They Cannot Take The Sky edited by Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope

This is an important book.  It is an uncomfortable read for those of us who don’t want to think too closely about the impact of Australia’s mandatory detention policy.  Two of the five editors of this book are Australian women, and I’ve included this book as part of my AWW 2017 challenge in the hope that it might encourage more people to read the book.

They Cannot Take The Sky edited by Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope

‘The sky is like a friend for a prisoner, because around you everything is metal fences, but the sky, they cannot take the sky.’

Since 1 September 1994, when the Migration Reform Act 1992 came into operation, Australia has had mandatory detention of people classed as ‘unlawful arrivals’.  Many of those ‘unlawful arrivals’ are people seeking asylum.  Mandatory detention was originally intended as an interim measure.  It still exists.  Can a period of mandatory detention be justified?  Yes.  In certain circumstances, and while health and security checks are carried out.  Can indefinite mandatory detention be justified?  I don’t think so.  But many of us can ignore the consequences of mandatory detention: the people are mostly detained out of sight, many are offshore, they are out of our minds.  They are anonymous, often, characterised as ‘queue jumpers’ or as ‘economic refugees’.  It’s easy to ‘other’ these people, to speak of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

That’s where a book like this becomes important.  As Christos Tsiolkas writes in the foreword:

‘We read for pleasure and we read for knowledge.  And there are some books we read because we must, for in not reading them we are in danger of not understanding our world and our own place in the world.’

In this book, we read the experiences of people who’ve been detained.  Sometimes for brief periods, sometimes for years.  Working with the editors, sometimes through translators, here are the stories of some of the people who’ve been on Christmas Island, on Manus Island or Nauru.  Some are in Australia now; others are still in detention.

‘Do we have time?  I mean, because when I keep talking I’m not feeling the time.  This is a true story.  Truth takes time.’

It would be difficult to read these accounts and not be moved.   The individuals have different circumstances, different experiences.  But each of them has struggled.  Each of them was fleeing from a dangerous, intolerable or uncertain situation, hoping for a better future.

‘It’s like you’re running from elephants, but you’re running into a lion.’

This book raises so many questions for me.  How should the Australian Government manage mandatory detention?  For how long can indefinite detention be ‘justified’? Given that both major political parties are in favour of mandatory detention, what hope is there for change?  And do the majority of Australians want to see the policy changed?

Read this book, these accounts from more than twenty people from countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka.  And think about what indefinite mandatory detention says about us.

‘We stayed, just thinking, and nothing else.  We are not dreaming.  We just came to the realisation that we had lost our future.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



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