What is a Camp...?
La Trobe University
What is a camp, what is its juridico-political
structure, that such events could take place there?
Among the innocent victims of the 9/11 terror attacks are several
thousand asylum seekers in the west, non-combatants painfully caught
at the point where the 'war on terrorism' meets the 'war at home'.
Indeed, more than a point of intersection, the bodies of asylum
seekers and refugees are the very media through which the 'war on
terror' is normalised into 'the war at home': through the new forms
of control and power it seeks to exercise over the bodies of asylum
seekers, the war abroad becomes the war at home.
Sanctioned and nourished by the fervour of war, heightened forms
of surveillance at the border combine with new powers of monitoring
and policing within. The hunt for hidden enemies in our midst imparts
new zeal to the racialisation, criminalisation and targeting of
suspect groups. Old and current racisms couple in new combinations,
and domestic agendas mesh with transnational ones. The boundaries
of national belonging and citizenhood are reconfigured through initiatives
like the 'Patriot Acts' in the Unites States, the White Paper on
citizenship in the U.K, new anti-asylum seeker policies throughout
the European Union and ever-expanding measures for 'Border Protection'
in Australia. Denationalisation and deterritorialisation are the
key technologies in the new consolidation of national limits.
This essay, part of a longer project on citizenship post 9/11, focuses
on deterritorialisation in Australia and maps its networks of relations
in time and space -- its scattered genealogies, geopolitical configurations
and current political meanings. The essay is inspired by Giorgio
Agamben's theorisations of the camp in western modernity. It is
structured as a series of extended riffs prompted by his writings.
A place that is...not Australia
1. 'Woomera Detention Centre' is an image of another world: a landscape
of the known, yet chillingly alien. In this photograph the postcard
familiarity of the Australian desert - dust, sand, open horizons,
empty skies - is both affirmed and overturned. The outback as prison
is confined, sequestered, uncannily ordered space; but still vacant
of life, extraterrestrial in its emptiness. The photograph shows
a place that is, and yet is not, Australia.
2. In 'Woomera
Detention Centre Annette McGuire realises visually a place
Bernard Cohen described in 1992, when asylum seekers first became
subject to compulsory, indefinite detention on our shores: There
are foreign people in Australia thinking foreign thoughts. Some
are locked up in Villawood, at the detention centre. Some are restrained
in Perth. In those places, you see, they are not really in Australia.
They are in the empty ungoverned space of their bodies, I guess,
confined within not-Australia.
3. Not-Australia is a place of strange oxymorons and uncanny repetitions.
Here, space confines and vastness isolates. The desert and the ocean
alike become prisons. More than two hundred years after the convict
ships the Pacific is again imagined as penal zone. In the centenary
year of Federation Fortress Australia stages a victorious return.
'Border Protection' becomes (again) the order of the day.
4. In not-Australia Australia's history reappears in unfamiliar
yet still recognisable guises. Indigenous Australians remember other
internment camps from the not-too-distant past: children's dormitories
encased in chicken wire; grids of regulation housing cutting through
complex interweavings of kin, language and place.
5. Echoing the Dickensian hulks of imperial times, the government
considers hiring large ships as holding pens for asylum seekers.
Not-Australia too has its aspirations to empire. It expands
from the mainland camps to swallow Christmas Island, the Cocos Islands
and Ashmore Reef: by an act of legislation asylum seekers who arrive
here will be deemed not to have arrived. They find themselves nowhere
but in not-Australia. Outside our national borders not-Australia
establishes neo-colonial outposts on Nauru and Papua New Guinea;
it attempts forays into a Fijian former leper colony, to an uninhabited
island of Kiribati, into East Timor, Tuvalu, Palau... This initiative
is termed, apparently without an ear for inauspicious resonances,
the Pacific Solution.
6. The inmates of not-Australia are, in official phraseology, unlawful
non-citizens. They are Not-Australian and unAustralian; the stuff
of contraband: traffic, illegals, human cargo. Non-people. In Tony
Birch's phrase, they are unpeopled: the ones whose human suffering
may not be seen or recognised.
Woomera Detention Centre reveals a site where people are
not to be seen. What remains to be seen is the camp. The camp, unpeopled,
as a location that speaks in time and space.
I. THE EUROPEAN CAMP
8. In a series of far-reaching essays throughout the 1990s Giorgio
Agamben theorises the emergence of the camp in Western modernity,
identifying it as both 'the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of
the West' (1998:181) and 'an event which decisively signals the
political space of modernity itself' (1997:113). In Agamben's thinking
the concentration camp is constitutive of contemporary life in the
west. Examining the juridical and political structure of the camp
'will lead us to regard the camp, not as an historical fact and
an anomaly belonging to the past ... but in some way as the hidden
matrix and nomos of the political space in which we are still living'
9. In a key essay, 'The camp as nomos of the modern' , Agamben locates
the origins of the twentieth-century European concentration camp
in Spanish campos de concentraciones in Cuba and British camps for
Afrikaner prisoners in the Boer War. In this genealogy the initial
characteristics of the camp are colonial war, with an implicit racial/ethnic
difference in the interned population, and the invocation of a 'state
of exception' based on considerations of 'national security' rather
than criminal behaviour on the part of those imprisoned. The camp
claims its justification in this concern for 'national security',
a concern that allowed the first German camps to be founded not
by the Nazi regime, but by a Social-Democratic government declaring
'a state of siege or of exception and a corresponding suspension
of the articles of the German constitution that guaranteed personal
liberties' (1997: 107).
of the camp in our time appears as an event which decisively
signals the political space of modernity itself. It is produced
at the point at which the political system of the modern nation-state
(which was founded on the functional nexus between a determinate
localization (land) and a determinate order (the State) and
mediated by automatic rules for the inscription of life (birth
or the nation) enters into a lasting crisis, and the State decides
to assume directly the care of the nation's biological life
as one of its proper tasks. If the structure of the nation-state
is, in other words, defined by the three elements of land, order,
birth, the rupture of the old nomos is produced ... in the point
marking the inscription of bare life (the birth which thus becomes
nation) within two of them. Something can no longer function
within the traditional mechanisms that regulated this inscription,
and the camp is the new, hidden regulator of the inscription
of life in the order - or rather the sign of the system's inability
to function without being transformed into a lethal machine.
