Grim Design: Australia’s Pacific Black Sites

From the Series: Refugees and the Crisis of Europe

Photo by Eva Gluszak Castagna.

For many, it took the pitiful image of a lifeless Aylan Kurdi, shared across thousands of Facebook pages, to bring home the murderous realities of Fortress Europe. Imprisoned in an Australian detention center on Papua New Guinea, an anonymous poet wrote words of consolation to the dead toddler: “Its OK baby Aylan. It’s Ok. / Maybe The Ocean wanted to tell you there is no one expecting you in Shore . . .”

The author’s sentiments, summed up in the poem’s title—“I Wish I Would Had Died in Ocean Too” —were surely echoed by others held in Australian offshore detention. Fortress Australia is Fortress Europe’s even more forbidding counterpart. The pillars of Australian refugee policy are the excision of its own mainland from its migration zone (thus, those who do arrive on its shores are deemed not to have landed in Australia), the turning back of boats filled with asylum seekers, and the indefinite imprisonment of arrivals outside of its borders on its former colonial protectorates in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

In the name of “sovereign borders,” Australia has successfully reorganized its surrounding region into what I term a borderscape, implicating a number of other states and spaces in a zone in which the border operates as a set of makeshift and protean geographies. This borderscape is defined by its spatio-legal sleights of hand (excision in time and space, deterritorialization); militarized practices (surveillance, interception, enforced turnbacks of boats in mid-ocean); and by a neocolonial and racial geopolitics (between former colonizer and former colonies, between global North and global South) itself shaped by historical and ongoing contestations of sovereignty (among individual states; between state powers and the requirements of international law; between states and the neoliberal corporations and contractors that act as its agents). This borderscape includes coastlines, seas, outlying islands and territories as well as varied claims to tenure over neighboring lands and waters (Perera 2007). The borderscape is a site where historical relations of sovereignty between states (Australia and its former colonies and protectorates in the Pacific, as well as neighboring Indonesia and Cambodia) are both reinforced and remade through neoliberalized relations of power (aid, trade, technology, and infrastructure, delivered through private security contractors), as well as militarized practices for securitizing and controlling the oceans. Together these practices and relations make up a mobile, unstable, racialized border zone, traversed by the tortuous itineraries of castaway boats and bodies.

Within this borderscape, refugees and asylum seekers are trafficked and transported by the Australian navy in operations that mimic those of the smugglers whom the state aims to thwart: refugees and asylum seekers are made available to be incarcerated and deported, drowned and sunk, or held in legal limbo until they reach the limits of their endurance; alternatively, they are refouled into the hands of the state they are fleeing or, in what seems to be the ultimate demonstration of the sovereign power to dispense life and death, they are intercepted before they enter Australian waters, their boats confiscated and destroyed. The occupants are then dispatched back into the unknown, forcibly strapped into unsinkable lifeboats: the very image of a living death.

Spaces within the Australian borderscape—for example, the sphere of “on-water” operations, or the establishment of offshore camps where accountability structures are opaque at best— produce specific forms of violence that are, paradoxically, at once secretive and spectacular in character. Considered a means of deterrence for other would-be asylum seekers, the punitive function of the offshore detention regime is continually highlighted: Come to Australia by boat and you’ll end up in Nauru, warns a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign entitled “No Way.” At the same time, the camps are offshoots of the global military-medical-legal complex that encompasses other sites of offshore incarceration and punishment, such as U.S. black sites used in the War on Terror. Although the women, men, and children held on Nauru and Manus Island are not suspected terrorists, the structural conditions of their internment in many ways replicate those of U.S. black sites and other secret offshore prisons, often operated by the same transnational contractors. International Health and Medical Services, which is responsible for providing medical care, lists the U.S. military as its biggest client, while Serco, which was formerly responsible for security in the camps, also operated as a contractor in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whistle-blowers have testified that techniques such as waterboarding and cable-tying have been used against asylum seekers by security personnel who previously served at Guántanamo Bay. Sexual violence is endemic.

In October 2015, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged European leaders to emulate Australian policies:

So it’s good that Europe has now deployed naval vessels to intercept people smuggling boats in the Mediterranean—but as long as they’re taking passengers aboard rather than turning boats around and sending them back, it’s a facilitator rather than a deterrent . . . This means turning boats around, for people coming by sea. It means denying entry at the border, for people with no legal right to come; and it means establishing camps for people who currently have nowhere to go.

In the weeks before Abbott’s speech, the New York Times had editorialized: “Some European officials may be tempted to adopt the hard-line approach Australia has used to stem a similar tide of migrants. That would be unconscionable.” Yet, during the same period, signs were pointing to the adoption of the Australian model by the European Union. British media reported:

European Union ministers yesterday agreed to build camps in Africa to send illegal migrants . . . Detention centres will be built across the continent and removal squads will be employed . . . Governments will also use the threat of withdrawing aid to African countries to persuade them to take back their people.

While the measures presaged at the E.U. meeting were received with incredulity in some quarters, in Australia they remain a nightmarish reality, with devastating consequences that continue to unfold.


Perera, Suvendrini. 2007. “A Pacific Zone? (In)Security, Sovereignty and Stories of the Pacific Borderscape.” In Borderscapes: Insurrectionary Politics at Territory’s Edge, edited by Prem Kumar Rajaram and Carl Grundy-Warr, 201–27. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.