Australia’s Enforcement Archipelago: Islands as Border Walls



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Map of Christmas Island and Nauru / The Funambulist (2016)

Only one country can out-do Trumpian bluster about the “beautiful,” “huge” wall that occupies his geographical imagination. That country is Australia. When it comes to border enforcement, Australia trumps Trump. Australia’s insular imagination, as scholar Suvendrini Perera calls it, extends the island state’s colonial anxieties offshore. Why build a wall when people can be contained and confined more preemptively and earlier in their migrant journeys, specifically on remote islands?

As rates of displacement climb globally, more people are embarking on precarious journeys by boat with the hope of seeking asylum in countries that are signatories to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. To do so, they must enter sovereign territory of signatories. In response, states aggressively deny the right to seek asylum by investing heavily in offshore border enforcement and processing, building detention facilities in transit regions to prevent people from ever reaching sovereign territory. Within this geopolitical minefield, islands become flashpoints where legal struggles over entry and exclusion happen. Aspiring asylum seekers find themselves thwarted and detained in extended limbo on islands.

As a geographer, my research involves documentation of this growth in detention on remote islands. The islands I study are located in regions people cross in search of livelihood and protection following their displacement. By detaining people remotely, states limit their access to the legal and procedural infrastructure of asylum. People may have the right to seek asylum on a small island, but not the mobility or means to do so. They might lack access to interpreters, lawyers, advocates, or tribunals where their cases can be heard. People held remotely are also hidden from the international community, and the islands have notoriously restricted access of journalists and human rights monitors.

Externalization of border enforcement is often discussed in relation to the European Union’s policing of its perimeter on the Mediterranean and in North Africa. But offshore border enforcement can be traced back further to United States Coast Guard interceptions of Haitian and Cuban migrants in the Caribbean in the 1970s and 1980s. Governments use geography creatively to thwart access to entry. The geographical enforcement pattern is simple. Interdiction stops migrants who are en route to sovereign territory, precluding their landing to make claims for political asylum.

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Map of one person’s journey from Afghanistan to Australia, involving four attempts over the course of several years. / Map by Rob Fiedler (2013)

Sometimes island detention begins because the island itself is the closest bit of sovereign territory that people can reach by boat to file an asylum claim. Other times, boats are intercepted and towed to islands in order to prevent people from making asylum claims. These offshore struggles are hidden geographies, obscured from the view of broader publics. Australia specializes in the use of islands for remote detention. The top countries of origin of those detained at any given time reflect economic disparities between regions and conflicts in specific countries. Over the last decade, many traveled from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and other countries.

The Australian government developed its offshore policies in 2001, in response to an increase in migrant boat arrivals. When the MV Tampa freighter rescued over 400 Afghan Hazara asylum-seekers from a ship in distress between Indonesia and Christmas Island in 2001, Prime Minister John Howard drew a political line in the sand, refusing to allow their landing and provoking an international row that has essentially never been resolved. His “Pacific Solution” moved those rescued and subsequent people intercepted into detention on foreign islands. People were detained on Nauru, the smallest island state in the world, once mined for phosphate and facing desperate times economically. They were also detained on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Neither was a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Most of those whom the UN High Commissioner for Refugees eventually recognized as “convention refugees” were sent to a third country (such as New Zealand) for resettlement.

Howard’s ‘solution’ also involved retroactive declaration of Australian coastal and island territories as “not Australia” for the purposes of migration, an act of “excision.” Australia eventually extended excised zones to include anywhere that asylum seekers landed by boat. They also carried this status anywhere they traveled subsequently, prompting legal scholar Savitri Taylor to write about their excised status as a legal bubble carried on the body. While Australia has signed international law that agrees to provide the right to seek asylum, paths to land onshore are disappearing. Australia has perfected the confluence of geographical and legal exceptionalism through excision. Jurisdictional and operational befuddlement (and court cases) have ensued. Meanwhile, some parties have profited from these arrangements, among them the private corporations and organizations paid to set up and run the facilities, such as Serco and the International Organization for Migration.

After Howard, each subsequent government tweaked and repackaged these exclusionary policies in its own way. In 2008, Labor leader Kevin Rudd ended the Pacific Solution and moved all asylum seekers to a new, controversial AUS $398m, high-security facility opened in the middle of a nature preserve on Christmas Island, 2,590 kilometers from Perth. In 2010, Julia Gillard announced the use of East Timor for processing, but had failed to consult officials about this plan, which went nowhere. In 2012, when briefly re-elected to office, Rudd re-opened the very facilities he had closed only four years earlier on Nauru and Manus. This significantly reduced the number of non-citizens in detention in Australia, as the number of people detained on the two non-Australian islands climbed to 4,135 by October 2014.

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North West Point Immigration Detention Centre on Christmas Island, Overseas Australian Territory. This is the most secure of three detention facilities on the island. / Photograph by Alison Mountz (2010).

Detention on both islands raised concerns about human rights violations. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Australian Human Rights Commission have issued scathing reports about poor conditions, violence, and sexual abuse of adults and children detained on islands. Detainees faced slim chances for resettlement and suffered the psychological effects of remote detention. Research shows that the more remote and the longer the stay in detention, the worse its effects on mental and physical health.

When I visited Christmas Island in 2010, there were some 2,600 people in detention in three facilities on the tiny Overseas Australian Territory. Islanders experienced a dystopian scenario, a darkness that had descended and related to climate change as much as a changed social and economic climate. The number of people in detention doubled the island population. With workers brought in on short-term contracts, the island faced a housing crisis. Housing originally built for phosphate miners was repurposed for detention workers. With few private spaces, their secondary trauma was on public display in the form of excessive drinking. The presence of detention and other, related industries had altered the social fabric of the island, expressed by locals with its first murder in decades committed that summer at a party.