Agamben 1997: 113-4
10. Anxiety over 'national security' in turn justifies the formalisation
of the camp: 'The importance of this constitutive nexus between the
state of exception and the concentration camp cannot be overestimated....
The camp is the space which is opened when the state of exception
becomes the rule. In the camp, the state of exception ... is now given
a permanent spatial arrangement, which as such nevertheless remains
outside the normal order' (1997:108). The camp as exceptional space
is both inside and outside the nation: it is excluded from and at
the same time included in the space of the national by its inscription
within the very juridical and political structures that decree its
|The camp as dislocating localization is
the hidden matrix of the politics in which we are still living,
and it is this structure of the camp which we must learn to
recognise in all its metamorphoses into the zones d'attentes
of our airports and certain outskirts of our cities. The camp
is the fourth inseparable element which has now added itself
to - and so broken - the old trinity composed of the state,
the nation (birth), and land.
Agamben 1997: 113-4
11. The camp's inhabitants are those deemed
to have no claim on the nation but, paradoxically, are brought even
more firmly under its control by virtue of their exclusion from its
laws. The space of the camp is thus a 'zone of indistinction between
outside and inside, exception and rule, licit and illicit, in which
the very concepts of subjective rights and juridical protection no
longer made any sense' (1997: 110). In this hybrid space of exception,
a hitherto unperceived gap between the categories of 'the human' and
'the citizen' is exposed in the figure of the denationalised citizen,
such as the Jewish or Gipsy outcast of the Third Reich, or the stateless
refugee. Such figures, 'growing sections of humankind [who] are no
longer representable inside the nation- state' (2000: 201) in fact
embody the crisis of that formation. The refugee or 'stateless' figure
represents that which cannot be contained within the nation-state
because of anxieties over 'national security', and is therefore relegated
to a new space, 'the camp', within state boundaries, and yet outside.
The camp thus appears as a 'space of exception' within and without
It is significant that the camps appear together
with new laws on citizenship and the denationalization of citizens
(not only the Nuremberg laws on citizenship in the Reich, but also
the laws on denationalization promulgated by almost all European states
... between 1915 and 1933). The state of exception, which was essentially
a temporary suspension of order, now becomes a new and stable spatial
arrangement inhabited by the bare life that can no longer be inscribed
in that order. The growing dissociation of birth (bare life) and the
nation-state is the new fact of politics in our day and what we call
camp is this disjunction. To an order without localization (the state
of exception, in which law is suspended) there now corresponds a localization
without order (the camp as permanent space of exception). The political
system no longer orders forms of life and juridical rules in a determinate
space, but instead contains at its very centre a dislocating localization
which exceeds it and into which every form of life and every rule
can be virtually taken. (Agamben 1997: 113-4).
12. The structure of the camp as a 'dislocating
localization' that exceeds the political system of the state is a
space where the 'national' is placed in suspension: not-Australia.
This space of the camp, where the category of 'citizen' is no longer
operative, also is the space where the claims and limits of the 'human',
what remains as a residue of the 'citizen', are tested and revealed
in lethal form. The figure of the refugee or 'stateless' individual
exposes the purchase of 'the human' and its rights once divested of
the rights it bears as a citizen.
13. This limited purchase of 'human rights' beyond citizen's rights
is exposed today in the new category of stateless person revealed
to the world at Camp X-Ray: the shackled, gagged, ear-muffed and blindfolded
figure of 'the battlefield detainee' on its knees before heavily armed
guards. In Camp X-Ray the camp as space of exception achieves a new
global dimension in the post-September 11 world. This U.S military
base at Guantanomo Bay, Cuba, a symbol of the unfinished business
of an older war, is a dislocating localization par excellence as the
holding place for those prisoners of the war in Afghanistan who are
deemed somehow not to be prisoners of war.
14. In this space of exception captured
soldiers of the war in Afghanistan, including the Australian citizens
David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, are placed outside the protection
of the 1949 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, the guarantees
of U.S domestic law or that of their own countries (Robertson).
While any U.S nationals who fought on the wrong side are removed
to the U.S mainland where their prerogatives of citizenship are
upheld, the citizens of other states are effectively denationalised.
An image of the 'human rights' that remain to these stateless prisoners
is powerfully visualised in their exposed chain-link pens more reminiscent
of cages than cells. A new category, 'the battlefield detainee'
comes into being, normalising Camp X-Ray as a global space of exception
outside either national or international law.
15. This construct of the 'battlefield detainee' is characteristic
of a war of category confusions and bizarre doublings: a war where
soldier, terrorist and refugee can be made indistinguishable, where
victims fleeing Taliban oppression can be constructed as potential
'sleepers' for its terror, where international conventions fail
to protect asylum-seekers from being criminalised as 'illegal';
a war where cluster bombs and food parcels share similar packaging;
where loyal, long-term residents are denuded overnight of rights
by the quaintly named 'USA-PATRIOT Act', and secret trials, forced
interrogations and summary executions are re-imaged as no longer
the instruments of tyranny but the prerogatives of Enduring Freedom.
II. THE AUSTRALIAN CAMP
We have for too long been regarded as
dispossessed in our own
land, aliens in our own land, 'citizens without rights' in our own
16. How is Agamben's genealogy of the European
camp as a space of exception and denationalisation inflected or
reshaped by specific histories of colonial dispossession? What is
the role of the camp in an Australia that was itself conceived as
a permanent holding pen for those excised from citizenship in the
body of the British nation?
17. The imperial fantasy of a gulag continent where Britain's criminal
classes could be permanently despatched depends in turn on the institution
of a different kind of camp: an internment camp for the population
they displaced. Tony Birch has discussed how, after the foundational
period of colonisation, the establishment of the Board for the Protection
of Aborigines in 1860 marked a period when the dispossessed Aboriginal
was reconfigured as 'a landless and homeless refugee' (17). The
Australian camp where denationalised Indigenous people were held
in the second stage of colonisation is an institution that combines
the functions of the colonial war camps or campos de concentraciones
with the lethal ends of the classic European camp. In Alexis Wright's
novel Plains of Promise the character Elliott reflects on
the Australian camp:
It was like a war, an undeclared war.
