The Australian election on May 18, 2019, returned the incumbent conservative coalition government to power. Between May 18 and June 2, thirty-one refugees stuck on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea attempted suicide. According to fellow refugees on the island, the election result shattered any hope for a change of government that might somehow soften Australian policy and bring an end to the limbo that refugees had endured on Manus, some for over six years. The health service for refugees, funded by the Australian government, was not equipped to assist despite its multimillion-dollar contract, and the situation overwhelmed the local hospital. In an all-too-familiar escalation, a paramilitary police squad was deployed in response.

Well before this crisis, conditions in Australia’s offshore camps were described as “torture” by medical professionalsAmnesty International, and refugees themselves. Médecins Sans Frontières reported “catastrophic effects on …mental health” that are “among the worst that MSF has ever seen.” Twelve refugees have died while held offshore. Benham Satah, a Kurdish refugee who witnessed the bludgeoning to death of Iranian refugee Reza Berati by guards on Manus in 2014, was taken to the infamous “Chauka” isolation compound, a “prison within the prison” profiled in the 2017 documentary Chauka, Please Tell Us the TimeSatah reports being tied to chairs, beaten, and threatened with rape and murder if he did not retract his witness statement. He nevertheless testified in court, contributing to the arrest and conviction of two Papua New Guinean guards. Australian guards implicated in Berati’s death were quickly flown out of the country. The Australian government, which funds and oversees the offshore camps, refers all inquiries about these and other “incidents” to the government of PNG.

The offshore encampment of refugees on Manus Island and on the Pacific island state of Nauru is a well-known feature of Australian border security. The use of extraterritorial jurisdictions in border-policing strategies was, in fact, pioneered by the United States, whose policy innovations in the eighties and nineties provided the blueprint for the Australian model. The offshore strategy is now being actively studied by far-right parties in Europe that advocate for the Australian approach in the Mediterranean region.

Refugees on Manus Island resisted their treatment in different ways: in a series of hunger strikes and protests; in petitions to the Supreme Court of PNG; in class actions against the Australian government; in refusals to decamp from one site to another as superficial improvements were made to conditions of incarceration; and in acts of self-harm that unsettled the line between trauma and willful refusal to tolerate intolerable conditions. While imprisoned on the island, refugees also documented their experiences in a considerable volume of journalistic, literary, and artistic work.

By far the most high profile of this work is the writing of Kurdish-Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani, who spent over six years on Manus, contributing to the Guardian and other news media from the island prison. In his 2018 book, No Friend But the Mountains, compiled in thousands of WhatsApp messages sent to his translator in Sydney, Boochani provides a fine-grained testimony of prison life on Manus and a systemic critique of its conditions of possibility.

Alongside accounts of direct violence (beatings, sexual abuse, solitary confinement) Boochani reveals in excruciating detail the humiliating rituals of prison life. Forced to queue for everything from squalid toilets, to food and water, to razors and medicine (dispensed cup by cup, pill by pill, never in sufficient quantities), refugees turn on each other in petty squabbles and resentments that escalate predictably. Boochani shows how constant debasement, masquerading as the provision of care, operates systematically to pressure refugees to accept “voluntary return” to countries where their lives are endangered. He and others draw attention to the suicides among the refugees, but question the assumption that the dead took their own lives, or that they did so on account of preexisting trauma. The “hidden story,” argues refugee and blogger Imran Mohammad, is that these refugees were killed: “If we are not put in these kind of situations, we would never ever take our own lives. We left everything behind to live our lives, not to end them.”

Boochani argues that offshore detention can only be understood in connection with a longer history of violence that links Australia’s dispossession of indigenous peoples with Australia’s colonial relations in former protectorates in the Pacific — PNG and Nauru. A number of scholars have made similar connections between immigration detention and strategies of removal, separation, and enclosure that have long characterized Australia’s treatment of nonwhite others — indigenous and immigrant. If we are to understand why violence rules with impunity on Manus and elsewhere, it makes sense to study seemingly disparate sites of incarceration in relation to each other.

