, the PNG Supreme Court ordered the centre operating at Manus Island to be closed, as its existence breached the PNG constitution. The detention camp was dismantled in 2017. Today, it is overgrown with forest and jungle. Yet several men died there, due to homicide, self-harm, suicide, or untreated medical conditions. Many hundreds of others experienced pain and torture during their imprisonment.
When Kurdish writer and former detainee, Behrouz Boochani, visited there in 2018 with former migration worker Nicole Judge and refugee activist Ian Rintoul, it was as if it had never existed. At that time, Boochani recounted Nicole’s words:
“They have destroyed the physical Manus prison, but those who have been sacrificed by this system are still living. As long as we are alive the history of this prison continues.”
Working with an interdisciplinary, international research team, led by Claire Loughnan (Criminology) and Una McIlvenna (History) and the University of Melbourne Arts eLearning and eTeaching team, the project –Against Erasure – has developed a 3D, digital representation of the now dismantled site, drawing on archival materials, interviews with Behrouz Boochani, Google maps, images from Chauka Please Tell Us The Time, and recordings from The Messenger Project (Michael Green and Abdul Aziz). This is the first known 3D model of the detention centre, making a significant contribution to collective knowledge about the facility and the island on which it was based. Importantly, it will function as a historical reminder of, and testament to, the lives and suffering of those who were imprisoned there as an effect of Australian laws and policies.