Still Alive: Graphic Reportage from Australia’s Immigration Detention System

Still Alive: Graphic Reportage from Australia’s Immigration Detention System

Safdar Ahmed



240 pages

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Back in 2015, over a year before the Brexit referendum took place, the right wing UK Independence Party called for “an Australian-style points-based visa system to reduce immigration.” In August 2017, the Trump White House said more or less the same thing. This obsession over Australia’s points has spread beyond the anglophone world, and various European nations are citing Australia when discussing potential changes to their immigration system vis-à-vis non-EU migrants.

Focused on the experiences and treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia, who do not go through this process of being assigned “points,” Safdar Ahmed’s Still Alive doesn’t specifically touch upon this side of the country’s migration system. However, the quantitative assessment of people based on how “useful” they are is the illiberal position which is the thin end of the wedge of a drawbridge mentality that characterizes migration policy. It is part of an environment which violently excludes those fleeing poverty and war and seeking safe haven in the world’s wealthier nations. If a person cannot arrive by plane and prove their credentials, the logic goes, they cannot really be deserving of shelter, and so asylum seekers and refugees are constantly being portrayed as unworthy or mere “economic migrants.”

While many countries have employed inhumane ways to punish migrants for decades now (the U.S.’s Guantanamo Bay was an inspiration for Australia’s own “Pacific Solution”), in discourse, Australia has become the benchmark that many countries in the western world have aspired to emulate. This includes diatribes against migrants arriving by boat. As Australian National University politics lecturer Kim Huynh puts it, "Australia absolutely wrote this playbook - and we're still writing it." This all takes place in the broader context of 20 years of American, European and Australian military presence in or economic blockades of countries such as Afghanistan, from which many of the refugees depicted in Still Alive originate.

The book is a collection of stories both personal to Ahmed and gathered from interviews he has conducted during his time volunteering at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, located near Sydney, Australia. Migrants that arrive in Australia by boat are subject to indefinite detention; it is unsurprising that a critique of this policy is central in Still Alive’s narrative. These stories give a voice to people who are silenced—and often criminalized and stereotyped—by the system of border control they find themselves in. For an international audience (this Fantagraphics edition follows a 2021 Australian edition from Twelve Panels Press, which followed a webcomic iteration dating back to 2015), the book also provides an opportunity to study the origins of a system which has become the hegemonic organizing logic of migration management for nations around the world.

This is a work of comics journalism, but Ahmed is less strictly descriptive than, say, a Joe Sacco. Poetic visual metaphors reminiscent of work by Nick Sousanis are employed to bring more attention to particular parts of the stories. Some of these metaphors, such as the silhouette of a penis or a lock around a computer, can feel a little obvious, while others—a gavel squashing an asylum seeker, or their face crumbling to pieces, for example—are striking and highlight the damage and violence that the system under scrutiny does to individuals. Ahmed also strays from his immediate experiences, and illustrates stories told to him by detainees at Villawood, putting his interlocutors into the position of first person narrator.

However, Still Alive is not strictly Ahmed’s work alone. As he explains within the narrative, a Villawood detainee called Haider became a close collaborator. While Ahmed details his own experiences figuring out the purpose of his work at the center, and dealing with its Serco-employed security staff, Haider’s journey is central to the book’s overarching narrative. Haider’s story is as shocking and heartbreaking as it is uplifting. It is set alongside similar but distinct stories from other detainees. In terms of how Australian authorities and the immigration system are presented, one of the most indicting chapters is entitled "The Pacific Solution," in which life inside a black site on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea is narrated by Amir Taghinia, a human rights activist who was detained there himself.

But Still Alive is not only about the worst experiences that people can have; it is also about how they fight for their rights and preserve their dignity. This may be through proving themselves when “in the community.” Fighting in kickboxing championships and playing music are real world examples portrayed here. The comic’s origins lie in Ahmed’s practice of supporting people to express themselves artistically, and some of the most affecting moments in the book are when artworks from Villawood detainees, a mix of political satire and stark biographical experiences, are reproduced. The sense that this book is a collaboration is heightened by the fact that some of the metaphors that are depicted in these works are braided throughout the comic. Ahmed demonstrates a serious dedication to giving his subjects a voice.

When it comes to the big picture, what is being described is the way in which a relatively small number of people are punished for the crime of wanting to be able to live somewhere safe, oftentimes in a country that has played an active role in destabilizing the countries they’ve come from. It is about how a bipartisan nationalist politics has elevated an ideology which excludes those determined as undesirable due to their race or their religion, even while the nation those politicians represent faces no serious material threat from these so-called outsiders. This is a story that is relevant beyond Australia. Still Alive asks the reader to consider what is morally ok given the context presented here. It is a book that necessarily asks the reader to pick a side.

In his 1992 extended essay on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and European colonialism, Exterminate all the Brutes, Sven Lindqvist writes: "The educated general public has always largely known what outrages have been committed and are being committed in the name of Progress, Civilization, Socialism, Democracy, and the Market. At all times it has also been profitable to deny or suppress such knowledge." At the time of writing this review, refugee camps in Gaza are being bombarded, asylum seekers are being drowned in the Mediterranean sea, and the International Organization for Migration has deemed the US-Mexico border “the deadliest land route for migrants worldwide on record.” Refugees that do arrive at their intended destination face imprisonment in outdoor cages during heat waves or in barges with water not fit for human consumption. To borrow Lindqvist’s phrasing, "everywhere there, Heart of Darkness is being enacted." And as is typical, the loudest voices, those with power, are ones that dehumanize those that require help.

Still Alive is an attempt to liberate knowledge and humanize those who are punished by the systems and ideologies of racism and nativism that are foundational to the fortresses our governments are trying to build around our nations and continents. It shows examples of the countless horrors and tragedies enacted in our name and for our supposed “safety.” Stories such as these have been well-known for many years; Ahmed’s work is an emotive and evocative inclusion to the canon of liberatory literature. Over the years these stories have become known, the inhumanity enacted by Australia’s approach to migrants should have been taken as a warning; instead, it was adopted as a case study. Oftentimes, media depictions of migrants from the Middle East or the Global South are depicted as an invading force, or merely units stacked up as end-of-year statistics, ignoring that it is people in those boats and in our detention centers. Yusuf, a refugee from Afghanistan that Ahmed features towards the end of Still Alive, puts it in grim and simple terms: “I only came here to save my life and Australian politicians tried to destroy me.”