Consider, for example, Australia’s record of Aboriginal imprisonment. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples account for two percent of the adult Australian population and twenty-seven percent of its prison population. They are 12.5 times more likely than non-indigenous Australians to be imprisoned. In 2016, Australia’s national broadcaster aired CCTV footage of children abused inside the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, a high-security prison for juvenile offenders, in which the majority of inmates were indigenous. The image of fourteen-year-old Aboriginal boy Dylan Voller strapped to a “restraint chair” by his legs and arms with a “spit-hood” over his head, recalled images of Abu Ghraib — another infamous site of offshore incarceration — and was reproduced widely across national media. The exposé prompted a Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory. The commission’s report, released in November 2017, declared Don Dale and other detention centers in the Northern Territory unfit for purpose and recommended their closure. More specifically, the commission found that excessive and punitive use of isolation and force was systemic, but poorly documented, so its full extent was unknown. Tear gas was used without guidelines or procedures regarding thresholds of lethal contamination. Children were subjected to verbal abuse and humiliation, including being denied access to water, food, and toilets. Children were dared or bribed by guards “to carry out degrading and humiliating acts,”and “to commit acts of violence on each other.” Guards and managers working in the centers were unqualified, untrained, and incompetent, and recruited in a crisis-driven mode. The commission also found that superintendents, executive directors, ministers, and police had failed to respond to numerous internal and external reports of abuse, workplace dysfunction, and criminal conduct. In short, the problem was systemic and known at the highest levels of government, and nothing was done. The commissioners referred several matters to the police, including “potential criminal conduct by youth justice officers, the harassment or threatening of witnesses or potential witnesses, and the physical, sexual and neglectful abuse of children in out-of-home residential care settings.”

Six months later, Northern Territory police revealed that no charges would be laid in relation to the scandal, and Don Dale remains open to this day. In March 2019, the Northern Territory government introduced legislation that permits the use of force against juveniles in custody “for the purpose of maintaining good order of a detention centre.” Defending the legislation, Families Minister Dale Wakefield argued that the bill brought “clarity” to the system and reinforced trust in the judgment of center staff. According to Marty Aust, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory, the bill “extends the use of force, restraint and torturous confinement, potentially to levels beyond the practices” that prompted the royal commission in the first place.

There are striking parallels between these cases of onshore and offshore detention: denial of basic needs; punitive use of solitary confinement; assault with impunity; use of debasement as a tactic; incitement of detainees to debase each other; exacerbation of existing harms and production of new ones; recruitment of unqualified staff; and routine production of reports and exposés detailing abuses and breaches of the law that authorities disregard. Both onshore and offshore, governments have attempted to cover their tracks with retrospective legislation to circumvent potential liability for criminal conduct against detainees. It is not a stretch to suggest that similar techniques, punitive frameworks, and institutional cultures manifest onshore and offshore, resulting in systemic, predictable, and tacitly authorized violence.

There are also important differences, including in the nature of detention: criminal, in the case of Don Dale, and of limited duration; administrative, in the case of Manus, and indefinite. In her account of the institutional predecessors to Australian immigration detention centers, Amy Nethery argues that “people are subjected [to administrative detention] not because of what they have done, but because of who they are.” On this basis, she connects historical Aboriginal reserves, enemy alien internment camps, and contemporary immigration detention, but does not extend the comparison to the criminal justice system. Yet racialized policing within that system targets certain people on account of who they are in ways that make them more likely to be criminalized for what they have done.

In Australia’s Northern Territory, for example, the royal commission found that although policy frameworks championed equality before the law, policing and bail conditions targeted Aboriginal children in ways that directed them into the criminal justice system at disproportionate rates. In this respect, the commission echoed the findings of numerous other reports showing overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at all stages of encounter with the criminal justice system: more likely to be charged, more likely to be held in custody before trial, more likely to receive a custodial sentence, and so on.

