Straight from the ‘art

Asylum seekers should be empowered not pitied, writes Anjali Vishwanathan.

Illustrations by Murtaza and Mohammad. Images from the RAP Facebook page.

“What’s this?”

A SERCO guard picks up one of the notebooks that emerge from the security screening belt and begins to slowly leaf through it. Its pages are filled with delicate and haunting Manga-style ink illustrations. She looks at me, her brow furrowed.

“Did you do these?”

“Uh yeah. I-I was just taking them in”

The guard seems unconvinced but she gives it back and my heart gradually begins to dislodge from my throat.

The drawings are the work of a 15-year-old refugee, living in Villawood’s immigration Detention Centre. This is the first time in my experience that guards have paid such close attention and this woman, who bears a Southern Cross tattoo, is notoriously temperamental.


Cameras, phones and journalists are generally prohibited inside detention centres. So it is unsurprising that the Refugee Art Project, which facilitates a platform for asylum seekers to express their despairs, hopes, and fears, has been banned from entering Villawood as a volunteer organisation. Their website is blocked from computers and a service provider notice announces that it bears ‘suspicious’ content.

The Project was instituted in 2010 by a collective of academics and artists concerned by the inhumanity of Australia’s detention policies. It has since grown to occupy a unique position amidst Sydney’s activist enclaves as it operates in direct collaboration with refugees.

Inside the detention centre, the process of creating artworks provides a therapeutic outlet for creative expression. The refugee activist movement has a tendency to be a little self-indulgent. It often emphasises the activists’ own ire and nudges asylum seekers’ perspectives to the periphery. However, through art, men and women behind barbed wire are enabled to enter the public discourse on their own terms. As we sit together and draw, we build friendships and exchange stories. “When my drawings are clean, I feel that my heart is clean,” one refugee says.

Beyond Villawood, the artworks are printed in zines or feature in local exhibitions. They tell a very different story from dry, intimidating statistics or the rhetoric that prevails in the mainstream media which keeps asylum seekers anonymous and inhuman in the public mind. Such constricted flows of information mean that even among those dedicated to advocating for their rights, asylum seekers are reduced to the abject tragedies of their past. They are romanticised as hapless victims of our policies; not only disempowered but even weak or necessitous. The Refugee Art Project’s zines are reliant on autonomous and creative expression. They combat the tendency for refugees to be anonymised by well-meaning activists as well as opportunistic politicians.

Examining these comics opens a window to their lived realities. We see that suffering is typically manifested in smaller fragments of memory. We’re invited to share tender moments of friendship between two men amidst the grim surroundings of the detention centre. A child illustrates her fright at the discovery of giant crabs one night on Christmas Island; later, her consternation at the adults who won’t take her story seriously. Another poignant zine is dedicated to the memory of our friend Ahmad Ali Jafari, a detainee who passed away in detention last year due to guards’ negligence. Art provides a medium to create an enduring tribute to his memory. This takes on particular significance when the details of SERCO’s misconduct are not reported in the media.


The refugee activist community was recently jolted by a statement written by Liz Thompson, a former migration agent who leaked the recent events on Manus Island. Among other things, Thompson accused the refugee movement of excluding the voices of refugees. However, she fails to note the root of the problem: that public rallies, the dominant mode of protest, are inherently exclusionary of people in tenuous and vulnerable situations. Most refugees staunchly guard their social media presence with pseudonyms and profile pictures of flowers or cloying babies. To insist that they agitate through the city’s main streets while flanked by antagonistic policemen is an unreasonable demand.

This does not signify that asylum seekers must be clambered over and spoken for. It highlights the need for advocates of refugee rights to adopt diverse and creative approaches to their advocacy; to be contemplative and be reflective of the spaces they have opened up.

The decision to actively pursue the dream of safety and embark on its journey is a brave one. It reveals a fierce independence; that asylum seekers are not victims but fighters with temerity. They should not evoke pity in the advocates for their rights.

To relegate refugees to passive recipients, as we often do, imposes a double-oppression. It strips them of the basic agency that they came here to claim over their lives. Refugees should not be merely included in the protest. It is theirs.