An Unlawful Non-Citizen Is Being Detained or (White) Citizens Are Saving the Nation from (Non White) Non-Citizens

By Bird, Greta | University of Western Sydney Law Review, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

An Unlawful Non-Citizen Is Being Detained or (White) Citizens Are Saving the Nation from (Non White) Non-Citizens


Bird, Greta, University of Western Sydney Law Review


The refugee is the representative of total otherness and the symbol of our own exile ... Her arrival reminds us that we too, in our safe houses are never at home ... (1)

The title of this paper is prompted by Gayatri Spivak's construction of the sentence 'White men are saving brown women from brown men.' Spivak describes her 'insistence on imperialist subject-production as the occasion for this sentence ...' In this she confesses she 'discloses a politics'. (2) In choosing this title I too am revealing a politics and will speak of agency, responsibility and subject production.

In this paper I draw on theorists such as Derrida, Levinas, Agamben, Lacan and Kristeva and explore the detention of 'unlawful non citizens' in Australia. I look at the nation's resistance to difference. Australia's legal foundations are rickety (3) and there is, I argue, a horror in the collective unconscious of the original inhabitants and those others who cross the borders without invitation. There is a resort to distraction and denial and an evading of responsibility on a large scale. I demonstrate this by analysis of a 2004 High Court judgment, the Al-Kateb case. (4) Here the majority of the judges find Ahmed Ali Al-Kateb 'an unlawful non-citizen being held in detention'. The 'law' or the 'executive' has spoken; the judges and ordinary citizens are innocent. (5) The 'state of exception', indefinite detention without trial, becomes unexceptional. The case raises questions of the limit of the doctrine of the rule of law and of the nature of justice.

July 2004

Jean Baudrillard theorises that 'as consumers of mass media, we never experience the bare material event but only the informational coating that renders it 'sticky and unintelligible' ...' (6) The media distorts; but where the government restricts access to information these outlets often provide the only means we have of uncovering what is being done in our name. The federal government refuses to allow the media into the detention centres on the grounds that the refugees' 'right to privacy' must be respected. (7) In January 2004 an ABC journalist was arrested and charged near the Woomera Detention Centre, and other journalists warned to leave the vicinity. The Australian Press Council expressed concern at the restrictions on media access to asylum seekers. The Council stated that 'the real issue is the right of the Australian people to know what their government is doing in their name.' (8)

This 'regime of censorship' means that Australians have 'only the haziest picture of what life is like behind the wire ...' (9) However, I share responsibility for their erasure. I agree with Levinas that monstrous acts, such as the Shoah, arise where 'the other person becomes ... faceless ... someone whose life or death is for me a matter of indifference.' (10)

Stories of conditions in detention centres have been reported by those few officials with access to refugees. For example, Dr Glenda Koutroulis, a psychiatric nurse at the Woomera Detention Centre, resigned and spoke out in breach of a confidentiality clause in her contract at Woomera. Koutroulis felt that to remain silent would be 'to collude with torture'. Inside Woomera, she witnessed on an almost daily basis asylum seekers slashing and mutilating their bodies and suicide attempts. Attempts to self-harm were often initiated by children, she said. (11) Although an indirect account of hidden suffering, news items such as this are an assault; the pain of knowing that fellow human beings, children, women and men are locked in detention centres because they have breached 'our borders' is unbearable. Their erasure behind the razor wire is indecent.

As an employed person in a wealthy western nation, I have an opportunity to be in denial and at times I tune out. Erasure takes place at both institutional and personal levels. Baudrillard writes that the 'verite experience is ... a frisson of the real, an aesthetics of the hyperreal, . …

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