Bodies of protest

When the Australian Human Rights Commission released its report into children in detention on 6 February, the federal government’s response was to go on the attack. ‘This is a blatantly partisan politicised exercise and the Human Rights Commission ought to be ashamed of itself,’ Abbott said.

This ‘blatantly partisan’ exercise included the collection of hundreds of drawings, interviews, data from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, observations and expert testimonials regarding the psychological and physical wellbeing – or rather, significant lack thereof – of the 800 children who were in mandatory indefinite detention in Australia’s offshore processing camps during 2013 and 2014. Surprising exactly no-one, the report found that children in detention have significantly higher rates of mental health disorders than children in the community, that those on Nauru are suffering from ‘extreme levels of physical, emotional, psychological and developmental distress’, and that their presence in detention serves absolutely no purpose according to the stated aims of the political parties who put them there.

On the release of the most recent HRC report, Jeff Kennett, former Liberal Premier of Victoria and chair of BeyondBlue, the national depression organisation, weighed in on Twitter:


Perhaps Kennett needs some schooling about suicide and self-harm from his own organisation. He’s not the first, however, to attempt to shift the responsibility for imprisonment and persecution onto asylum seekers themselves. Asylum seekers have a choice, the argument goes. They can choose to flee persecution, or they can choose not to. They can choose the ‘right’ way – pretending for a moment that when one’s life is in danger one has time to think about ‘options’, and ignoring the fact that there is no legally ‘wrong’ way to seek asylum in Australia – or they can choose to send themselves to indefinite detention on a tiny Pacific island that has been overrun by white people with guns and money. Since they have so many ‘choices’, the only way to stop them drowning at sea is to set up these horrific detention centres as deterrents.­­

There’s a term for this kind of rhetoric: victim blaming. But it’s not a term we often hear in connection with asylum seekers. Victim blaming is a trope used to displace responsibility for assault, abuse and other types of infringements upon an individual’s rights. It does so by implicitly and explicitly suggesting both that the perpetrator of the crime or assault was not responsible for it, and that the victim brought it upon themselves by their own actions and thus could have prevented it. Crucially, it is not simply a tactic used by an individual perpetrator, but is often reinforced by social and political forces, including media, government and law enforcement. Coined by Black activists in the United States, the term has come into common use via feminist movements. Thus, the most common situation in which we hear about victim blaming today is from feminists in cases of gendered violence or sexual assault.

Feminism is a politics of the body. Feminists, more than anyone, are aware that the body is, as Michel Foucault wrote, ‘directly involved in the political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. This political investment of the body is bound up, in accordance with complex reciprocal relations, with its economic use’. Feminists have spent decades attempting to dismantle the architecture of the state that polices the body, and to critically hold those political forces to account for their infringements upon it. If there was ever a more pressing example of why feminists should be at the front line of the fight against offshore detention, this is it.

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein writes about the rise of the military industrial complex: proto-disaster capitalists who build a private military architecture and gut public and humanitarian services by funnelling a massive amount of state funds into security and surveillance companies to run political and military projects like the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The corporations who win these contracts make massive profits from a direct injection of public money, benefiting directly from the government privatising the work of the military and law enforcement. At the same time they subcontract services and deliver sub-par infrastructure that cannot sustain itself without ever-more-frequent hand-outs from state coffers.

The Australian political consensus has built its own billion-dollar industry out of international war. Offshore detention of asylum seekers was, according to the 2014 Commission of Audit, ‘the fastest growing government programme over recent years’. Over the last five years, annual expenditure has increased from $118.4 million to $3.3 billion – growth of 129 per cent per annum. At the time, projected costs over the forward estimates exceeded $10 billion. These contracts are lucrative, and investors love them: when Transfield Services signed on for $1.22 billion to continue the Manus Island centre in early 2014, its shares bumped by 24.5 per cent. Meanwhile, the conditions on the islands are so squalid that a man can die from a cut on his foot sustained while showering, children are on suicide watch, and onshore community services are defunded en masse in order to make up the shortfall.

In offshore detention, the government has built an entire industry on the subjection and imprisonment of the bodies of innocent people. Industry profit is the motive, victim blaming is the means. It’s time for this to end.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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  1. They were told before they got on the boats that they would never be settled in Oz. Therefore they ‘took the chance’ … and they are at least partly responsible for their demise. This govt has REDUCED the children in detention from about 2000 under Labor to a little over 100 now. This is a beat up.

    • “…or they can choose to send themselves to indefinite detention on a tiny Pacific island that has been overrun by white people with guns and money.”

      Great line. And great article.

      ‘A little over 100′ children in detention still seems like an awful lot to me.

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