A world first project aims to document the complexities of cases of Indigenous people, refugees and migrants who die while in the custody of settler state authorities (Australia, Canada, UK, the USA and the EU).
Global stories of Indigenous and refugee deaths in custody will be told using visual media as part of Deathscapes, an innovative international research project.
Chief investigators Professor Suvendrini Perera of Curtin University and Professor Joseph Pugliese of Macquarie University partnered with a multi-disciplinary team of investigators from Australia, the US and the UK in an effort to provide an insight into the complexities of deaths in all forms of state custody.
Professor Pugliese says one of Deathscapes' key inspirations is the social justice work of the late Ray Jackson, the President and founder of the Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA) Sydney.
We’ve never given over Indigenous sovereignty they don’t have the right to determine who comes into this country and in what terms. What the Australian government has actually done is usurp the Indigenous right to offer hospitality and welcome to Country people I deem welcome to Country.
Ray Jackson was a tireless campaigner for Indigenous peoples' rights. His biggest legacy is his relentless fight to end Indigenous deaths in custody.
He also campaigned against the deaths of asylum seekers and refugees while in detention. The Indigenous elder also condemned the brutal treatment of these vulnerable people at the hands of the Australian state and their dispatch to offshore detention centres in places like Manus Island and Nauru.
“What Suvendrini Perera and myself admired so much about Uncle Ray Jackson is that he worked on two fronts of custodial state deaths simultaneously,” Professor Pugliese says.
Professor Pugliese explains that Uncle Ray Jackson insisted that these two types of deaths that seem so disconnected are actually connected by the fact that, in his view, Indigenous people’s sovereignty has been stolen or usurped by the Australian settler state.
And, one way in which the state can continue to exercise this illegitimate rule is to incarcerate them and expose them to serial deaths in custody.
Ray Jackson’s work was Internationally acknowledged when he became one of the rare Australian recipients of a prestigious Human Rights award bestowed by the French government, Prix des droits de l’homme de la Republique Francaise, in 2013.
Professor Pugliese remembers Uncle Ray Jackson saying: ”We’ve never given over Indigenous sovereignty they don’t have the right to determine who comes into this country and in what terms. What the Australian government has actually done is usurp the Indigenous right to offer hospitality and welcome to Country people I deem welcome to Country”.
Ray Jackson would highlight that the state is continuing to eliminate Indigenous people through processes of separation from family and from their lands and exposing them to lethal situations in which they die in custody.
Often Uncle Ray would go into detention centres and offer 'Aboriginal passports' to asylum seekers and refugee inmates. He also used to send his passports to families of refugees who had died in Australia’s mainland and offshore detention centres.
“This was uncle Ray Jackson’s way of continuing to assert his un-ceded sovereignty and his right as an Indigenous leader to welcome asylum seekers and refugees,” Professor Pugliese says.
These actions carried a message of solidarity and acknowledgement. For the refugees they were a source of hope from a respected elder in situations of uncertainty and despair.
Professors Perera and Pugliese explain that the message of hope is carried out through the Deathscapes project as well.
Professor Suvendrini Perera reiterates that their research encompasses all forms of state custodial responsibility in settler colonial states documenting deaths in police cells, in prisons, immigration detention centres and in situations where people get killed while being pursued by police.
“We want to talk about custody, not just physical custody, but state custody. We also look at people who are held by the state in particular migration statuses. Technically, they are held in a form of custody,” Professor Perera says.
“We also look at how certain kinds of people are excluded and left on the margins of society. We looked at situations that hardly make it in the news like Indigenous femicides."
Indigenous femicides include cases where First Nations women are found dead in parks, in the streets or on rivers. They have been documented in Canada and Australia. “What is the responsibility of state authorities for these deaths,” Professor Perera questions?
She adds that Deathscapes also examined the sleights of hand used by governments to avoid responsibility. The treatment of deaths in offshore detention centres is illustrative of state abdication of its responsibilities.
"The Deathscapes site is designed as a publicly accessible site; a public archive documenting what is happening outside the borders and within Indigenous communities."
“The Australian government does not conduct inquests of people who die in offshore detention centres,” Professor Perera says.
Although at a least a dozen asylum seekers and refugees have died in Australia's offshore detention facilities only one inquest has ever been undertaken.
“Recently we had the case of, Hamid Khazaei, a detainee from Manus Island, who died while he was being treated in Australia. In this case there was an inquest because he died in Brisbane. and the coroner was very clear that we do have responsibility,” Professor Perera reveals.
Deathscapes will be launched this Saturday February 16 with a line-up of prominent Indigenous academics and commentators as well as award-winning artists and human rights advocates.
Both Professor Perera and Pugliese agreed to launch the project at the Settlement in Redfern because of the historical significance of this site .
It is at the Settlement that Uncle Ray Jackson would hold public events marking Indigenous deaths in custody as well as his public ceremonies to hand out ‘Aboriginal passports’ to refugees and asylum seekers. Family members, the wider community and activists were invited to these events.
The chief investigators say the Deathscapes site is designed as a publicly accessible site; a public archive documenting what is happening outside the borders and within Indigenous communities.
“When you look at the Deathscapes website, we don’t want them to be just painful stories. Harrowing stories. We want them to tell the story of the resourcefulness, the resilience of target communities,” Professor Perera says.
She adds, “When these communities write back, they make their own films, their own images; they make their art. And we try to put all of this on our website.”
“Although they may be painful stories, they are also stories of powerful resistance to the forces that are against us”.
The aim of the project is to end deaths in custody and to work together in solidarity, in transnational solidarity.