A war with no name. And the Aboriginal man was put into their prison
camps, like prisoners in the two world wars. But nobody called it
a war: it was simply the situation, that's all. Protection. Assimilation
... different words amounting to annihilation. The whiteman wanted
to pay alright for taking the lot. But they didn't want to pay for
the blackman's culture, the way he thinks. Nor for the black man's
language dying away because it was no longer tied to his traditional
country.... The white people wanted everyone to become white and
they were willing to pay out something for that, even though they
believed what happened was not worth much.... Yet no one could change
the law - so Elliott muttered to himself as he crossed the whiteman's
roads ... nothing could change the essence of the land.... Elliott
visualised the hands of white people writhing with some kind of
illogical intent to misuse and swallow up what was not on a map
imprinted in the ancestry of their blood. (75)
18. Australian colonisation's attempt to
effect a rupture in the indivisible Indigenous category of blood/law/land,
of country, that 'map imprinted in the ancestry of their blood',
is accomplished by dislocating the native from the citizen. Through
the mechanism of the camp the native becomes that which is, by definition,
set apart from the citizen. If the European camp signals modernity's
rupturing of a trinity of state, land and nation, and the disjunction
between birth and nationality, the human and the citizen, the colonial
Australian camp marks a yet further rupture by producing a third
category, the native, to signify something other than both the citizen
and the human.
19. The Australian camp is the site where the prisoner-of-war camp
meets the long-term aims of colonial assimilation/annihilation in
the forms of the outstation, the penal camp and the mission. This
Australian camp takes varied forms, beginning with Tru-ger-nan-ner
and the Bruny Islanders at Wybalena and moving across the spectrum
of places where Indigenous peoples have been removed from their
country and confined: from penal stations like Palm Island and mission
stations like Cherbourg in Queensland and Framlingham in Victoria
to Cootamundra and Sister Kate's, those 'homes' for stolen children.
The characteristics of the Australian camp include unpaid labour
by children and adults and control over domestic and sexual life
(for example, the regulation of marriages according to degrees of
'caste' and colour), as well as the genocidal forms of reeducation
aimed at eliminating the Aboriginality of their inmates (HREOC,
20. Although it refers to U.S histories, Angela Davis's framework
for a 'racialised genealogy of the prison' provides a further model
for thinking the Australian camp. Proposing a 'genealogy of imprisonment
that would differ significantly from Foucault's', Davis (1998: 97)
calls for an understanding of imprisonment that can recognise and
'accentuate the links between confinement, punishment and race'
At least four systems of incarceration
could be identified: the reservation system, slavery, the mission
system, and the internment camps of World War II. Within the U.S
incarceration has thus played a pivotal role in the histories of
Native Americans and people of African, Mexican and Asian descent.
In all these places people were involuntarily confined and punished
for no other reason than their race or ethnicity. (1998: 97)
21. Davis's framework enables a new understanding
and linkage of the sites of enforced exclusion for nonwhite or non-Anglo
as well as Indigenous populations in Australian history. For non-Indigenous,
nonwhite people in Australia these include forms of segregation,
immigration control and internment, from the quarantine stations
and so-called Japtowns and Chinatowns throughout the country in
the 1900s to the internment camps of World War 2. Forms of racialised
confinement and separation combined with the denationalisation and
deterritorialisation of certain racialised subjects link immigration
policy and the domestic programs imposed on Indigenous people. Through
these links both the native and the alien are produced as populations
needing to be contained within the spaces of the camp and located
outside the limits of the Australian nation.
22. At the same time, racialised segregation, institutionalisation
and deportation were complementary means employed to prevent the
possibility of lasting alliances between the native and alien. Records
from multiethnic regions such as Broome or Darwin reveal how different
forms of racialised and gendered punishment colluded with one another
to organise and police relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous,
nonwhite populations, simultaneously excluding both groups from
citizenship. Immigration by nonwhite women was restricted. Marriages
between 'coloured alien' males and Indigenous women were prohibited,
while 'cohabitation' was punished with deportation of the male partner,
with any children of the unions characterised as 'non-natives at
law' and removed from their mothers to be placed in institutions
for 'half-castes' (Yu). These histories underline the structural
role played by the camp in both immigration control and the control
and surveillance of Indigenous peoples.
23. Although the bulk of her essay focuses on the specificities
of slavery as a form of racialised punishment, Davis provides an
invaluable conceptual frame for pursuing intersections between the
colonial camp (the reservation or mission system), the internment
camp (for prisoners of war or perceived enemy and alien populations
within the nation) and the prison. While Foucault's European model
of imprisonment was primarily 'based on a construction of the individual
that did not apply to people excluded from citizenship by virtue
of their race' and therefore considered unworthy of 'the moral re-education
that was the announced goal of the penitentiary', Davis points out
that Foucault elsewhere recognises the role played by the prison
'to concentrate and eliminate politically dissident and racialized
populations' (Davis 1998: 97-98). In this light the Australian camp
for Indigenous peoples, in its manifestations as mission, outstation
or penal settlement, can be understood as a hybrid site that combines
a number of functions of the camp and the prison, aimed at 'concentrating
and eliminating' Indigenous populations through assimilation and
'correction' as well as through enforced labor, confinement and
24. This intersection of camp and prison is the point at which racialised
populations become subjected to processes of criminalisation. To
quote from Chris Cunneen's (2000: 10) study of the policing of Indigenous
communities, 'Criminalisation is a key part of the building of the
nation and the nation-state through processes of exclusion' .
25. Consolidating a vision of national
morality or building a consensus of 'national values' are processes
linked to the generation of moral panics around particular groups
and the projection of an aura of criminality and danger upon certain
minoritised populations. Historically in Australia racialised criminalisation
extends both to Indigenous people, whose legitimacy and claims to
the land are thus written over, and to migrant and refugee populations
who disturb the coloniser's sense of self. Themes of crime and contamination,
of migrants and asylum seekers as potential corrupters of morals,
carriers of disease and 'sleepers' for terror against whom fortress-like
barriers must be erected, resonate deeply with the historical anxieties
of the white Australia policy.
