Organs Without Borders: Manus Island and Bodies in Asylum


Reports of asylum seekers undertaking a hunger strike on Manus Island has escalated with the discovery of a letter from one detainee offering to donate his organs to the Australian public if the strike should eventuate to his death.

Penned by an asylum seeker detained on Manus Island, the letter addressed to service providers Transfield and International Health and Medical Service reads:

All asylum seekers on Manus Island in hunger strike ask you to hand over our medical records to organ donation organisation in case of our fatalities inside the cage.

Likening life in detention to being in a ‘cage’ is a significant metaphor for the ways in which the physical bodies of asylum seekers in the Manus Island detention centre and other sites of immigration holding are actively controlled and constrained through these systems.

Last year, the Australian Human Rights Commission witnessed the living conditions of young mothers being held in detention at Christmas Island, reporting that:

The mothers were concerned that there are no places for babies to learn to crawl or walk in the 3×3 metal containers where they are confined in the extreme heat. These rooms contain a bunk bed and a cot and this leaves only one square metre of space.

Whilst the Australian government denies that asylum seekers in the Manus Island immigration detention centre reside in conditions of negligence, a former staff member from the facility describes how:

There’s no air conditioning, the beds are extremely close together. The living standards are pretty filthy.

Immigration detention is an experience where mechanisms of control are leveled at the actions and capacities of the physical body. It is only natural, then, that in protesting such conditions of degradation, asylum seekers draw on the physicality of their bodies to communicate their experiences of suffering.

But, what do asylum seekers aim to achieve by destroying their own bodies as a means to protest? Beyond simply drawing attention to their plight, the recent offer from a protesting detainee to donate his organs to the Australian public shows that the human body is a powerful tool for emphasising shared humanity.

Whether legally possible or not, in highlighting the common biological status of all human beings through the offer of donating organs, protesting detainees on Manus Island have undermined attempts by the Australian government to position asylum seekers in immigration detention as distant and different from the Australian public.

The Australian government distances the public from the experiences of asylum seekers in two ways. Firstly, offshore processing of asylum seekers in other nations like Papua New Guinea ensures that potential refugees are kept physically distant from the lives of the Australian public.

Secondly, the current government maintains that border protection is only possible if the details of immigration detention remain outside the public domain

The offer by protesting asylum seekers to share organs with the Australian public undermines the Australian government's attempt at distancing the populace from the experiences of detained asylum seekers by appealing instead to a collective humanity that stems from the shared status of existing in a human body. As the penned letter states:

We are in our hunger strike and if someone dies, we hope that you, we already give up our organs to Australian people to show like, we are honest people; we are loyal people; we don’t mean any trouble; just what we all need, a good life and a peace life.

Like ‘us’, the Australian public, asylum seekers that seek protection within Australia’s borders exist within a human body. Like ‘us’, asylum seekers want the opportunity to live their life with peace and bodily integrity.

Unlike ‘us’, however, asylum seekers in immigration detention do not experience the freedom to enjoy such basic human rights; even though they are obligated to receive them even within conditions of immigration holding. This is the point where the real differentiation between asylum seekers and the Australian public emerges: it is ‘them’, and not ‘us’, whose bodies and existence is constrained to a ‘cage’.

The offer to donate organs beyond national borders is a means to emphasise that the differences between asylum seekers and Australian citizens do not lie in the political rhetoric that opposes ‘them’ from ‘us’.  Whether legally allowed or not, the very idea that biological existence transcends national borders implies that the forces which separate asylum seekers form the Australian public are not intrinsic. Such sentiments of shared humanity are contrary to political rhetoric that seeks to position asylum seekers as different from, and therefore threatening to, the Australian public.

This idea of shared biological existence may translate to an even more dangerous notion: that human beings themselves share a common humanity. A common humanity that is, systematically, being degraded by the conditions of suffering experienced by asylum seekers held by the Australian government in immigration detention. As the letter penned by the protesting detainee on Manus Island and intended to appeal to the Australian public suggests:

This way at least part of us may one day feel sweet taste of FREEDOM.

Asylum seekers are drawing on the physical body in immigration detention as a symbol of shared humanity. In emphasising collective biological experience whilst highlighting specific dimensions of physical degradation within conditions of immigration detention, these asylum seekers are situating the human body as a site through which contradictions of Australia’s border protection policy manifest.

The extent of ‘protecting’ Australia’s borders will be contingent on whether the bodies of dead asylum seekers hold more value than the existence of those that remain alive.

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