Understanding Australia’s Offshore Detention Regime

by Helena Zeweri and Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot

In a time of increasing global displacement, examining offshore detention is one entry point into understanding how asylum seeker lives are rendered as political and moral questions. The offshore quality of Australian detention is a telling example of the politics of invisibility and extraterritorial sovereignty that undergird state control of migrant bodies and personhood. As scholars have shown, Australia’s offshore detention regime, particularly since 2013, has reflected an immigration policy that enacts an unprecedented form of punitive pre-emption (Weber 2007) and a “total domination of space, perception, and human life” (Chambers 2015, 404).

This emergent conversation brings together multiple voices and analyses of a lesser known geography of carceral governance. In doing so, we aim to  highlight how Australia’s offshore detention regime’s efficacy lies as much in its transnational messaging and policy declarations as it does in its everyday bureaucratic technicalities and technologies.

Recent Developments in Australia’s Approach Offshore Detention

Australia’s immigration detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru and their associated apparatuses are a geographic configuration that reveal the intimate interrelations between Australian sovereignty, territory, and violence. Since a 1992 amendment to Australia’s 1958 Migration Act, all “unlawful non-citizens” (i.e., people who are not Australian citizens and do not have a valid visa) residing or traveling in Australia, must be detained until they are granted a valid visa. Operation Sovereign Borders, implemented in September 2013, is an intensification of this migration policy. Under the leadership of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, the 2013 launch of Operation Sovereign Borders marked an unprecedented partnership between Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection and Australia’s Defence Force to regulate its maritime borders.

Taking both an interventionist and preventionist approach, the new policy established and consolidated a network of immigration and military actors tasked with deterring, detecting, and intercepting incoming boats of asylum seekers, referred to as “unauthorized maritime arrivals.” The Department of Immigration and Border Protection (which, up until September 2013, was known as the Department of Immigration and Citizenship), began a global communications campaign, distributing pamphlets and billboards across refugee camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan that warned asylum seekers not to attempt to come to Australia by boat. It also developed an incentive plan for Indonesian boat smugglers to stop their activities and an offshore complex in Nauru and Manus Island (in Papua New Guinea) where ‘unauthorized maritime arrivals’ would be detained for an indefinite period of time.


An image from ‘Chauka, tell us the time,’ a film shot entirely on mobile phones inside Manus Island detention center.

Offshore detention is a notable component of recent Australian immigration policy. Between 2001 and 2008, approximately 1,637 people were detained in detention centers in Nauru and Manus Island. Comprised of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka, a majority were resettled in Australia, while the rest in New Zealand, Europe, and Canada, and others returned to their home countries. While offshore detention was a hallmark of asylum seeker processing since the early 2000s, it was in July and September 2013 that policies around offshore detention took on additional punitive qualities. In July 2013, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that all refugees who had arrived by boat would be resettled in Papua New Guinea, not Australia. In September, under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, not only would boat arrivals never be resettled in Australia, but they would actively be turned back.

As “unauthorized maritime arrivals,” asylum seekers can be perpetually displaced outside the Australian nation-state, yet not outside its carceral regime. As Roger Cohen argues in a New York Times editorial, the racialized logics of the offshore detention regime echo the 1901 “White Australia” immigration policy “under which the vast Australian land mass was portrayed as under threat of invasion by uncivilized ‘natives’ from across Asia.” However, offshore detention doesn’t merely respond to this racialized “threat”; it arguably capitalizes on it. “With more than $10 billion made available to the detention industry in Australia in recent years, it has been a field of experimentation [in transforming] volatility into value,” turning “imaginary threats to racial coherence” into an industry of border patrol and detention (Mitropoulos and Kiem 2015).

According to a report co-authored by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Australia’s offshore detention regime is cruel and punitive in that it is marked by insufficient healthcare, poor living conditions, and indefinite processing times. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has combined discourses of care and of violence to justify its policy. On the one hand, former Prime Minister Abbott declared that stopping boats was key to saving potential deaths at sea and was the ultimate act of compassion—even urging the EU in a 2015 speech to adopt a similar stance. On the other hand, a $15-million state-sponsored multimedia campaign circulated images of the appalling conditions in detention throughout refugee camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Using billboards, videos, and brochures, the Australian government actively sought to highlight the negative physical, psychological, and emotional impacts of living in detention—in effect, touting the state’s capacity to punish. The state’s unabashed adherence to this kind of deterrence policy was again demonstrated in 2015, when Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton argued that any attempt to alleviate conditions in the camps would encourage more asylum seekers to attempt to reach Australia by boat.

In recent months, increasing juridical scrutiny has shed light on the violence of detention. The Federal Government recently settled a class action suit for $70 million with asylum seekers detained on Manus Island. Lawyers argued that the Commonwealth “breached [their] duty of care by holding [asylum seekers] in conditions that did not meet Australian standards.”

While one lawyer has commented that individual settlement amounts will be calculated based on the length and conditions of an individual’s stay and the injuries suffered, questions remain around the details of assessing how claims will be judged from medical and legal perspectives. The effects of the settlement on the detention regime itself also remain unclear, as the Australian government has indicated that the settlement is not an admission of liability and has attributed responsibility for the “false imprisonment” of asylum seekers to the Papua New Guinea government. Further, there is speculation that providing financial compensation distracts from the aim of resettlement.