26. In the case of Indigenous people, Cunneen writes:
Criminalisation excludes and isolates
Indigenous people from the assumed national consensus, and undermines
both citizenship rights and Indigenous rights. Criminalisation legitimates
excessive policing, the use of state violence, the loss of liberty
and diminished social and economic participation. Criminalisation
also permits an historical and political amnesia in relation to
prior ownership of the land, contemporary land rights and Indigenous
self-determination. The political rights of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander people as Indigenous peoples are easily transformed
into seeing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a 'law
and order' threat to national unity. (2000: 10)
27. Positioning Indigenous people as a
'law and order threat to national unity' makes it possible to recast
politicised opposition and resistance against colonisation as forms
of persistent, perhaps inherent, criminality. Cunneen reveals the
intimate structural and institutional links between the 'processes
of colonisation and criminalisation, and in particular the role
of the police in that process' (2000: 3), tracing the historical
function of the police who played a military role in suppressing
Indigenous resistance to colonisation, as well as acting as custodians
with power over every aspect of Indigenous Peoples' lives. These
histories underlie Indigenous understandings of institutionalisation
as a continuum - for example, in the continuities between the places
where stolen generations were confined and contemporary forms of
detention and institutionalisation for young Indigenous people.
Racialised punishment in Australia, then, historically combines
the roles of camp and prison authorised by specifically targeted
forms of criminalisation and anxieties over 'national security'.
III. THE IMMIGRATION IMPRISONMENT CAMP
[We are] not refugees here; we are prisoners
in this country,
being bashed up and beaten.
Detainee at Curtin camp, Quoted in Joint Standing Committee on
Foreign Affairs and Trade, Report on Immigration Detention Centres
We are not paying for what we have done. We are paying for what
I think we came to a very racist country.
Dr Ameer Sultan, Detainee at Villawood, Los Angeles Times,
5 January 2002
28. In a 1998 essay, 'Refugees in a Carceral
Age', Jonathan Simon proposes the term 'immigration imprisonment'
to describe the incarceration of refugees in the U.S in the 1980s
and 1990s. Simon deliberately substitutes imprisonment for the official
term detention 'since the entire approach of [his] essay
is to doubt the meaningfulness of this distinction' (1998: 578).
Nonetheless, he concludes that sites such as the Krome Avenue Detention
Center in South Florida, the prototype for later U.S detention centres,
represent 'an important mutation of imprisonment as a modern
technology of power' (1998: 599, my emphasis). Here, while Enlightenment
notions of the prison as a site for reformation and the production
of future democratic citizens cannot be entirely discarded, 'in
practice ... the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] immigration
imprisonment campaign invokes the earlier tradition of monarchical
use of imprisonment as a site for enforcing undemocratic and unaccountable
political orders' and 'belongs to a facet of governmental power
largely unconstrained by the precedents of twentieth-century constitutional
law' (1998: 600, 585).
29. Simon locates the beginnings of this 'mutation' of imprisonment
in the wake of Mariel boatlift, and the massive exodus of Cuban
and, later, Haitian refugees to Miami in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Unlike the anticommunist, mostly affluent Euro-Caribbean arrivals
from Cuba in the early years of the cold war, the Marielitos were
largely dark-skinned, poor, unskilled and quickly categorised as
the discharge of Castro's jails and asylums. Arrivals from Haiti
were racialised to an even greater extent, stigmatised as carriers
of AIDS, a disease associated with the worst fears of the 1980s.
Haitian boats were at first intercepted and turned back by the U.S
coastguard. Later, in response to international protests over violations
of the non-refoulement clause of the 1951 Refugee Convention,
Haitians were first interned in camps outside the reaches of U.S
law at Guantanomo Bay, that recurring place of imprisonment for
the denationalised internee, and then sent to Krome detention center
on the U.S mainland.
30. The decision to incarcerate these particular asylum seekers,
Simon reveals, drew on interlocking factors that positioned them
as politically undesirable, racially and morally dangerous and economically
unproductive in a Reaganite environment that promoted linked fears
about race, crime, drugs, morality and welfare dependency. The imprisonment
of this racialised group of refugees complemented the increasing
role of domestic incarceration where '[b]roadly speaking, incarceration
seems to be taking up the slack of governance left by the global
redistribution of the manufacturing economy which has left whole
communities to be organized by crime, law enforcement, and welfare'
31. In this sense, '[w]hile immigration imprisonment appears to
... reemphasize the power of the nation-state, its deployment is
more reflective of a new hybrid politics of local and transnational
forces' . The displacement of populations impoverished by globalization
meshes with a first world response through the 'form and function
of imprisonment [that] further emphasize the features that the emerging
global society treats as virtues' (Simon 1998: 602-3). Hence the
increasing presence of low-cost prisons and detention centres managed
by private operators in sites converted mostly from military uses,
and located in remote regions where they provide new employment
for disaffected local populations.
32. In Simon's analysis the U.S incarceration of refugee and asylum
seekers in this period feeds and is fed by intertwined anxieties
around race, criminality and national security, and combines the
specific demands of a globalised economy with a form of imprisonment
that harks back to absolutist prerogatives. In this model, the rhetoric
directed at its criminalised inmates is punitive rather than reformatory
or penitential. This mutation of monarchical, national and transnational
elements simultaneously complements the role of domestic imprisonment,
targeting populations already over-represented in the prison system
while also promoting and responding to transnational flows.
33. The contemporary detention camp then can be understood as a
mutant form of imprisonment that responds to the needs of the new
strain of racism A. Sivanandan identifies as 'xeno-racism', a hybrid
racism combining contemporary elements with all too familiar old
ones: 'racism in substance, but "xeno" in form' (Fekete
2001: 1). The apparatus of xeno-racism operates throughout North
America (Canada and the U.S), the European Union countries and Australia.
