Australian Detainment Centres: Stopping the Boats and Shirking Normative Responsibilities

A dark practice is taking place off the shores of the sunny continent of Australia. Thousands of asylum seekers who make dangerous journeys to escape volatile situations in their home countries are being re-directed to offshore settlement camps in the Pacific, as part of a government scheme called Operation Sovereign Borders, aimed at preventing the arrival of asylum seekers onto Australian soil. This border protection policy, more colloquially known as “stop the boats”, was implemented in September 2013 under the Abbott Government and has been incredibly controversial ever since.

Northern IDC
Image courtesy of kenhodge13, ©2010, some rights reserved.

Offshore settlement camps in the Pacific

In support of the aim to protect Australia’s borders, offshore settlement camps have been set up on islands in the Pacific: specifically, on Manus Island, a province of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, the world’s smallest island nation in Micronesia. Though both of these locations are strikingly beautiful, their association with a xenophobic and abusive policy taints them. The conditions at the detainment camps have been described as abysmal, with reports declaring water shortages and overcrowding. Leaked pictures of the Nauruan detention centre from December 2013 corroborate eyewitness accounts and demonstrate the severity of the issue. Marianna Evers, a nurse who was employed to work a contract of six weeks in Nauru, called the conditions at the centre “appalling”, comparing it to a “concentration camp”.[1]

There is no limit as to how long an individual can be held within these immigration detention camps, as they are used as a processing area until the Australian government can make a decision on a case-by-case basis. With their “stop the boats” program, the Australian navy has been authorised to intercept boatloads of asylum seekers before they can reach their sovereign territory. Because of this, they are technically never responsible for these individuals, as they never touch Australian soil. Under this program, the Australian navy stopped 441 asylum seekers in 10 vessels in 2014 alone.[2]  Australia is not alone in this type of pre-emptive strategy: the European Union has an entire agency dedicated to the management of border control plans between states. Under this agency, European Border Guard Teams, made up of border guards from EU states, seek to protect their territory from illegal immigration. This would indicate that this type of interception of asylum seekers is a growing trend in developed states.

These offshore resettlement camps are a clear violation of Australia’s obligation as a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This Convention, developed in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, has represented a standard to which states in the international community must adhere. In cleverly deflecting their responsibility as a signatory of this convention through loopholes and legal grey areas, Australia has demonstrated a lack of commitment to the wider normative aims to which they are party. In response to these violations, the UNHCR, as well as human rights groups such as Amnesty International, have condemned the policies. Amnesty International have focused a recent campaign on the children held in these detention centres, calling on international support to put pressure on the Australian government to release them.

Most significantly, recent claims of sex abuse have been found by the Integrity Commissioner Philip Moss, who reported allegations of rape, indecent assault and sexual harassment in the asylum camp in Nauru. He made 19 recommendations in total to the Australian government, including improving the processes for responding to such allegations, such as investing in better sexual harassment training for staff working in the detainment centres.

Ambiguous legal status of asylum seekers

This scheme has paradoxically been named the “Humanitarian Program”, presumably to conjure up images of responsible international conduct. In fact, the rhetoric of these detainment camps has been extreme, with repetitions of “border security” at every turn. The arrival of these asylum seekers onto Australian soil has been constructed as a security threat so as to legitimize the continuation of these abysmal practices. The status of these asylum seekers while they are waiting in these detention centres is explicitly ill defined — purposely and carefully constructing the ambiguous status of these migrants so as to disentangle themselves from any responsibility towards them.

It is almost ironic that Australia currently has one of the world’s harshest policies on immigration considering that the country itself is made up of almost entirely immigrants; ancestors of those sent to the continent when it was set up as a penal settlement in the late eighteenth century. In fact, Australia regularly calls itself the “immigration nation”, but evidently immigration is only open to certain individuals on certain terms. These detainment camps reflect a deep-seated insecurity of the state of Australia towards those outside the continent. In fact, the policy is just another in a long line of xenophobic immigration practices that have characterized Australian history. Among these practices was the White Australia Policy of 1901, specifying that low wage immigration from Asia and the Pacific Islands should be restricted so as to prevent non-white immigrants from entering the continent, out of fear that they would accept lower wages for work and create employment difficulties for the white Australians.[3] Though the policy was abolished in 1973, the policy of offshore detainment seems to reflect the same spirit of xenophobia. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a more general fear of the consequences of globalisation and living in a borderless world.

This new policy also brings to light the theoretical works of Giorgo Agamben, an Italian philosopher who drew from Foucault’s writings on biopolitics to assert that the states can separate political beings from “bare life” bodies. How can a state like Australia assert its governmentality to the point where it can violate international agreements and disregard the rights of citizens from other states in stripping them of the most basic conditions of human life, as has been repeatedly asserted is the case at these detainment camps? And, if these detainment camps have been exposed and eyewitnesses have been active in condemning them, then why has the international community not taken harsher penalties against Australia? Or, even more distressingly, why has the Australian population not taken more action against the horrifying decisions of their own government?  Until Australia is held accountable, this disturbing practice will continue to exist in plain sight.

[1] Barlow, Karen (2013) “Conditions on Nauru like a concentration camp” 5 February 2013, Lateline ABC Australia, accessed online 3rd April 2015:

[2] Doherty, Ben (2014) “Stopping the boats’ a fiction as Australia grows ever more isolationist on asylum” 31 December 2014 The Guardian, accessed online 3rd April 2015:

[3] Australian Government: Department of Immigration and Border Protection (2012) Fact Sheet 8 – Abolition of the ‘White Australia’ Policy, accessed online 3rd April 2015:

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