Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Asylum-Seekers and National Histories of Detention

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Asylum-Seekers and National Histories of Detention

Article excerpt

The Australian system of mandatory detention for asylum-seekers, now more than ten years old, has been discussed, advocated, protested and analysed in just about every medium and arena imaginable: in parliament; by refugee lobby groups; as performance art; in numerous senate enquires; in various courts; as a staple of talkback radio; in investigative journalism; in street marches; in academic circles; amongst the families and communities of those seeking asylum; and in international diplomacy. The Tampa incident in 2001, in which the Australian government refused entry to hundreds of rescued asylum-seekers, repeated "riots" in the centres, and the scrutiny of human rights lawyers and the United Nations are the latest chapters in an increasingly controversial practice. If there is much left to do with respect to this issue, what is there left to say? What follows, we hope, offers a new perspective on, and argument about, detention centres. In particular, we argue for an historically grounded analysis of mandatory detention that looks both to parallels and to a lineage of confining non-criminal individuals and populations in Australia.

The significance of processes of exclusion for (national/racial/communal/ethnic) identity has been extensively considered from many perspectives. (1) Insofar as the detention centres have been understood historically, they are often placed within a genealogy of racial exclusions in Australia: the White Australia policy and its manifestation as the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth). Don McMaster's recent book Asylum-seekers provides the most explicit rendition of this idea: "Australia's history of immigration is also a history of exclusion". (2) He details how "a nation-state such as Australia can discriminate against its `other' by incorporating policies that[...] exclude targeted groups". (3) We concur that the current crisis in the management of asylum-seekers is part of this history of race-based exclusion as a way of securing national/racial identity in Australia. But here we seek to extend this understanding of detention centres by suggesting simply: exclusion and detention are not equivalent, even if they are historically related. Reconceiving the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers within a history of non-criminal detention, rather than a history of exclusionary practices, exposes precedents that have yet to be acknowledged, either by advocates or critics of the contemporary detention centres.

Current detention policies toward onshore refugee-claimants in Australia were foreshadowed in the history of quarantine confinement and in the wartime policies of enemy alien internment. In both of these carceral practices non-criminals were detained on grounds of their suspected threat to national security. However, the link we draw between quarantine stations, internment camps and current detention centres turns out to be far more than a process of comparison or drawing resemblances between detention strategies. Rather, there are telling connections and overlaps here, some direct and some indirect, but all circling around questions of citizenship, security, alien-ness, unfreedom and national security. Not simply exclusion and inclusion but detention has intermittently been part of the process in the definition and assessment of who belongs and who doesn't, and in enforcing and creating degrees of belonging and alien-ness in the project of nation-building. (4) This genealogy clarifies how confinement policies have, in times of crisis, prioritised collective security concerns over individual rights and the common law tradition of habeas corpus, and how detention, alongside exclusion, has created "Fortress Australia" in the past. But it also underlines that detention policies have never been uncontested: along with a history of internments we detail here a history of resistance to the justifications, scope and nature of detention in a liberal democratic polity. …

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