The Australian government has invested in extreme measures to keep people away from mainland Australian territory, at times the biggest client of private charter flight companies. It flew 365 asylum seekers on 11 flights at a cost of AUS$31.7m, for instance, when it reopened Nauru’s detention center in 2012. Pregnant women are flown thousands of miles for health care, back and forth between mainland and island facilities.

In 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea deemed detention on Manus Island illegal, resulting in tension between governments about how to close the facility. Subsequently, 267 people (including 37 babies born in Australia) who had been flown to the mainland for medical care filed a suit asking to stay. The court denied the request, and the decision gave rise to the citizens’ movement known as the “Let Them Stay” campaign. Campaigners were successful in achieving a least a temporary stay for many, if not all.

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North West Point Immigration Detention Centre on Christmas Island. / Photograph by David Stanley (2015)

Asylum seekers were not the only people silenced by offshore arrangements. Workers employed by Serco on Christmas Island signed contracts that prevented them from discussing their work. The best place to learn about conditions in the detention facility was in the local bars where people attempted to drink away their days at work. There, reality leaked out, and employees could be heard toasting refugees as their source of employment.

While confined, people detained on islands use their bodies as spaces of protest, sewing lips shut on hunger strikes and embarking on other forms of self-harm, suicide, and even self-immolation. If political space is reduced to the body, this space can then be extended transnationally with technology. One man on Christmas Island dug his own grave in the compound and slept there. His performance of his own death made it into the news, a message for the Australian public about dehumanization and his living death in limbo in detention. A woman detained on Nauru recently told a Human Rights Watch researcher, “We are just surviving. We are dead souls in living bodies.”

The facility on Nauru is more ‘open’ than the one on Christmas Island. Asylum seekers are allowed to come and go, and some live in the community, but they are not allowed to work or leave the island. As Monawir Al-Saber reported to author Michael Gordon, “The detention camp is a small jail and the island is a big jail. All of the island, same jail. I want to get freedom.”

Australia quietly funded detention across the Indonesian archipelago, at times denying this fact. Like Nauru and Papua New Guinea, Indonesia is not a signatory to the Convention. Australia, a signatory to the Convention, evades accountability by offshoring to less powerful and less wealthy, non-signatory countries in the region. As a result, people entered into prolonged periods of spatial, temporal, legal, and psychological limbo. They were sometimes unaware of which country was even responsible for their detention and for what happened there. Over time, exclusionary measures have grown more extreme with manipulation of law and geography to preclude access to political asylum. In 2013, Tony Abbott’s administration implemented “Operation Sovereign Borders” to stop all asylum seekers from reaching sovereign territory and instead send them for “offshore processing.”

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North West Point Immigration Detention Centre on Christmas Island. / Photograph by David Stanley (2015)

Many countries and organizations have accused Australia of violating international refugee law through this offshore activity. A 2014 arrangement announced AUS$40 million for resettlement of island detainees in Cambodia. Fewer than 5 people were resettled. In 2016, a Cambodian official declared the agreement a failure. Of course, the islands where people are detained are not merely spaces of crossing; they are places with their own important communities and histories, now transformed as detention industries overtake small economies. Some have courted this industry, willing to outsource Australia’s asylum processing in exchange for controversial development funds. This boom-and-bust economy related to detention is not new and has been well-documented in various contexts. But what will happen to those in limbo on the islands? The Sydney Morning Herald reports on “voluntary repatriation packages” offered to asylum seekers by the International Organization for Migration. These are funds given in exchange for an agreement to withdraw the application and return home to the very countries they fled in the first place: the more violent the country of origin, the higher the financial incentive.

In November 2016, the US and Australian governments announced a people trade. This is not the first time that the two countries will exchange politically unpopular asylum-seekers. Australia will accept Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Haitian asylum seekers from camps in Costa Rica where they are currently held as they search for asylum in the US. In exchange, the US will accept 300 to 400 people consisting of families, among some 1,150 currently on the Pacific islands. The decision to accept families and not single men may restrict access of those on Manus who are all men traveling alone. This trade signals the social death of asylum. As states traffic in bodies-in-motion, cynically capturing, containing, trading, and towing, people on the move bear the greatest burden of offshore investment. They enter into greater precarity, live out the insecurity of limbo in detention on an island. They invest resources and enter debt to make this journey, only to find themselves in a revolving door: entering and sent back, en route and sent back, detained in many kinds of carceral spaces in multiple national contexts along the way. Forms of confinement proliferate along the way, intensifying rather than relieving insecurity.

As John Dunne famously wrote, “No man is an island.” People are not islands, yet migrants are treated as islands as they face proliferating spaces of confinement along precarious routes. States invest in deterrence and detention offshore, undermining their legal commitments to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and eroding access to asylum. Though morally corrupt, this stance proves politically palatable, and shockingly well-resourced. Despite being one of the greatest public policy failures of our time, deterrence remains a popular political response to displacement and migration. Sadly, the great wall of Trump’s imagination already exists the world over. Researchers have documented the growth in physical barriers along borders and associated border deaths and disappearances. States deploy unfathomable resources in border enforcement, development, and other budget lines to stop people en route. As authorities dislodge traditional borders and affix them to mobile bodies, migrants struggle to survive, experiencing greater violence as the enforcement archipelago expands offshore. They encounter proliferating spaces of confinement, and islands within islands. The guarantee that displacement and migration will continue means that the neo-colonial relationship between Australia and its less powerful neighbors will continue. Geopolitics and detention-as-development trumps the right to seek asylum across the region and beyond.