34. Liz Fekete has discussed the joint
mobilisation and transnational cooperation of 'western security
agencies, supranational global bodies, inter-governmental agencies
and national governments' in producing a xeno-racist discourse that
attempts to manage responses to refugees and asylum seekers:
The War Against Trafficking
serves, in effect, both as the means of and justification for states
to recast asylum seekers in the public mind as illegal immigrants.
To break domestic immigration laws
is now redefined as a
criminal act, even though the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of
Refugees upholds the right of refugees to break domestic immigration
laws in order to seek asylum. In such ways has the EU succeeded
in shifting the terms of the asylum debate so as to treat asylum
seekers not as people from many different countries, with many different
experiences and each with an individual story to tell, but as a
homogenous and undifferentiated mass. Hence, the fascination among
its politicians and press with flat statistical projections of asylum
flows; hence the offensive language in which migratory movements
of displaced people are described in terms of environmental catastrophe;
hence the dehumanisation of asylum seekers as a mass,
horde, influx, swarm. In this,
xeno-racism against asylum seekers resonates with the past. Jews
under Nazism, Blacks under slavery, Natives under colonialism,
were similarly dehumanised, held to hold mass characteristics which
justified exploitation, victimisation and, in the last, genocide.
(Fekete 2001: 6)
35. Fekete links xeno-racism with slavery
and colonialism as well as Nazism, returning us to continuities
Agamben identifies with the European concentration camp as 'the
hidden matrix of the politics in which we are still living, and
[whose] ... structure ... we must learn to recognise in all its
metamorphoses' (1997: 113-4) in the new spaces of exception produced
My name is asylum
I was born in here
Here is the detention centre
The centre is circled by wire
Wire makes it scaring
The wire is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
1 is the wire for closure
2 is the coiled barbed wire
3 is the protection for 1 and 2
4 is the razor wire on the top of 3
5 is the high fence
The higher fence
Which stops birds coming inside
Stops thoughts and imagination
Which stops the world outside
The higher fence which becomes
The border between me and Australia
© Angel Boujbiha
(from a poem sequence written while interned at the Villawood
detention camp, Sydney. Quoted with the kind permission of the author)
Where do the nuclear-tipped missiles
rain down? Where is the
uranium mined, the toxic waste dumped, the missiles tested,
and where are those who flee interned?
isolated detention camps cannot be disowned as anomalies in an otherwise
healthy, democratic society, nor disconnected from a global system
of xeno-racism. In multiple mappings in this essay they are situated
through complex histories of racialised punishment and the prison-asylum
complex enmeshed in a hybrid politics of local and transnational
forces. In the political and juridical order of the nation, they
constitute the 'materialization of the state of exception' that,
in Agamben's words, places us 'virtually in the presence of a camp
every time such a structure is created' (1997: 113).
|[I]f the camp consists in the materialization
of the state of exception...then we must admit that we find
ourselves virtually in the presence of a camp every time such
a structure is created, independent of the crimes that are committed
there and whatever its denomination and specific topography.
The stadium in Bari into which the Italian police in 1991 provisionally
herded all illegal Albanian immigrants before sending them back
to their country, the winter cycle-racing track in which the
Vichy authorities gathered the Jews before consigning them to
the Germans, the Konzentrationslager fur Auslander in
Cottbus-Sielow in which the Weimar government gathered Jewish
refugees from the East, or the zones d' attente in French
International airports in which foreigners asking for refugee
status are detained will then all equally be camps. In all these
cases an apparently innocuous space...actually delimits a space
in which the normal order is de facto suspended and in
which whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on
law, but on the civility and ethical sense of the police who
temporarily act as sovereign.
Agamben 1997: 113
37. Official Australian representations
attempt to locate the camp in a different cluster of associations
and meanings. In September 2000 a parliamentary committee concluded
an inquiry into detention camps with a report bearing the ambiguous
title Not the Hilton. This title encapsulates the equivocations
that characterise official representations of the camps. On one
level it reproduces the doublespeak of Immigration Minister Ruddock
who frequently asserts that plenty of 'ordinary Australians' would
be delighted to move into the facilities at Woomera or Port Hedland,
while at the same time affirming, with chilling understatement,
that these are neither five-star hotels nor places where people
are sent for their own comfort or pleasure. At another level, the
title invokes the infamous 'Hanoi Hilton' where U.S prisoners of
war were held: a grim nod in the direction of the breakouts, hunger
strikes, violence, psychosis and terror that characterise life in
what former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser described as Australia's
38. The hotel/prison/asylum allusions play on the distinctions between
forced and voluntary sojourns, recalling the Immigration Minister
Ruddock's favourite rejoinder to critics of mandatory detention:
that asylum seekers are not being forcibly confined - they are free
anytime to go back where they came from (Paddock 2002). These
representations oscillate between the contradictory meanings encompassed
by the word camp as a site designed for either pleasure or pain:
the camps as innocuous and even desirable 'detention facilities'
(Joint Standing Committee on Migration, ix), and the camps as necessary
evils, places of 'deterrence', protective custody and deserved punishment
where people must be locked up both for their own good and the protection
of the community. These representations appeal to public support
for law and order, fostering a sense of commonality across racial,
ethnic and class boundaries and establishing a divide between the
lives of decent Australians and the dangerous and alien illegals
locked up on the other side of the razor wire.
39. It was not until about the end of 2000 that Australian detention
camps, almost completely ignored except by a few former detainees
and their supporters during the first eight years of their existence,
finally began to gain public visibility. This visibility was heightened
as international media became alert to the links between Australian
camps and a series of global events in the six-month period beginning
with the Tampa stand off in August 2001 and leading up to the protracted
hunger strikes at Woomera (and other Australian camps) in early
2002. Abroad, this period included the 9/11 terror attacks in the
U.S, Operation 'Enduring Freedom' in Afghanistan and the establishment
of Camp X-Ray at Guantanomo Bay, all events that inflected domestic
policy decisions as well as perceptions of the detainees in Australian
|Woomera is a remote town, 500 kms from Adelaide
(Australia). It is also the centre of an economy of death, suffering
and incarceration founded on the dispossession of indigenous
lands. Our humanity is obliterated in Woomera, in the concentration
camp, by missiles, by nuclear weapons, by toxic waste, by colonisation,
by capitalism, by fear and division.
