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Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean
08 Apr
Australia has been criticised for its use of offshore detention centres. Klaus Dodds explores the role of asylum detention in Australian politics

Detention centres are used by many states including the United Kingdom to detain, process and evaluate the claims made by refugees, asylum seekers, and other immigrants. The UK is not alone in pursuing border and immigration policies that have been criticised as arbitrary, harsh and insufficiently attentive to the legal and civil rights of those claiming asylum and refuge. Immigrants can be detained at any time and not necessarily on arrival at airports, seaports and railway stations. Human trafficking and illegal border migration tends to flourish when countries enact tougher border security and immigration policies. All of this is inherently geographical and reveals complex relationships between governments, private contractors and the externalisation of asylum.

One of the most controversial elements of immigration policy is out-sourcing. In February, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison declared that his government would re-open the detention centre on Christmas Island. Located more than 1,500 miles away from continental Australia, the Christmas Island Immigration Reception and Processing Centre (IRPC) was shut in 2018. Established in late 2001, the detention centre coincided with the implementation of ‘homeland security’ policies. Geographers have shown how and where asylum seekers are prevented from accessing territories and administrations that should provide protection.

The genesis of Australian out-sourcing actually lay with a controversy involving a Norwegian vessel, MV Tampa. In August 2001, the Australian authorities refused permission for the vessel to enter Australian waters, which declared a humanitarian emergency while transporting 433 rescued refugees. The ship was boarded by members of Australia’s special forces and the government in Canberra passed emergency legislation calling for further border protection. The Afghan refugees were transported to another remote territory, Narau, for refugee status processing. Australian-Norwegian relations suffered as a consequence of the Tampa affair, with Oslo adamant that the Norwegian captain of the vessel had no choice but to enter the territorial waters of Christmas Island.

Concern for controlling ‘irregular immigration’ became swiftly infused with fears over further terrorist threats. In 2002, some 88 Australian tourists were killed in the Bali terrorist bombing. From 2002 onwards, further investment was provided for the IRPC so that it could accommodate up to 1,300 people. Over the next decade, the facilities on Christmas Island and Narau were extended as numbers grew, at the same time news reporting detailed stories of unrest, mental illness and physical deterioration. The Howard government spoke of a ‘Pacific solution’ in 2002, and used this political geographical strategy to appeal to Australian voters that Australia’s borders were secure. While popular with segments of the Australian electorate, it continues to divide the country and Australian civil rights organisations and concerned lawyers are involved in ongoing legal challenges pertaining to the government’s provision of medical treatment and legal representation.

About the same time Morrison was outlining his plan to re-open the IRPC, a Sudanese detainee based on Manus Island was being honoured in Geneva by the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. Abdul Aziz Muhamat was given a special travel visa to attend the award ceremony, and used the event to tell his life story. Using WhatsApp messages, Aziz told others about everyday life in the detention centre and the realities of fleeing war, being detained, undergoing administrative processing and the accumulative damage of being in long-term legal and geographical limbo. A teenage refugee from the Sudanese civil war, he has been detained by the Australian authorities on Manus Island since 2013. In 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea declared that the detention centre was illegal, and formally closed it in November 2017. Since the closure, detainees are now held in accommodation blocks in the island’s main settlement, Lorengau. His long-term fate is uncertain.

The use of offshore detention processing centres such as Manus Island continues to attract international criticism. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees was unsparing in its criticism in November 2017 and criticised the Australian government for not fulfilling its ‘international obligations’. Morrison, a geography graduate, however, is unrepentant that Australia is going to take action against people smugglers and expressed dismay that parliament was making it easier for detainees to be medically evacuated to the mainland. While it might seem a humanitarian gesture, it attracted a litany of commentary warning that asylum seekers would fake medical conditions in order to get a foothold on mainland Australia.

The issue of asylum detention and processing is toxic in Australian politics. Morrison is a former Immigration and Border Protection minister and helped to implement Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013. This operation remains ongoing, and the current prime minister is on record as saying that his job is to ensure that ‘the boats don’t come’. 

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This was published in the April 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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