Image: Manus Island refugees

Totalitarianism and Refugee Camps

5th October 2018

The Australian Government continues to defend its off-shore refugee detention regime in the face of on-going reports of terrible conditions in the camps and accommodation centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Most recently, the Australian Medical Association described the situation for refugees on Nauru as a ‘humanitarian emergency requiring urgent intervention’. It’s timely then to consider the wider political significance of detention. Although Australia’s camps are among the most brutal, the phenomenon of ‘encampment’ is global and it is growing.

In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt analysed concentration camps as essential institutions of totalitarianism. Her definition of what constitutes a concentration camp was broad, and included three categories that she said correlated with ‘basic Western conceptions of life after death: Hades, Purgatory, and Hell.’

In Arendt’s account, the internment camps used by democratic countries during World War II to imprison enemy aliens and stateless people, and the camps for displaced people established after the War, represented Hades. They were ‘relatively mild’ versions of the Nazi ‘corpse factories’ that literally constituted ‘hell on earth’ – but they were concentration camps nevertheless. She associated the Soviet Union’s labor camps, ‘where neglect [was] combined with chaotic forced labor’, with Purgatory.

The ‘life after death’ typology builds on Arendt’s claim that whatever the conditions in the camps, their residents had in common being treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of any interest to anybody, as if they were already dead…

More on this below.

The ‘worldlessness’ of the camp, and its existence ‘outside legality,’ symbolise the destruction of humanity’s greatest political achievement: mutual recognition of our compatriots as equals and co-creators of shared worlds. All camps in Arendt’s account share this character and deprive the incarcerated of their ‘juridical’ personas – which is to say – their politically constituted and lawfully enshrined equality; and along with it, their capacity to participate in a public sphere of action.

Camps in their most dreadful, totalitarian incarnation, go beyond this to also destroy what Arendt calls ‘the moral person’ within those imprisoned; and after this, to annihilate each person’s ‘unique identity’. The former happens when martyrdom becomes pointless because there is no one to witness or testify to it, and when ‘conscience ceases to be adequate’ because victims are not allowed to choose between good and evil but are offered only choices between evils: ‘Who could solve the moral dilemma of the Greek mother, who was allowed by the Nazis to choose which of her three children should be killed?’. The latter occurs when individuals lose their capacity for spontaneity and the dignity of being more than biologically functioning puppets, becoming ‘ghastly marionettes with human faces’.

By destroying inmates’ juridical and moral personalities, and their individuality, the totalitarian camps achieved ‘total domination’. Because of the diffuse terror that they spread, the camps subdued and conquered not only those detained but entire populations.

The majority of contemporary refugee camps function outside legality and attack the juridical personas of their inhabitants. In Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement, Serena Parekh discusses how humanitarian organisations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operate as a kind of sovereign power in camps in the global South. Usually, the laws of the host State do not apply within these camps, and there are no other independently arbitrated legal frameworks.

This may be the case even when refugees attempt to invoke the law, and when humanitarian organisations cloak their actions in legalese. In an article describing non-violent sit down protests within Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana, Elizabeth Holzer says the protesters made rights claims and appealed to international law, while UNHCR invoked the law of Ghana to ‘frame transgressions in legal terms’. Holzer notes, however, that the protests were violently suppressed, and that the refugees were unable to advance their claims or obtain redress when they were arbitrarily detained, either by appealing to the law of Ghana or under international law.

Immigration detention centres in the global North also operate outside legality. Access for outsiders or independent monitors is limited or refused. The people detained are excluded from the legal protections and rights afforded to citizens, and are subject to draconian forms of control. As a result, many centres have fostered terrible cruelty among staff, and have institutionalised perverse and degrading punishment regimes. The centres inflict lasting psychological and physical damage on those detained, and go some way towards attacking their moral personalities and unique identities.

While contemporary refugee camps do not inspire terror more broadly, they have an anaesthetising effect, undermining belief in the importance of human dignity and corroding respect for the law as an institution that protects each individual equally – those who are spurned along with everyone else. Societies that are politically anaesthetised succumb readily to the lure of centralised power and even tyrannical leadership. They prepare the ground for totalitarian regimes.

Arendt’s characterisation of camp residents as being ‘treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of any interest to anybody’ is contentious. Civil society organisations lobbied for Europe’s displaced and persecuted peoples before and after World War II, and official organisations were established to assist refugees, including the League of Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees.

Arendt has also been criticised for failing to recognise the agency of those incarcerated. Even within the Nazi camps – or ‘holes of oblivion’ – there were moving acts of defiance and demonstrations of human solidarity.

Arendt’s account of totalitarian domination largely ignores the solidarity and dissent that persisted, although as faint echoes of large-scale resistance. Primo Levi described the camaraderie he forged with a fellow camp resident in Auschwitz, and how the two men shared everything they had. He also describes the bravery of the civilian Lorenzo, who – living outside the camp – would risk his life to smuggle bread to Levi. Lorenzo was Levi’s saving grace: he ‘was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated…Thanks to Lorenzo’, says Levi, ‘I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.’

Parekh makes a useful distinction between agency ‘as a subjective disposition’ and the agency one has if one’s words and actions are recognised ‘as meaningful and politically relevant’. Within camps, refugees organise collectively and attempt to speak out and protest, but their actions rarely gain lasting traction. More often they are pilloried by politicians and the media for not submitting quietly to their incarceration.

