The small fishing vessel hangs hauntingly within the room, suspended out of its element. Its nets dangle, silent and empty. The white hull is covered in names: Obeid Al Akabi, Hamid Kehazae, and Reza Barati, the first person to be killed in the Manus Island detention centre in February 2014. Below the waterline, the hull is dark, with a single word written in white over and over: unknown, unknown, unknown. They represent the unknowable names and numbers of those who have been lost at seas. Marziya Mohammedali’s 2016 art installation Call Them Home is a headstone to the victims of Australia’s war on asylum seekers, a war that largely escapes the public eye.
In this article I wish to offer some necessarily brief thoughts on how the militarisation of the Australian border in the past two decades fits within a broader pattern of settler-colonial violence. As Patrick Wolfe reminds us, within settler colonialism, invasion is a structure, not an event. Violence does not start and end at the moment of invasion: it extends long past it, through daily occupation; it is not a regrettable flaw, but a feature. It is carried out in the everyday gestures of settler-colonial life, through necropolitical power. The border, and more specifically, the coastal border-line, is one of the key technologies of settler-colonial necropolitical power. Necropolitical power is a term coined by Achille Mbembe to mean the social and political power not just to kill, but specifically to expose to death. Within settler colonialism, coastal border-lines operates necropolitically as a line of violence. By line of violence I mean three things. First, it refers to an imaginary spatial demarcation that allows for violence to occur in certain areas and not others – for example, deaths in international waters being legally different from death on national soil. Second, it denotes a spatial demarcation whose placement – and, as we will see, frequent repositioning – facilitates the categorisation of state killings as natural deaths (“we did not kill them, we simply did not rescue their sinking vessel and the ocean killed them”). Finally, a line of violence is also a line of conduct, a settler-colonial modus operandi. A close reading of Call Them Home, and the carving of imagined borders in the landscape in Australia’s recent history, offer a view of these lines of violence.
Mohammedali’s parents fled their home by boat when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan. “The idea of displacement and asylum”, writes Mohammedali, “is one that is woven into my identity and reflects in the creative work that I do”. Call Them Home is a memorial to the thousands of people who have died while seeking asylum, be it on the way to Australia, within the detention centres or as a result of the trauma endured through Australia’s asylum seeker processing program. At the time of writing, 41 recorded deaths have taken place in Australian indefinite detention centres.
Mohammedali explains their intentions in naming the dead: “In Australian detention centres, it is a recorded practice that people are referred to by their boat numbers.…Stripping asylum seekers of their identities and referring to them as boat numbers is one of the myriads of ways that the asylum seeker processing program dehumanises people”. The artwork is able to restore the identity of those whose deaths are known; and it invites us to grieve the limits of what can be done for everyone else. Below the waterline, the hull speaks of incalculable loss: these lives were lost twice, in both matter and memory. No practice of restitution is possible here: they cannot be called home.
The writing on the hull creates zoning and separation between those who have died, and those who have died twice, having died both in body and in memory. Through its aesthetic choices, Mohammedali’s work offers us the opportunity to reflect on the border as a line that holds necropolitical power.
The most obvious way in which a coastal border-line holds necropolitical power is what Mohammedali conceptualises as the space below the waterline. The morphological features of the coastal border create a fundamental disparity between those who demand entry from the waters and those who receive the request safely on the shore. Because of where the line has been positioned within the natural landscape, a rejection endangers the lives of those who are turned away. The placing of the line right off the coast both naturalises and displaces liability for the endangerment that comes with rejection from the line. It allows for state-sanctioned killings to be reframed as natural events (‘we just turned them away, the ocean drowned them’), and naturalises the discretionary decisions that create the circumstances for them in the first place: the imaginary line, the placing of the line in the most dangerous place possible, and the rejection of some travellers and not others.
This discourse is epitomised in the events surrounding SIEV X. SIEV X was a vessel that sank in Australian waters on 18th October 2001, carrying over 400 Iraqi refugees. 353 men, women and children died in the sinking. The Australian navy was present on the scene yet did not offer any aid. Only 45 survivors were eventually rescued by Indonesian fishermen.
Suvendrini Perera reports that in the ensuing government enquiry, “the committee could not rule out that food was not provided to people aboard smuggling vessels; it could not rule out that sugar was not put into the fuel tanks of vessels carrying asylum seekers or that sand was not put into the engines of these vessels”. The committee, in other words, could not rule out a direct connection between ‘defensive’ measures deployed by the Australian government to protect its border and the sinking of the SIEV X. There is no established certainty that the extent of the ways in which the legal power of the border-line enabled the Australian government to exercise necropolitical power in the sinking of the SIEV X are limited to denying help.
‘SIEV X’ is also not the original name of the vessel. It is an Australian Defence Force acronym that stands for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel number 10. The small number, 10, is a paradoxical exposure of the myth of ‘swarms of illegal fleets’ used to justify border militarisation. The branding of the vessel as illegal, in turn, legitimises the use of force against it and its passengers (who, as Mohammedali reminds us, are also forcibly renamed – after their vessel’s new name). The resulting narrative is that the Australian government did not, allegedly, sink a ship full of civilians: it (allegedly) prevented a crime. All state violence is invisibilised and legalised under the perverse logic of pre-emptive threat.
Despite the immense necropolitical power it holds, the coastal border is remarkably unstable. The material reality of settler colonial borders is often in direct conflict with their mythology as strong and stable, natural and immovable. In truth, borders are forged, both in the sense that they are false and in the sense that they are constructed or man-made; and not just in one act of creation but through continuous reshaping and restructuring, which reveals their porous and inconsistent nature. The coastal border-line contracts, expands and shifts both via its liminal ecosystem and through state operations, such as the 2003 deterritorialisation of Melville island. We can imagine the relief of the fourteen Turkish asylum seekers aboard the Minasa Bone, having reached Australian soil after a perilous journey and looking forward to applying for asylum. The Australian government’s response was to retroactively deterritorialise Melville Island along with four thousand other islands. Since Melville island was no longer Australian, the fourteen refugees were no longer able to apply for asylum. Their boat was towed back to international waters by armed Australian navy ships.
These two episodes show the flexible technology of the border-line. The border-line is fixed, natural and unchangeable enough that those who seek to cross it deserve to be left to die; yet it can also move at will if required. The common denominator is that the actions of settler colonialism are always justified under its own logic: nothing happened; and if it did, it was not violence; and if violence did occur, it was self defence. The settler colonial logic is violently enforced and subtly universalised: settler colonialism is built on epistemiological supremacy. The structure of invasion sees settler colonial occupation reinforced everyday through acts of mundane, epistemiological, legislative and ontological violence.
Call Them Home reminds us that the violence these lines incur resists the sanitised transmutation into data of the colonial archive: they cannot be counted, named, registered and put away in a file, absorbed into the colonial bureaucratic machine that rejected them in life yet processes them in death. Because no information is available on these deaths, they offer no distance: ‘unknown’ denies the viewer the ability to deny that the refugee crisis is ongoing, and must be acted upon. While the artwork implicates us all — what more could have been done to prevent these deaths at sea, or the geopolitical crisis that started these journeys?– it also invites us to test the security of our place above the waterline. ‘Unknown’s also cannot securely be identified as an ‘other’: there is nothing to reassure the viewer that they could never be ‘I’, that they themselves could never be in the position of refugees, and victims of settler colonialism more broadly. All it would take was finding oneself on the wrong side of a line.