40. Since the mass protests there in early 2002, Woomera has
received increasing levels of international coverage as the worst
of Australia's camps (Ham 2002). Woomera, the location of the most
sustained protests against the indefinite, indiscriminate and compulsory
detention of asylum seekers, is also the place where resistance has
met with the greatest violence. In August 2000 water canon were brought
into use for the first time on this continent against the inmates
of the Woomera camp (Hoffmann 2001: 28). In the months since, Woomera
has been the scene of repeated breakouts, violence and, most recently,
of protracted hunger strikes and extreme acts of protest, including
mass lip-sewing. Perhaps the most telling image of this surge of protest
is the action by Mahzer Ali, an Afghan asylum seeker who literally
laid his body on the razor wire to draw attention to the plight of
his nieces and nephews - aged from 5 to 13 years old - held in detention
for over thirteen months (West 2002).
41. The concentration of violence at the Woomera camp is not accidental.
Woomera can be located in a series of interlocking economies that
link it to the global military and prison complex as well as to a
long history of domestic dispossession and struggle at places such
as the atomic test site at Maralinga and the Roxby Downs uranium mine.
According to the activist website woomera2000.com:
The Woomera Prohibited Area is a vast military
zone originally created for the testing of atomic bombs at Maralinga
and Emu Field and testing of missiles to launch nuclear weapons.
The US military spy-base Nurrungar was also situated here until
its functions were moved to the CIA spy base at Pine Gap near Alice
Springs in 1999. The rocket range continues to be used by the Australian
airforce, navy and army, as well as other countries' military such
as the US and Singapore, to test weapons. Military and aerospace
companies are also using Woomera to develop weapons systems. The
bombing of Afghanistan and the genocidal blockade of Iraq were given
a helping hand by Woomera.
42. This history underpins the recent representations
of the Woomera camp as akin to Camp X-Ray, suggesting a structural
and ongoing rather than a merely superficial connection between
these two zones of exception so thoroughly enmeshed with western
military initiatives of the cold war and after.
43. Given its history as a U.S base until the late 1990s the town
of Woomera provides an ideal setting for a detention camp, offering
new sources of employment for a local community inured to secrecy
and unlikely to have many prior links with the detainees or their
histories. Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), a subsidiary
of the U.S Wakenhut Corporation, replaces the U.S government as
the town's new patron, supplying, like the U.S military, a transient
workforce with few local connections or investments. Through the
movement of staff between the camp and ACM's other operations, as
well as through the parent company, Wackenhut, Woomera - like other
Australian camps - is simultaneously inserted into the global punishment
industry and the Prison Industrial Complex (Gordon 1998-9).
44. As throughout much of Australia, in the absence of local knowledge,
public understandings of the camp's mostly Muslim, Middle Eastern
or Arab inmates draw heavily on orientalist stereotypes reinforced
by current racialised anxieties. Detainees are linked with groups
recently targeted by a number of highly visible domestic events:
the frequent reports by officials such as the NSW Premier and Police
Commissioner that ethnic gangs and thugs of Middle Eastern
appearance terrorise suburban Sydney; by representations of
Islam as a violent and misogynist religion inherently oppressive
of women, representations buttressed by tabloid accounts of racially
motivated rapes of Anglo-Australian women by gangs of Middle Eastern
men; by studies linking high levels of unemployment with suburbs
identified with Arab and Middle Eastern migrants; by claims that
these populations are intractable to assimilation into the Judeo-Christian
value-system and work ethic. These homegrown representations collude
with and are swelled by international, mostly U.S-based, reports
of Islamic terror and fundamentalism.
45. The conflation of the Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern asylum seeker
and the fundamentalist terrorist was reinforced in 2001 by the events
leading up to the Tampa stand-off, followed only a couple
of weeks later by the terror attacks in the U.S. In the climate
of an approaching general election the great repulse of the Tampa
served first as a surrogate war for the government and later, fortuitously,
was available to be mobilised into the charged emotional rhetoric
of the real war in Afghanistan (Perera 2002). Then Defence Minister
Reith's remark that the Tampa's passengers could well include 'sleepers
for terrorism' is only the most obvious example of the ways in which
asylum seekers became stand-ins for terrorists. A more insidious
instance was Prime Minister Howard's statement that people who could
throw their children overboard were not the sort of people he wanted
in this country (Allard and Clennell 2001; MacCallum 2002).
46. Here, asylum seekers were asserted
to have behaved in inhuman and incomprehensibly violent ways and
represented as the kind of people who would stick at nothing to
achieve their ends - thus being linked by imputation to the perpetrators
of the 9/11 attacks. The continuing revelations about the Howard
government's role in promoting lurid and increasingly gruesome rumours
about asylum seekers - that they were the type of people who could
throw their children overboard or sew up their children's lips in
order to blackmail decent Australians - only reinforce the conclusion
that a deliberate campaign was waged to associate asylum seekers
with fanaticism, terror and inhumanity.
47. The merging of the asylum seeker into the terrorist and the
representation of aspiring refugees as threats to national security
serves a further function. It in turn legitimises a militarised
response against the unarmed and defenceless. Hence the rhetoric
of border protection so heavily invoked in the lead-up to the 2001
general election and in the 2002 budget. The boarding of the Tampa
by armed SAS troops was also the prelude to drastic new legislation
which (among other things) authorised the navy forcibly to intercept
and 'push off' asylum seekers from Australian waters (Kelly 2001;
Marr 2001). One such instance, the HMAS Adelaide's decision to open
warning fire on, and then board, a boat carrying asylum seekers,
was the cause of the boat's sinking and the children thrown into
the sea allegations. A few days later two women asylum seekers drowned,
the first fatalities directly attributable to the new 'push off'
policy, as fire broke out on yet another boat boarded by the Australian
navy. Once again, earlier sensationalised allegations by politicians
that asylum seekers had deliberately set fire to their own boat
were later challenged and quietly allowed to subside (Garran and
Sanders 2001; MacCallum 2002).
