Books

Mark Isaacs
The Undesirables: Inside Nauru

Mark Isaacs was 24, an aimless graduate, when he was hired by the Salvation Army in September 2012 to work at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. This wasn’t a chicken hatchery, but a political expedient: an offshore detention centre for asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australian territory. It was reopening at short notice, an increase in boat arrivals having “forced” the Gillard government to revive the Pacific Solution, rebranded (prophetically, as it would turn out, for the government itself) as No Advantage.

With no qualifications or experience beyond a fledgling engagement with social justice issues, Isaacs joined the Salvos’ team tasked with caring for the welfare of the washed-up men being “processed” on Nauru. It is his rawness that makes Isaacs’ account so bleak and so valuable. An old hand would have been less blistered. Isaacs’ book owes its authority to its artlessness.

The Undesirables charts his five “rotations” on Nauru, spanning nine months. If it’s a gruelling read – overlong, frustrating, repetitive – that is less indicative of its novice author than of his experience. Through his eyes, the reader witnesses the dehumanising effects of indefinite detention and the profound, crushing displacement that offshore processing imposes.

In Isaacs himself, we see a young man jolted into familiarity with the unendurable and eventually numbed by it. Lacking professional distance, he grows close to the detainees, quickly coming to see “the Iraqis”, “the Tamils” and the rest, not as ethnic groups but as individuals. The helplessness and humiliation of these men, seeking to change their – and their families’ – grim destinies, is excruciatingly depicted.

By refraining from graphic details of suicide attempts and acts of self-harm, Isaacs avoids further dehumanising individuals, as case studies in extremis. Besides, his own distress speaks powerfully of the scenes he witnesses. The churning emotions that attend his home furloughs – relief mixed with guilt, resentment of those untouched by Nauru, even a yearning to return to the drama – are reminiscent of soldiers’ stories.

When Isaacs widens his narrative to take in political developments affecting asylum seekers, he further highlights the cruel whims to which they are subject and the calumny of “queue-jumping”. For most of those on Nauru, there was – and still is – no queue.  FL

Hardie Grant, 300pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 19, 2014 as "Mark Isaacs, The Undesirables: Inside Nauru". Subscribe here.

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