Placing camps outside legality and destroying the juridical personas of those detained was, Arendt argued, ‘the first essential step [for the Nazis] on the road to total domination’. Recognition of this imposes a heavy obligation on anyone in a position to challenge contemporary camps. Our first step must be to listen to and amplify the voices of those detained. This challenges the worldlessness of the camp, honours the moral personalities and unique identities of those inside, and preserves their capacity to testify and our own capacity to witness.

What is both moving and somehow soul shattering about the wonderful book, They Cannot Take the Sky is the vitality and liveliness of the voices it contains. These are the voices of individuals who were held, or who continue to be held, in Australian detention centres. The stories in They Cannot Take the Sky are first person narratives taken from interviews with the book’s editors. They are the unmediated voices of detainees describing their experience and their thoughts, sometimes in tones disconsolate, bitter, and weary, but often with warmth, humour, and expansive spirits.

Some themes are repeated: the commonplace brutality; the subjection to arbitrary and capricious rules and mechanisms of control; the humiliation of being forced to queue for hours for the toilet and shower, to eat a meal, to receive inadequate medical attention, or to spend fifteen minutes on the internet. The excruciating boredom and uncertainty; the constant recurring question – uttered with genuine bewilderment – ‘why is this happening to me, what have I done to warrant this?’; and the grinding dreariness of endless days with no meaningful distraction or occupation, and no end in sight. The book subverts the enforced facelessness of contemporary refugee camps while powerfully demonstrating some of their common features.

In detention, the refugees are identified by number, and the experience of forgetting or of failing to answer to one’s name is frequent. Hani Abdile grew up in Somalia and dreamed of becoming a journalist: ‘I used to take the water bottle and pretend I was reporting from Baghdad. I would be like, “Hani Abdile, CNN, Baghdad.”’ She was still a teenager when she arrived in Australia after fleeing war in her country. She had escaped on her own, travelling without family or friends. The last part of her journey took eight days in a people smuggler’s boat. After eleven months in detention ‘even if you call me Hani all the day, I would never say yes. If you called my boat number, I would say yes. Or they would call you Detainee, like that is your name.’

The Kurdish Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani has been held on Manus Island since 2013. Through social media, columns for The Guardian, and a recently released book, he continues to defend his humanity and pursue his ‘mission’ – ‘my duty as a journalist’ – by describing what he sees around him: ‘[t]his system is trying to take people’s personalities by calling them by a number and humiliating them. After a long time they think they are not human. But fortunately I didn’t lose my personality’. ‘I always think of myself as a…reporter and human rights activist. I am always watching…and monitoring the system. And just sometimes I find that I am a refugee…and my name is MEG45.’

Boochani argues that the detention regime inflicts systematic torture. He has said that ‘[t]he issue must be understood as the annihilation of human beings’. In They Cannot Take the Sky, he explains his sense of defeat when he learned that the Australian High Court had refused to impugn the legality of the detention centre. The decision seemed to signal that ‘Australian civil society is defeated, completely, because they couldn’t change anything’.

Yet despite this bleak prognosis, Boochani continues to assert his humanity and to speak out, and it is from him that the book takes its defiant title: ‘When I was outside prison I knew that the sky was beautiful, nature was beautiful. But I found nature power and nature beauty in Manus. The sky is like a friend for a prisoner, because around you everything is metal fences, but the sky, they cannot take the sky.’

Ali Bakhtiarvandi, also a refugee from Iran, is now an Australian citizen. He spent four and a half years in detention and remains traumatised by the experience. In They Cannot Take the Sky, Bakhtiarvandi explains that he was repeatedly told by immigration authorities that he would never be allowed to stay in Australia; sometimes they told him the country would not accept him because he had been a political activist in Iran, sometimes they told him he would not be accepted because they did not believe he had been politically active in Iran.

Bakhtiarvandi was told ‘the Australian government and the Australian people, they don’t like people like you.’ He asked to see a UN representative: ‘because I am not a criminal’. He was refused: ‘[n]o, nobody is allowed to see you.’ He went on a hunger strike, refusing food even when he was stripped of his clothes, forced to wear only a surgical gown, and placed in an entirely bare isolation cell in which the lights remained on 24 hours a day. He was kept in the cell for a month, and on day 48 of his hunger strike, Bakhtiarvandi was held down by security guards while a doctor forced a tube into his nose and injected liquid nutrients.

Such barbarism must not be allowed to continue. It offends and denies the humanity of those on whom it is inflicted. It sullies and debases the humanity of those responsible for the infliction. There can be no justification for camps that operate outside the law and that deprive the people detained of legal status and political agency. We must not forget Arendt’s terse warning: The road to totalitarian domination leads through many intermediate stages.

Although totalitarianism was once defeated, ‘totalitarian solutions’ created a hellish precedent. They persist, Arendt argued, ‘in the form of strong temptations which…come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.’

Beyond amplifying the voices of those detained, a political imperative in opposition to refugee camps is global activism and collaboration for recognition of a universal right to citizenship and legal status, or what Arendt called ‘the right to have rights’.

I have explored elsewhere how this may be achieved, including by establishing a global refugee regime based on fair burden sharing between States – something for which Parekh and organisations such as Australia’s Refugee Council also argue.

Realising the right to have rights may be difficult, but for the sake of our own humanity we cannot collude in believing it is impossible.

Emma Larking is a Visiting Research Fellow at RegNet. This post is based on a review essay published in Arendt Studies (‘Are Refugee Camps Totalitarian?’ (2018) Arendt Studies Vol 2, 243-252)

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet