The veil of secrecy

Asylum seeker deterrence policies are built on cruelty. In practice, deterrence involves the infliction of profound harm so that people in urgent need of refuge will seek safety elsewhere. Deterrence policies are popular with many Australians, and governments on both sides of politics have derived electoral advantage from hardline measures including mandatory detention. Yet these same governments have gone to great lengths to hide or whitewash the violence deterrence entails. This book is about these hidden realities, and about the human and societal costs of intentionally employing cruelty for political ends.

Australia’s immigration detention system is shrouded in secrecy. Since 2001, people seeking protection at the border have regularly been imprisoned in Australian-run facilities in the Pacific countries of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru. Australia’s now infamous policy of offshore processing has removed detainees from public view. It has also reduced accountability by placing detention facilities outside the jurisdiction of Australia’s courts.

Australia’s onshore detention system is also opaque. These facilities receive little attention in public debate and are largely invisible to the general community. Detainees in this system are hidden in plain sight – held in prison-like centres, many on the outskirts of major population centres.

One of the reasons Australia’s onshore detention facilities have fallen beneath the radar is because the cruelty enacted within them evades easy detection. Australia’s offshore processing facilities have attracted widespread condemnation in part because of their overt brutality. At considerable personal risk, detainees and whistle-blowers have ruptured the secrecy of these centres, sharing damning evidence of harsh conditions, inadequate medical treatment, and endemic physical and sexual violence. Given the constraining influence of Australia’s courts, open violence and ill-treatment are less prevalent in the onshore system. In comparison to conditions offshore, these centres can seem humane to a casual observer.

Yet rates of self-harm in onshore detention facilities are alarmingly high and indicate that people held within them are under significant strain. A 2019 study by Kyli Hedrick and colleagues, for example, found that the rate of self-harm among people in Australia’s onshore detention network is an alarming 214 times higher than the rate of hospital-treated self-harm in the Australian community. In contrast, the rate of self-harm among community-based asylum seekers is four times that of hospital treated self-harm in the Australian community.

This book offers a new and unique window into these onshore facilities, following detainees’ friends and loved ones as they enter detention centres as private visitors. In doing so, it makes three main contributions to the existing scholarship on immigration detention. First, it provides a rare qualitative account of how harm is enacted through carceral practices in Australian onshore detention centres. It exposes the shifting systems of deprivation and frustration that dictate life in these facilities, corroding health, hope and relationships, and maintaining a debilitating asymmetry of power.

Second, it adds to extant understandings of who is harmed by detention regimes. A wealth of evidence already exists concerning the devastating impacts of detention for people who are personally incarcerated (see von Werthern et al, 2018). Bringing together testimonies from detainees’ loves ones and supporters around Australia, this book highlights the unacknowledged harm detention imposes beyond the detainee. It also examines the emotional politics of solidarity within these institutions, illuminating both the potentials and pitfalls of care as a form of political resistance.

Finally, in locating visitor testimonies within Australia’s overarching programme of asylum seeker deterrence, this book makes a theoretical claim concerning why harmful practices endure and replicate in detention environments. Researchers and human rights organizations at times frame the adverse impacts of detention as a government failure or unintentional oversight. This book offers an alternative diagnosis. It demonstrates that the reverberating harms detention imposes are not failures of this system but rather evidence of its essentially malign function. Cruelty is the point.

Detention as deterrence

Australia’s immigration detention policy is driven by a political commitment to asylum seeker deterrence. Deterrence, as conceptualized in this book, can take two forms: general deterrence or specific deterrence. General deterrence refers to efforts to discourage would-be asylum seekers from travelling to countries where detention policies are in place. As Ephraim Poertner (2017: 18) explains, ‘the politics of [general] deterrence produces geographies of asylum that turn “location marketing” upside down’: countries compete with one another to become the least attractive destination for people seeking asylum.

Immigration detention is a primary instrument in many general deterrence regimes, but other restrictive or punitive policies can also function as general deterrence measures. Boat turn-backs, offshore processing,1 limiting access to permanent protection, and withholding social welfare or employment opportunities, for example, can all have deterrent effects if they make destination countries less attractive to asylum seekers (Gammeltoft-Hansen and Tan, 2017; Fitzgerald, 2020).

General deterrence measures are premised on the assumption that ‘pull factors’ (such as favourable immigration policies) influence migration flows as much, if not more, than the ‘push factors’ that force some people to flee their countries. It is highly unlikely that this is the case (Nethery, 2019; Bloomfield, 2016). Nonetheless, political leaders persist with policies of this kind – framing them, in Australia’s case, as effective strategies to ‘stop the boats’.

One of the ethical problems with the general deterrence paradigm, of course, is that many asylum seekers are fleeing violence and persecution in their countries of origin and are thus entitled to protection. The 1951 Refugee Convention recognizes the right of forced migrants to cross national borders without authorization to access safety. In this context, general deterrence policies are often framed by governments as necessary efforts to keep out people who are not really refugees (Kathrani, 2011). The fact remains, however, that the majority of people seeking asylum in Australia do have legitimate refugee claims (McAdam and Chong, 2014).

In addition to general deterrence, immigration detention policies can be understood as forms of specific deterrence. Specific deterrence involves efforts to persuade asylum seekers already in a country to abandon their refugee claims and return home (Hassan, 2000; Leerkes and Broeders, 2010). Where general deterrence aims to make coming to a country unattractive to all prospective asylum seekers, specific deterrence makes it untenable for those already in a country to stay. At times, financial and other incentives are also provided to further incentivize repatriation (see Whyte, 2014).

Australian governments have been open in framing immigration detention as an element of the country’s general deterrence policy (Coalition, 2013). Stemming the flow of new boats of supposedly ‘non-genuine’ refugees has been embraced as a core policy objective by Australian governments on both sides of politics. There has been a notable reticence, however, to openly admit that mandatory detention is also designed to harm people who have already come to Australia for help. Despite this, there is clear evidence that Australia has subjected people in detention to intentional cruelty in the service of specific deterrence. For example, documents leaked by a whistle blower in 2017 showed that staff at Australia’s PNG facility had been explicitly instructed to make life unpleasant for the asylum seekers detained there, in an effort to pressure them into accepting ‘voluntary’ repatriations. The Guardian reported at the time that,

For more than a year, camp managers and security staff […] waged a campaign to make Australia’s detention centre for refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island as inhospitable as possible. […] A plan drafted in early 2016 outlines moves to coerce those recognised as refugees into leaving the detention centre and accepting resettlement in Papua New Guinea, while pushing asylum seekers to abandon their protection claims and return home. (Boochani et al, 2017: np)

The same year, a United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee report found that harsh conditions offshore had ‘reportedly compelled some asylum seekers to return to their country of origin, despite the risks that they face there’ (np). While these returns may not have technically breached Australia’s non-refoulment obligations,2 they cannot be characterized as genuinely voluntary (Webber, 2011; Gerver, 2017; Leerkes et al, 2017; Peterie, 2018a).

It is rare for documents to emerge that so clearly demonstrate premeditated cruelty in the service of specific deterrence. So far, comparable evidence has not surfaced concerning Australia’s onshore detention system. It is the contention of this book, however, that the onshore network must also be understood in the light of this objective of specific deterrence. Subsequent chapters will show that even the quotidian details of life in detention reveal a tacit intention of specific deterrence.

The study

This book provides a unique account of Australia’s onshore immigration detention system by documenting the experiences of people who enter these spaces as visitors. This visitor perspective is partly a pragmatic one – studying secure institutions if far from simple, and researchers in Australia are routinely denied access to detention spaces (Zion et al, 2010). Yet this perspective also underwrites the book’s main contributions as visitor testimonies help illuminate both the less-obvious strategies through which isolation and desperation are produced in detention, and the reverberating impacts of this carceral regime.

The empirical research that informs this book took place over five years (2015–20) and involved more than 70 in-depth interviews3 with regular visitors to Australia’s onshore detention facilities. Participants variously described themselves as volunteers, advocates, activists, and/or friends to people in detention, and often saw themselves as fulfilling more than one of these roles simultaneously. The majority of participants came from non-refugee backgrounds and were permanent residents or citizens of Australia. Most had begun visiting detention because they wished to render assistance. The two things all participants had in common were a close connection to at least one person in detention, and regular physical interactions with the detention machine.

Interviewees were invited to share their stories of visiting detention. Participants told me about their original decisions to commence their visits. They explained what visiting involved on a practical level, both physically and emotionally, and reflected on the escalating rules and restrictions that governed their visits. They spoke at length about the friendships they developed within detention; about how the logic of the detention system shaped their (new and existing) relationships; and about their efforts to both offer and receive hospitality and care. Visitors talked about their friends’ lives in detention and described – often through tears – the human costs of mandatory detention. They also shared their own struggles to endure the damaging effects of the system.

Participants were asked if any memories stood out to them as highlights or lowlights, or as otherwise representative of what visiting detention entailed. Making room for narratives in qualitative interviews is valuable because it gives participants greater scope – through their selection and curation of stories – to highlight what they consider to be the most salient aspects of their experiences. It also allows participants to reflect on why these stories are of particular significance, and to communicate the complexity of their lives and emotional landscapes. As Jane Elliott writes, narrative-based research affords a unique ‘understanding of the social world from the perspective of the individuals being studied’ (2005: 122; emphasis added).

Interviews were conducted with detention centre visitors in the Australian states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia. While the majority of interviewees visited facilities in Australia’s largest cities of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, together the interviewees had visited all of the major facilities in the onshore system as it existed during the research period,4 as well as numerous Alternative Places of Detention (APODs) (see Figure 1.1).5

Figure 1.1:
Figure 1.1:

Facilities in Australia’s onshore immigration detention network 2015–20.

Note: Facilities include Villawood IDC, Sydney; Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA), Brisbane; Maribyrnong IDC, Melbourne; Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA), Melbourne; Adelaide Immigration Transit Accommodation (AITA), Adelaide; Perth IDC, Perth; Wickham Point IDC, Darwin; Yongah Hill IDC, Yongah Hill; and North West Point or Christmas Island IDC, Christmas Island. The network also includes numerous APODs.

Source: Adapted from Creative Commons, derivative work of File:Oceania98.svg by User:Brianski

In addition to these empirical interviews, this book draws on extensive archival research, conducted between 2013 and 2021. Parliamentary Hansard database Parlinfo was used to access ministerial press releases and speeches from recent decades; physical collections at the National Archives of Australia were used to access older materials. This research – which focused on the discursive narratives that have accompanied and justified government policies – informs the historical background provided in Chapter One. The socio-political context this research affords adds something important to our understanding of both why the participants in this study commenced visiting detention, and what these visits mean at the political level. Several Freedom of Information requests were also lodged during the writing of this book and have been used to confirm and contextualize visitor testimonies, particularly where they describe official institutional rules and policies. Wherever possible, detainees’ own words – carefully gathered from public social media posts, media interviews and Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) inspection reports – have been included to provide a first-hand perspective concerning the realities of detention centre life and the significance of centre visitors.

Outline of the book

This book tells the story of Australia’s onshore immigration detention system across eight chapters. Chapter One locates the system in its political and historical context and, in doing so, explains why the participants in this study felt a moral imperative to visit the people Australia detains. It describes the vilification and politicization of asylum seekers in Australia, and the evolution of Australia’s controversial policy of indefinite mandatory detention. The specific policy backdrop for this book – Operation Sovereign Borders – is described in detail.

Chapter Two provides a theoretical scaffolding for understanding the functions of Australia’s immigration detention facilities, and how violence is enacted w ithin this system. Drawing on research concerning the production of psychological pain in civilian prisons, it highlights the clandestine mechanisms through which carceral institutions inflict pain in socio-legal contexts where overt violence is not socially or legally tenable.

Chapter Three describes the process individuals must go through to gain entrance to detention facilities in Australian, demonstrating that these centres largely operate as prisons. It shows that visitor application and entrance processes have become complex and intimidating in recent year as centres have taken an increasingly securitized approach to visitor admission. In describing these processes and their escalation, this chapter begins to reveal the mechanisms of bureaucratic control that characterize Australia’s onshore detention system. It also shows how visitors are targeted as part of this system.

Chapter Four explores the daily realities of life in detention, as witnessed and experienced by centre visitors. The chapter paints a detailed picture of immigration detention facilities as prison-like environments in which detainees are made to feel their vulnerability in the small details of institutional life. Rules are regularly changed and erratically enforced, and micro-level controls function to infantilize and disempower. This elaborate system of deprivations and frustrations keeps detainees in a state of anxious vigilance. It also extends to target visitors, positioning them as quasi-inmates and frustrating their efforts to provide meaningful help.

Chapter Five examines the relationships that develop between detainees and visitors, and considers the political significance of these friendships. It shows that in an institutional context where deterrence is enacted through the micro-level production of isolation and despair, visitors’ efforts to disrupt the socio-emotional conditions of detention can constitute a meaningful (if imperfect) form of political resistance. It also demonstrates that visitor-detainee relationships can be a basis for more recognisable forms of political action as visitors advocate for detainees and bear public witness to institutional violence.

Chapter Six concerns the use of involuntary movement within the detention network. Against the backdrop of the previous chapter, it shows that the practice of regularly relocating detainees within the detention system attacks their networks of care and resistance. While detention facilities are often envisaged as places of confinement, forced movement is an important aspect of how these institutions enact power. Instability, despair and compliance are produced not only through the bleakness of institutional life, but also through the forced relocation of detainees between detention facilities and away from the visitors who provide social, emotional and instrumental support.

Chapter Seven documents the impacts of immigration detention on centre visitors. It acknowledges the benefits visitors derive from their relationships, but also highlights the traumatizing dimensions of the visitation experience. Visiting detention, this chapter shows, involves witnessing trauma. It also involves a painful experience of secondary prisonization as visitors are targeted by a broader scheme of deprivation and frustration within the centres. The visitation experience is thus characterized by feelings of powerlessness and ontological disruption that at times feed into visitor attrition – thus serving to isolate detainees and further breed despair.

The book concludes with a brief review of the study’s main findings, emphasizing the importance of recognizing the multiple forms of violence that immigration detention centres employ and the tacit intent that underlies them. The harms documented in this book are not accidental but reflect a policy logic that accepts and even requires cruelty as a mechanism of control. In practice, deterrence involves the strategic production of despair as detainees and their supporters are pushed to breaking point to achieve crude political objectives.

In telling the stories of detention centre visitors, this book sheds light on the best and worst of Australian society. It relates stories of friendship, humanity, solidarity and resistance. Its ultimate conclusions, however, are stark. Australia’s onshore detention system inflicts predictable and preventable harm. It harms detainees, and it harms the people who endeavour to support them. It does so by design.