Death presents the limits of our knowledge and experience, therefore the rituals surrounding death have important social implications. In less secular parts of the world the authority to encode death with certain meanings is often the realm of religious orders eg. the church’s ability to cast martyrs, saints and grant personal salvation.
Following the pattern of secular democracy in the West, this authority was transferred to the state as a notion of state sacrifice for the common good, eg. the state’s ability to send its citizens to war and immortalise their dead as heroes. This emergence of (secular) civic religiosity also alludes to a notion of war that underpins peaceable, civic life.
In colonial contexts, the state’s authority over death is what enables it to kill, enslave and control the pre-existing population and supersede already existing forms of order and governance (Michelsen, 2010). As such, taking control of one’s life, in the sense of taking one’s own life, is the absolute annunciation of self-determination, liberty and ultimately sovereignty (Mbembe, 2003).
In August 2012, the Australian government announced it would recommence processing asylum seekers in the small Pacific Island nation of Nauru.
By October 381 people had been transferred from established processing centres in Christmas Island and Darwin to live in makeshift tent facilities for indefinite periods of time, and amidst concerns regarding the camp conditions, costs to taxpayers and welfare of the asylum seekers (Cullen, 2012).
On 16 November 2012 a 35-year-old Iranian asylum seeker, Omid Sorousheh was taken to Nauru hospital after thirty-six days on hunger strike. He was returned to the Nauru Regional Processing Centre on 25 November and under the watch of four security guards, after the hospital declared it was no longer able to care for him.
In a statement released on 25 November Omid declared:
I will not stop my hunger strike until they transfer me back to Australia or I will die here [on Nauru]. What is the difference between me and the others who come [to Australia] after 13th of August [and who will] be given bridging visas and be released to Australia? But me and 399 more must be stay here in [Nauru] in a very bad situation. (Refugee Action Coalition, 2012).
The Nauru government claimed to have no knowledge of the situation. (Maley, 2012)
On 30 November, and close to death, Omid was air lifted from Nauru and taken to Brisbane, Australia for treatment after fifty days on hunger strike. The Department of Immigration released a statement saying that he would be returned to immigration detention at Nauru as soon as he was deemed fit to travel.
Early in December 2012 Omid returned to Nauru. The move might be interpreted as a signal from the Australian government that it would not acquiesce to methods of self-harm asylum seekers’ preference for death.
I actually liken it to a concentration camp, but the Australians don’t have the guts to kill these people and put them out of their misery.
— Marianne Evers.2013. Lateline ABC, 5 February.
An idea that lingers with me since The Ethics and Politics of Starvation is that of an ‘arrangement of power’ in which claims for asylum, particularly in camps such as those in Nauru and Manus Island, are processed under conditions that allude to war. Not only in the camp conditions, but in the ongoing desire to contain and isolate asylum seekers — as being both punitive but also as proof of the ‘proper functioning’ of the state.
John Connell and Paul Farrel reveal in their documentary Whatever happened to OV8? that Australia traded some of the asylum-seekers from the Oceanic Viking, to whom they had promised resettlement, with the US for detainees at Guantanamo Bay. How then do asylum seekers operate as subjects traded in an economy of the stateless?
These circumstances concern the control over life. Omid undertakes a hunger-strike, effectively declaring he would rather die than spend indeterminite years in isolation and detention, unless he is taken to Australia and processed there. After Nauru announces it is not equipped to respond he is flown to Brisbane, treated and then returned to the detention camp. His right to self-determination is usurped by Australia’s force of control, and significantly a government that is different to the sovereign territory — Nauru — and their laws under which his claim for asylum is being processed. Omid’s will-to-death is brought under the control of the Australian Goverment’s power to decide. In this way the ‘Pacific Solution 2.0’ is not only about borders — or the borderscape — but about regional control and governmentality. It concerns regional power and pulls into line those that are under obligation to comply.
Mbembe, Achille. 2003. Necropolitics. Libby Meintjes (trans). Public Culture Vol. 15 No. 1, Duke University Press. 11—40.
Michelsen, Nicholas. 2010. Suicide terrorism, (Bio)politics, and Death [PDF]. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Theory vs. Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners, New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel, The Loews New Orleans Hotel, New Orleans, LA.