The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs

While visiting the regional processing centre at Nauru, then Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen was overheard referring to asylum seekers as ‘the undesirables’. The hearts of the staff sank. Such telling moments propel Mark Isaacs’s eyewitness account of life at ground zero of Australia’s immigration and border protection policies. Two weeks after the Gillard Government reopened Nauru, Isaacs joined the Salvation Army team with no training and minimal instruction, and set about supporting the asylum seekers who had just been brought to the island – the first targets of Australia’s newest off-shore policy of deterrence.

Through a series of terse, detailed vignettes, Isaacs draws the reader into a world Australian citizens will not otherwise see in the era of Operation Sovereign Borders. In this closed world, everyday life offers only fleeting moments of decency against a monumental erosion of human rights and mental health. In the face of fickle bureaucracies, ethnic tensions, violence-laden boredom and the false choice between indefinite waiting and repatriation, the riots and regular suicide attempts at Nauru are shown as the inevitable culmination of the unjust conditions of the centre. Pointedly, Isaacs also registers the futility of attempts to improve mental health in a facility manifestly designed to destroy it.

A powerful testament to the act of bearing witness, The Undesirables shows the grim and unjust reality of deterrence at any cost. Isaacs’s story will inevitably draw a strong emotional reaction, but the writing is never emotive. The anecdotes are relayed in plain realism, in the spirit of transparency, and within the context of policy decisions, statistical evidence and international law. With the recent tragedy of Manus Island fresh in the nation’s consciousness, this book could not be more timely or necessary. Restoring the detainees’ humanity while recording their despair, this brave document is also compelling evidence of Australia’s complicity in the global nightmare of seeking asylum.

Lucy Van is a freelance reviewer.