Similarly, the refugees on Manus had been directed into criminalized forms of transit in ways that were skewed from the start. In Australia, as elsewhere in the global north, the availability of visas is limited by nationality and by “risk profiles” that disproportionately target countries of the global south, citizens within those countries of lower socioeconomic status, and citizens of countries suffering under precisely the kinds of conflicts and insecurities that would lead one to seek asylum. All of this maps onto what we might call a global color line. While visa restrictions may no longer be based on explicitly racial or religious criteria, their effects compound longstanding racial and civilizational divides. The refugees on Manus were simply not able to make a regular (legal) border crossing in order to seek asylum in a place that actually offered it.

A circular process of criminalization within spaces of detention generates further rationales for heavy-handed policing. When refugees and detainees refuse and resist their treatment, sometimes by protest and occupation (as in October 2017, when 600 men on Manus refused to relocate from one prison compound to another) and sometimes by destroying the infrastructure of detention (as in November 2018, when children in Don Dale set fire to the facility and tried to escape), a secondary form of criminalization occurs. The “out-of-control behavior” of refugees and detainees is registered as further evidence of criminal intent and justification for the use of force. Acts of self-harm (as when refugee Omid Masoumali set himself on fire on Nauru in front of representatives from the UNHCR) are read as forms of emotional blackmail or opportunistic efforts to “get what they want.” Pathologizing these kinds of acts as socially and culturally deviant makes it possible to rationalize, tolerate, and even champion the use of “transfer,” “restraint,” “isolation,” and “removal” to “maintain good order,” to “secure borders,” and to “enforce the law.” Bureaucratic language of this kind obscures the violence such responses entail.

Alongside Boochani’s critique, a growing body of scholarship draws attention to commercial and colonial dimensions of incarceration as a global policing technology. This work suggests that the offshore imprisonment of refugees and the onshore imprisonment of indigenous youth are not just analogous but complementary and reinforcing. Both cases are the products of a system of racialized policing that targets certain people on account of their bodies, beliefs, and identities in ways that make acceptable, or at least less outrageous, extremes of violence that would not be tolerated for others.

This kind of racialized policing is mirrored in the United States, where black and Hispanic people make up twenty-eight percent of the adult population but fifty-six percent of the prison population. In Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, Angela Davis argues that attempts to intervene against racialized policing must come to grips with the global context in which the criminalization of people of color in the United States becomes possible. She contends that there are links between what happens on the streets of Ferguson, in refugee camps in Gaza, and on migrant ships in the Mediterranean Sea, in terms of the militarization of border policing, the privatization of carceral infrastructure, and the international transfer of security techniques by governments and corporations. Nauru and Manus Island might be added to the list of sites to be probed for these kinds of connections. We might also interrogate the histories of settler colonial states as to how they condition the specific forms of incarceration multiplying in the present.

The global and historical dimensions of racialized policing make it clear that any short-term resolution to the crisis on Manus will not address the systemic issues at stake. In late 2019, the refugees who remained on Manus Island were transferred to Port Moresby. Those denied refugee status were sent to an immigration detention facility annexed to Bomana Prison and held incommunicado, without access to lawyers. If those imprisoned in Bomana were to finally submit to “voluntary return,” and those living outside the prison were to be resettled elsewhere, “the problem” would be resolved for both Papua New Guinea and Australia. But we can expect the next iteration of Manus prison elsewhere, whether at the hands of the Australian government or other governments eager to mimic Australia’s “success” in deterring refugees from its shores. Ending offshore detention is imperative — that much is clear. Equally imperative is to grapple substantively with the conditions of possibility for offshore detention, as one among other forms of violent policing — conditions that include enduring forms of racial and colonial division.

Anne McNevin is an Associate Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research. She is the author of Contesting Citizenship: Irregular Migrants and New Frontiers of the Political (Columbia University, 2011).

2 thoughts on “From Offshore Detention of Refugees to Indigenous Incarceration

  1. We know of the suffering the refugees have been undergoing on. They have not committed any crime so why would the people threat them as if they are criminals. The reason why they flew to other country is to escape the chaos they are facing in their home countries. We should try to understand their suffering and not judge them.

Leave a Reply