48. The militarised approach that positions asylum seekers as a
dangerous, illegal and even criminally deranged enemy is actualised
in the increasingly prison- or fortress-like appearance of Australian
camps. The New York Times clearly recognises this aspect
of the camps in its description of Woomera published in the wake
of the December 2001 protests:
a truck that looks like a fire engine
pump stands at the ready, with a water cannon to dispel crowds.
Strips of galvanized steel form a 20-foot-high fence topped by a
spiral of shiny razor wire. Inside that fence is another coil of
razor wire, stretched out on the dirt, five feet high. Yet another
metal fence rises behind that.
A sign at the gate says, "Welcome to Woomera Immigration, Reception
and Processing Centre." (Gaylord 2001)
49. The militarised appearance of Woomera
embodies the logic by which the asylum seeker, represented as an
illicit and dangerous figure, becomes liable to punitive detention
in the prison-asylum complex. In this field of confusion and misrecognition
the anti-Taliban asylum seeker and the pro-Taliban fighter are cast
as indistinguishable. Since January 2002 a series of parallels have
been drawn by both foreign media and the mainstream Australian press
between the treatment of detained asylum seekers at Woomera and
the 'battlefield detainees' held at Camp X-Ray. An editorial in
the British newspaper The Independent described Australia's
treatment of asylum seekers at Woomera as 'an even uglier drama'
than the one at Guantanomo Bay (Ham 2002), while The Sydney Morning
Herald published a front-page colour spread captioned 'Two Jails
... guess which one is barred' (January 29, 2002), arguing that
Camp X-Ray was in fact the more accessible and open of the two camps.
50. More than anything else, the reception of these accounts indicates
the extent to which current policies towards asylum seekers have
become normalised in Australia. The absence of any great
public or government protest at the comparison suggests on one level
the success of official representations of asylum seekers: in the
toxic smog of misinformation generated by our leaders any distinction
between the punitive imprisonment of enemy soldiers and the precautionary
custody of asylum seekers (likely future citizens, after all, given
the high rate of refugee claims proven to be genuine) becomes inoperative
or irrelevant. But on another, ominous, level the absence of public
or official objections to comparisons between Woomera and Camp X-Ray
reveal the failure of the government's protestations about the innocuous
nature of its 'detention facilities, services and activities' (MacCallum
2002: 8). This tacit consent of (according to all accounts) the
wide majority of the Australian public to practices that mete out
similar treatment to asylum seekers and enemy soldiers is nothing
less than a tacit agreement in the face of the camp.
51. Australia's assent in the presence of the camp regularises that
space of exception 'in which the normal order is de facto suspended
and in which whether or not atrocities are committed depends not
on law, but on the civility and ethical sense of the police who
temporarily act as sovereign' there (Agamben 1997: 113). And, indeed,
as ACM and DIMIA [Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous
Affairs] operate as the sole authorities in these spaces of exception
and the juridical and political protections of national and international
law are placed in suspension, our collective national assent to
the institution of the camp entails also an assent to all that is
implied in the idea of the camp.
52. In recent months Australia's camps have been described as 'gulags'
(by former Prime Minister Fraser) and 'hell holes' (by Democrat
Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja). In January 2002 in the wake of the
mass protests at Woomera, members of a medical delegation made a
considered comparison between Woomera and a concentration camp,
arguing that although the former does not share the Nazi camps'
aim of deliberate extermination, its levels of depersonalisation,
isolation and denial of the humanity of its internees deserves no
other name (Dudley, Mares and Gale 2002).
53. Nor can analogies with Nazism be dismissed
as the ravings of fringe groups or intellectual 'elites': it was
no radical or member of the despised 'chattering classes' but a
former navy chief, Rear Admiral Richard Peek, who described government
control of information about asylum seekers as being 'rather in
the way the German population was treated by Dr Goebbels. If it's
not the Australian Navy, I think it's the Australian public. They're
being kept from the truth of what's going on in the world' (Garran
and Saunders 2002).
54. The spectre of the concentration camp cannot be exorcised even
from official government accounts, such as the report of a second
parliamentary committee on Australian detention camps concluded
in 2001. Although the report by the Joint Standing Committee on
Foreign Affairs and Trade is, on most counts, a circumspect document,
the preliminary part of the report contains the passages:
4. 237 .... most committee members were
shocked by what they saw during their visits to the six centres.
4.238 Earlier in this chapter there was a reference
to the physical impact the detention centres had on those members
who made the visits: the double fences, barbed wire. Inside the
centres the strongest memory some committee members retained was
the despair and depression of some of the detainees, their inability
to understand why they were being kept in detention in isolated
places, in harsh physical conditions with nothing to do. (65)
55. The parliamentarians' report succinctly
reveals the meeting of the double-edged word "asylum"
in the regime of Australia's detention camps: here people seeking
a haven of refuge and protection are instead confronted with prolonged,
involuntary incarceration in a punitive, institutionalised environment
that imperils their very being (Silove, Steel and Mollica 2001;
Rogella and Highfield 2001; RACP). The Report acknowledges the destructive
impact of prolonged isolation and involuntary confinement on its
inmates, an acknowledgment that also entails an implicit understanding
that the almost daily occurrence of violent events in the camps
is no aberration, but an inevitable response by both inmates and
custodians to the institution in which they function. The inmates'
past and present, their very humanity, are consumed and erased by
the institution: My name is asylum/I was born in here...
56. The report contains the (repressed) recognition that at the
heart of the disturbing and troublesome events that occur on a daily
basis in our 'detention centres' is the very structure of the camp.
|The correct question to pose concerning
the horrors committed in the camps is, therefore, not hypocritically
to ask how crimes of such atrocity could be committed against
human beings. It would be more honest, and above all, more useful
carefully to investigate the juridical procedures and deployments
of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived
of their rights and prerogatives that no act committed against
them could appear any longer a crime. (At this point, in fact,
everything had truly become possible).
Agamben 1997: 110
Breaching the Camp?