Efforts toward resettlement taken up in recent weeks have been contested and have generated further uncertainty. Although a group of 50 refugees living in Manus were approved and transported to the United States in September 2017 for permanent resettlement, those who remain face a precarious future. As the October 31st deadline to close Manus detention center nears, many are refusing to leave the center, citing unsafe conditions in Manus’ main town of Lorengau, where the government intends to transport them. Some view the government’s offer to transfer the remaining cohort to Nauru with suspicion. The offer letter states that the cohort can begin to apply to resettle in the United States while in Nauru or continue to live in Nauru for up to 20 years.

Reflections on the Changing Terrain of Offshore Detention

As the geography of offshore detention changes, questions emerge regarding how the mobility—and lives—of migrants will be governed. As work by political geographer Allison Mountz (2011) shows, Australia’s offshore detention regime represents a unique geography of islands where distance, invisibility, and sub-national status combine to regulate the mobility of migrants. This offshore geography also informs the governance of information about its own machinery, which is also key to its sustenance. Maintaining opacity about certain aspects of the detention center regime has been key to its very functioning (Calayag 2016, Dickson 2015, Nethery and Holman 2016). Under the Border Force Act of 2015, employees working in detention facilities can be punished by up to two years in prison for disclosing “protected information” about detention center operations. There were many ramifications of this policy, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Francois Crepeau, cancelling his 2016 visit to Australia because workers could not speak freely to him without the threat of imprisonment.

Additionally, shifting institutional forms, legalistic mechanisms, and rhetoric converts value judgments about migrant bodies and desires into claims about domestic insecurities, from terror threats to job insecurity. The recent announcement that Immigration Minister Dutton will be heading a Home Affairs ‘super ministry’ that combines the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and the Australian Border Force is a reminder of the ways that ‘threats’ to domestic security serve to buttress national infrastructure. This development coincides with the restructuring of major immigration policy changes, including the abolition of the 457 (temporary skilled work) visa; the reduction of the types of professions skilled foreign workers can apply for in Australia; and a proposed citizenship reform bill that introduces more stringent English proficiency requirements, extends the amount of time permanent residents can live in Australia before citizenship, and may even require a more explicit demonstration of allegiance to “Australian values.”


Movie poster for ‘Chauka: Please tell us the time’ (designed by Hesam Fetrati)

The Australian offshore detention regime thus offers an entry point into an anthropological conversation about asylum, detention, and immigration more generally. In the midst of a political culture of censorship, formerly detained asylum seekers, former detention center doctors and teachers, activists, and scholars have begun to unveil elements of offshore detention through the sharing of lived experience. In this series, we bring together the voices of people subjected to the Australian detention regime, activists and asylum lawyers, and scholars in conversation. We asked our interlocutors to reflect upon detention’s legal, political, and social dimensions. First, we consider what asylum procedure means within a settler colonial context and how entry conditions instantiate different relationships between asylum seeker bodies and the law through the optics of the border industrial complex (Mitropoulos 2015).

Forthcoming commentaries feature the voices of lawyers and advocates in Australia and the United States. They give a glimpse into how asylum procedure is not an event-based process that definitively ends. Practitioner contributions focus on how “arrival” can be indefinitely postponed and “mobility” cannot always be equated to a settled life in any meaningful sense.

Finally, we have also asked scholars to interrogate how the state enacts both a biopolitical and necropolitical project through offshore detention. While the state, on the one hand, claims to ‘save asylum seekers from drowning at sea,” it, on the other hand, actively deprives them of basic human necessities, with 12 people having died in detention thus far. As refugee rights advocate Roj Amedi noted in a 2017 interview, “The whole intent, when I talk to people on Manus and Nauru, is that people are actively denied their humanity and denied due process… It is an attempt to… break them and also make them an example for anyone else considering the various options to seek safety.”

In a similar vein, as one asylum seeker living in Manus, Abdul Aziz Adam, has reported, the government has been threatening to cut power, water, and services so that detainees can move to a nearby center, Lorengau, with little to no state support. Thus, we see elements of Achille Mbembe’s argument in which necropolitics seek actively destroy human bodies to deploy power and enact sovereignty (2003, 12). The spirit of this feature, then, is to contribute a multifaceted perspective on the geographies of violence that exist in the regulation of movement within and before Australian shores.


Calayag, Miguel Luigi L. 2016. “The Sovereign at its Shores: An Analysis on Australia’s ‘Stop the Boats’ Offshore Processing and Pacific Island Detention Policy for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.” Ateneo Law Journal 60(3): 964-984.

Chambers, Peter. 2015. “The Embrace of Border Security: Maritime Jurisdiction, National Sovereignty, and the Geopolitics of Operation Sovereign Borders.” Geopolitics 20: 404-437.

Dickson, Andonea. 2015. “Distancing Asylum Seekers from the State: Australia’s evolving political geography of immigration and border control.” Australian Geographer 46(1): 437-454.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. Translated by Libby Meintjes. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15(1): 11-40.

Mitropoulos, Angela and Matthew Kiem. 2015. “Cross-Border Operations.” The New Inquiry, 18 November.

Mountz, Allison. 2011. “The Enforcement Archipelago: Detention, Haunting, and Asylum on Islands.” Political Geography 30(3): 118-128.

Nethery, Amy and Rosa Holman. 2016. “Secrecy and Human Rights Abuse in Australia’s Offshore Immigration Detention Centres.” The International Journal of Human Rights 20(7): 1018-1038.