The ‘soft’ violence of onshore immigration detention

A fortnight ago, the government of Nauru informed Médecins Sans Frontières that their services were ‘no longer required’. The organisation was given 24 hours to cease their work with the 900 refugees and asylum seekers on the island. This news came amid reports of suicidal refugee children being denied transfers to Australia, and just weeks after a critically ill refugee was prevented from travelling to Australia for emergency (court-ordered) healthcare.

Refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island – where Australia closed its regional processing facility late last year – have faced similar treatment. In August, the Guardian reported that a refugee on Manus was ‘at risk of losing his leg or dying’ if his suspected broken femur remained untreated.

Reports of this kind have become alarmingly common in recent years, as detainees, whistle-blowers, journalists and human rights groups have spoken out about conditions ‘offshore’. These testimonies have painted a consistent picture of poor living conditions, physical and sexual violence, child abuse, and preventable deaths; they have also revealed profound humanity and strength in the face of injustice.

Australia’s policy of offshore processing has been condemned by the United Nations (UN), the Australian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières and Amnesty International, among other groups. Late last year, the UN went so far as to describe the situation on Manus as a ‘humanitarian emergency’.

While the violence of offshore processing is visible and overt, Australia’s onshore immigration detention facilities utilise a ‘softer’ – but no less real – form of violence.

It is widely accepted that immigration detention causes mental illness. Psychological research undertaken in Australia and abroad consistently finds that refugees and asylum seekers who are subject to detention experience high levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Self-harm and suicide attempts are widely reported, including in the onshore system. These mental health issues have been shown to worsen with time, such that longer periods of detention are associated with poorer outcomes. While pre-migration trauma may contribute to these problems, scholars have increasingly identified a causal relationship between immigration detention and mental illness.

Responding to these concerns, Australian governments have at times insisted that conditions in these centres are adequate. Indeed, the Australian Border Force site declares the agency to be committed to ‘the health, safety and wellbeing of all detainees’. While such assertions seem wildly inaccurate with respect to offshore processing, the situation is more complex where the onshore system is concerned. This is certainly not to suggest that the onshore system is innocuous. Rather, it is to acknowledge that the violence of onshore detention is usually less visible.

Sociologists have long understood that people can be broken through covert techniques of dehumanisation and disempowerment. Indeed, decades of research tell us that denying people control over even the seemingly small and mundane details of life can have a highly debilitating effect. Criminologists have similarly demonstrated that the micro-level ‘frustrations’ and ‘deprivations’ of imprisonment are some of the most emotionally challenging aspects of incarceration. In denying prisoners agency and reducing them to the dependent status of children, carceral institutions produce serious psychological ‘pain’.

Detainees in the Australian system are not criminals; they are held without charge or trial. Yet my research shows that they are subject to many of the institutional practices that are used in civilian prisons.

Inspection reports from the Australian Human Rights Commission tell a similar story, documenting:

  • escalating and inconsistently enforced rules regarding the admission of visitors
  • escalating and inconsistently enforced rules regarding the admission of food
  • restrictions regarding detainee movements within the facilities
  • restrictions regarding detainee use of outdoor spaces
  • changing and inconsistently enforced rules regarding detainee participation in leisure activities
  • (at times) excessive use of restraints, including during transportation
  • (at times) excessive use of body searches and room searches
  • limited access to meaningful activities
  • limited access to education and training, and
  • limited access to excursions

Participants in my study described detention as a constantly shifting system of rules and prohibitions. Games of soccer were permitted, and then banned. Games of pool were allowed, and then banned. Colouring-in was encouraged, and then banned. Excursions were organised, and then cancelled. Visitors were permitted to bring homemade meals into the facilities, and then they were not.

In addition to these controls, detainees were regularly moved between onshore detention facilities, often with little, if any, notice. As one interviewee told me, what is ‘horrible’ about detention is ‘the sheer random cruelty of it’:

They get abducted pretty much. Nobody knows and there’s constantly distressing scenes as one family or another is being dragged away to be put on a plane with very little notice. And it’s so upsetting for all the other refugees […] that they’re seeing people get hauled off and people are crying and begging and it’s all enacted in the middle of [the centre] in front of everyone else, and this happens day after day.

Detainees in the onshore system thus live in a state of perpetual uncertainty, knowing that their lives and destinies are largely outside of their control. Their powerlessness is continually communicated and reinforced through the daily practices of institutional life. And if they cannot exercise choice in small everyday matters, then a fortiori they lack agency with respect to their asylum claims. As such, they are never permitted to feel truly safe.

Of course, to claim that these ‘soft’ forms of violence are intentional is difficult to prove. What we might say, however, is that the harms that detainees suffer in this system are entirely predictable. We might also note that these harms serve ‘deterrence’ objectives. As one interviewee explained to me, ‘if one of the guys was to turn around [in despair] one day and say “I give up my application for refugee status, send me home”, the government would just send them home.’

As individuals and as a society, we need to express outrage at the stories that we’re hearing from Manus Island and Nauru. But onshore detention is not a solution.

When we call on the government to #closethecamps, we must be clear that we oppose indefinite mandatory detention in its offshore and onshore incarnations. And when we demand the government #bringthemhere, we must be firm that ‘here’ is not another detention centre, but a place of safety and security within our communities.



Image: Refugee solidarity vigil, Broadmeadows (2012) / Takver

Michelle Peterie

Dr Michelle Peterie is a Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong.

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  1. Thanks Michelle. Your description of the ‘random cruelty’, the constantly changing rules, reminds me of Primo Levi’s description of his entry into Auschwitz. Nothing made any sense. Rules were nonsensical or contradictory (a sole source of water was a tap whose water couldn’t be drunk). The bureaucracy of sadism always appears to be arbitrary and the victims (whether in camps or trying to access Centrelink services) spend much of their precious mental energy trying to manage that.
    Today, as the media is full of stories of children finally being moved off Nauru, I wonder how that arbitrary cruelty is being continued. Have the children been told what is happening to them and where they are going and why? Do their parents even know? In what ways is the ABF and the Morrison govt managing to turn the ‘rescue’ into a further act of cruelty?

  2. I am a detainee at Yongah hill immigration detention center and i was recently assaulted by a fellow detainee over a cigarette and he brutally attacked me that i had to seek medical attention and had X-rays taken on my fore arm due to the punches i sustained. reported the matter to the admin of the centrec but nothing much was done , still waiting on the police to help with investigations. Very stressed at the moment as i cant carry out daily duties. The matal plate on my arm is bent and i fear should i get deportrd this will affect my life back home. Kindly advice if you can help. thanks.

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