The government uses ... isolation to
convince the refugees that they are not
welcome in this country. That, where they have landed is not Australia
DIMA Land and ACM Land. If you were them why wouldn't you believe
why wouldn't you believe that they haven't landed in Australia -
the land of the
free, but in DIMA and ACM Land? And in a funny kind of a way they
the truth. This government has declared certain sites of land unAustralian
the laws that operate in these camps and consequently their whole
life is unAustralian.
23 February 2002
57. The destructiveness of the camp is
inextricable from its function of quarantine and isolation. Razor
wire and metal fencing mark out the camp as a space of exception,
a place that is not-Australia - DIMA Land or ACM Land - and within
whose carceral structure inmates are at once denationalised and
dehumanised. Five layers of wire protect the threshold between Australia
and its other, not-Australia, DIMA Land, ACM Land.
58. The 'Imaginepeace' Busketeers are a group of Australians who
rode a Freedom Bus to Australia's isolated detention camps expressing
their support for asylum seekers. Their actions were designed to
perforate and dislocate the boundaries of the camp: by placing their
own daily lives in suspension to travel to the isolated places where
asylum seekers are quarantined; by physical attacks on the fences
surrounding the camps and attempts to cut through the razor wire;
by symbolic actions such as flying kites or throwing flowers and
messages across the border into not-Australia. By these acts protesters
deliberately mark themselves as unAustralian. They confound, puncture
and displace the boundaries between included and excluded, camp
and nation, symbolically denationalising themselves from the official
uses to which Australian is put.
59. These acts of symbolic denationalisation are performed in a
climate where citizenship has taken on new weight in many western
countries. In the wake of 9/11 heightened policing and surveillance
of the borders combine with added restrictions on nationality and
citizenship (Fekete 2002). Legislative moves like the U.S 'Patriots
Act' subject long term residents to the risk of summary denationalisation
on the grounds of religion, ethnicity or race, while the U.K White
Paper on citizenship proposes unprecedented links between the English
language and British nationality and citizenship. Denationalisation,
criminalisation and racialisation are the triangulated links by
which the category of the 'citizen' is shored up from within as
the 'War on Terror' wages on at home and abroad.
60. In this context the un-Australian activities of the Busketeers
and their allies defy the current consolidations and certainties
of the 'citizen', while along a different axis the sinister trinity
of denationalisation, criminalisation and racialisation provides
opportunities for other forms of alliance and action by groups traditionally
excluded from full participation in the nation. As Jane Bai and
Eric Tang write, since 911 in the U.S Arabic and South Asian migrants
in particular have been positioned 'at the forefront of racist state
violence' as 'the new face of racial profiling, racist laws, and
deprivation of civil liberties' - issues that hitherto have been
a primary focus for Afro-American activists. 'Thus', Bai and Tang
conclude, 'the "war at home" also provides a strong basis
for new forms of collectivity among immigrants, citizens of color,
and indigenous peoples in the fight against the prison industrial
complex' (Bai and Tang 2002).
61. The need to mobilise through different alliances, collectivities
and coalitions suggests in turn new possibilities for realigning
and reconfiguring identities and struggles within the nation-state.
Countering official attempts to consolidate or reinforce the figure
of the citizen, the formation of new categories and identities around
the refugee can be envisioned as stages in the dissolution of the
citizen as the privileged repository of rights and in the dismantling
of the lethal structure of the camp on which the nation-state depends.
In a scenario of denationalisation and deterritorialisation of the
citizen the excluded figure of the refugee offers a basis for other
models of political formation and organisation, as in Agamben's
proposal of 'a coming political community':
given the by now unstoppable decline
of the nation-state and the general corrosion of traditional political
juridical categories, the refugee is perhaps the only thinkable
figure for the people of our time and the only category in which
one may see today ... the forms and limits of a coming political
community. It is even possible that, if we want to be equal to the
absolutely new tasks ahead, we will have to abandon decidedly, without
reservation, the fundamental concepts through which we have so far
represented the subjects of the political (Man, the Citizen ...
the sovereign people, the worker and so forth) and build our political
philosophy anew, starting from the one and only figure of the refugee.
(Agamben 2000: 16.7)
62. As I write the concluding paragraphs
of this essay on Good Friday 2002, hundreds of people bearing blood-red
flags are converging on the multiple layers of wire that encircle
the camp at Woomera (http://melbourne.indymedia.org).
Effortlessly, they breach a perimeter fence and walk across metres
of flattened wire. They are chanting: No borders, No Nation /
No Deportation. Asylum seekers on the other side wave and chant
back: Freedom, Freedom. Scratched and bleeding hands reach
out through torn razor wire. People laugh and cry. A young girl
screams repeatedly; in joy or fear, it's hard to tell. Suddenly,
two bars have been pried apart. In the narrow aperture, a figure
stands still for a moment then dives, like a bird, in an unforgettable,
swooping, flying, movement ... onto the outstretched arms of the
crowd. Another follows, a third, a sixth. Almost fifty people in
all breach the borders of not-Australia and flow into the throng
outside. Camp guards make ineffectual lunges here and there, but
legal and illegal are hard to tell apart. The chants
start up again: no one is illegal. No one is illegal. Everyone
is, joyously, un-Australian.
63. Something momentous has happened in Australia on this lazy holiday
weekend, as parliament goes into long recess and people head off
along choked freeways to some resort-retreat. Some of us have glimpsed
extraordinary things. We have seen how simple it is to make the
razor wire collapse, if only for an hour, before our eyes. And we
have seen, for once, no longer occluded or unpeopled by the structure
of the camp, the one and only figure of the refugee. A figure
that beckons ... and waits.
Suvendrini Perera teaches in the School of Communication, Arts
and Critical Enquiry at La Trobe University, Melbourne. She has published
widely nationally and internationally on race and ethnicity. Her most
recent essay on asylum seekers appears in Cultural Studies Review
and Race & Class. Email: S.Perera@latrobe.edu.au
I am grateful to Claudia Chiddiac, Lena Nahlous and Adam Raffle for
help with tracing sources and materials. My warmest thanks to Angel
Boujbiha for his generosity in allowing me to read and quote from
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