Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Against Erasure

This article is one of a series of four representing the work of the ANZ Society of Criminology’s thematic group on Crimmigration and Border Control. You can see other projects being undertaken by group members on the ANZSOC_Borders webpage which is now included on the Border Criminologies website.


Claire Loughnan
Lecturer in Criminology, University of Melbourne, Australia
Una McIlvenna
Honorary Senior Lecturer in English, ANU


Time to read

6 Minutes

Guest post by Claire Loughnan and Una McIlvenna. Claire is a Lecturer in Criminology, at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her research has two key strands: it centres on the modes, practices and effects of living and working in carceral and confined spaces, including immigration detention, prisons and aged care; and it explores criminalized and racialized responses to border crossings, with a particular focus on the offshoring and externalisation of responsibilities for refugees. She is currently writing a book on the institutional effects of immigration detention. Claire is a co-convenor of Academics for Refugees, a research partner with the Comparative Network on Refugee Externalisation Policies and a member of the Australia OPCAT Network. Una is Honorary Senior Lecturer in English at ANU, and has held positions at the Universities of Melbourne, Sydney, Kent and Queen Mary University of London. A literary and cultural historian, she researches the early modern and nineteenth-century pan-European tradition of singing the news, and the history of crime and punishment. Her monograph Singing the News of Death: Execution Ballads in Europe 1500-1900 (OUP, 2022) explores the phenomenon of the execution ballad, songs that spread the news of condemned criminals and their often ghastly ends. This is accompanied by her website Execution Ballads which features recordings of some of these songs. She has published articles on news-singing in Past & PresentRenaissance StudiesMedia HistoryParergon, and Huntington Library Quarterly, and is a co-founder of the international Song Studies Network.

On his release to New Zealand in 2021, Behrouz Boochani, Iranian journalist and writer and former immigration detainee held in immigration prison sites in Papua New Guinea (PNG), declared: ‘I am happy because I survived.’  His sense of survival is profound given the way that death that has haunted the men held in detention in Papua New Guinea. There were twelve deaths in offshore processing in PNG, and Nauru.  Many of these deaths were preventable. Yet survival does not signal the end of trauma, whether for those detained, or those doing the detaining. Former refugees, as well as  detention guards and migration officers have spoken of the ongoing suffering which is endured as part of this survival.     

As a testament to suffering, the memorialisation of sites such as concentration camps, and carceral institutions, often works to  recall injustices and as a source of activism. When these sites razed to the ground, we might ask: what possibility remains for the memorialisation of suffering for those who survived, and for those who didn’t?

manus island

Upon returning to the Lombrom centre a year after it had been closed, with refugees relocated to another centre on Manus at Lorengau, and later to Port Moresby, Boochani observed: ‘How can the designers and organisers of Manus prison think that by razing the prison they can eliminate the remnants of the crimes they committed? Do they think that people will not find out about all this in the future?’  Nicole Judge, a former worker from Australia, and a young woman who has vigorously spoken out about the violence she witnessed,  remarked  : ‘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.’  These statements were compelling as it was evident through google maps, that the site is now overgrown with vegetation: it has disappeared as if it had never existed.

However, between 2013 and 2017, approximately 1500 refugees were imprisoned there.  The Manus Province is located in the Bismarck Sea, 817 km northeast of the mainland PNG capital, Port Moresby.  The detention centre was established as part of Australia’s offshore processing policy, designed to deter and punish those seeking to apply for refuge by arriving by boat without prior authorisation. This is despite the Refugee Convention stipulating that refugees should not be penalised based on how they arrive to seek asylum. For those detained at Manus, it became a   'hell hole' for those detained there . Yet Manus is like a paradise.

There are many  beautiful islands and atolls that are part of the Manus Province. The water is a clear aquamarine, edged by white sandy beaches and verdant jungles. On approaching Manus by plane, Boochani  describes his first impressions of the island province:

… there it is—Manus Island in the distance. A beautiful stranger lying in the midst of a massive breadth of water. Where the ocean meets the shore, the water turns white, but further out the ocean wears swampy shades of green and blue. It is a riot of colours, the colour spectrum of madness.

Limited outside contact, crowded and oppressive conditions, and mundane as well as extreme forms of violence, resulted in this site being experienced as punishment. Yet the exploitation of this site as a place of violence by external states is not new: Manus carries a history of appropriation by imperial and colonial states. It is a place of historical, external intervention and control, by Germany in the late 19th century, and then by the US and Australia. After World War II, Japanese soldiers charged with war crimes were imprisoned there.

The destruction and dismantling of the centre, provoked a response by both Boochani and Judge that points to the significance of preserving a record of the violence associated with that site, extending to riots, deaths, suicides and torture, not to mention the prolonged suffering endured by those who survived. This is even as both Boochani and Judge  reflected that this history will nevertheless be preserved as long as they still live to tell these stories.

In response to these concerns, an international, interdisciplinary team came together at the University of Melbourne to construct a 3D digital representation of the site - Against Erasure.  The site reconstruction includes embedded text and short sound recordings. The aim of the project was to resist the processes enabling erasure, as if the violence that occurred there never happened. It has responded to research on the memorialization of suffering  and the history of prisons that has seen punishment shifting away from public spectacle  to sites that are largely – though not entirely  – hidden from view.

manus island

Given that most buildings had been dismantled and that there were limited plans that we could access of the site, the detention centre was reconstructed drawing on archival materials, and on interviews with Boochani, together with Google maps and images from film and recordings.

But some questions remain in the attempt to remember and honour the suffering of sites of injustice like those at Manus Island.   The danger of naming Manus as a green hell, as many of the refugee men held there did, suggests disrespect towards the identities and attachments of the local community. Illustrating this tension, scholar Michelle Nayahamui Rooney , who was born and raised in Manus and still has family there, observes  

Although things in PNG have become more complicated, tropes are still used in representations of the PNG subject. The Manus Island detention centre provides an illustration of this complexity. Vetted by the PNG government and supported and funded by the Australian government it has become difficult to disentangle indigenous actors from outside actors in the Manus Island 'hell-hole' trope. Australia's offshore detention centre on Manus Island succeeds precisely because Manus Island is represented as a 'hell-hole and its people violent and unwelcoming.

manus island

So the while the recreation of the Manus Island detention centre offers a way of resisting the erasure of the history associated with the detention site, accompanying the reconstruction is the potential erasure of the Manusian people and their perspectives. The reconstruction serves to ensure a representation of the site, and to provoke awareness of the violence that occurred there. However, Manus Island communities have a history and present that exceed the tragedy of offshore immigration prisons .  At the same time, the memories of what happened in places like Manus, are those that many would rather forget. The resistance to the ‘erasure’ of this history of violence against refugees thus requires an openness to all that this brings with it, and whose voices might not be heard in the retelling, including the voices of those whose lands were appropriated for the enactment of these punitive border laws and practices.

Thanks and Acknowledgments

We are thankful to the input from Behrouz Boochani andArash Sarvestani, who made Chauka Please Tell us the Time  and thanks also to Nicole Judge, and the generosity of Michael Green and Abdul Aziz Muhamat for the recordings from the Messenger ProjectWe also acknowledge that this project was undertaken with the support of the Faculty of Arts Seed Funding, University of Melbourne, and extend our thanks and acknowledgement to project team members: Sam Taylor and Mitch Buzza, from the Arts elearning/e-teaching unit   at the University of Melbourne, and Mahnaz Alimardian, Uma Kothari, Jordy Silverstein, and James Parker.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

C. Loughnan and U. McIlvenna. (2022) Against Erasure . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/11/against-erasure. Accessed on: 20/04/2024

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