xBorder Operational Matters

a Working Paper

This last few weeks has provided a quick lesson in the myth and mechanics of border policing in and beyond Australia. Below is a Working Paper on ‘operational matters’ in the related campaigns. It is meant to provoke a focused discussion about how to bring about change. [An earlier version of this was distributed on January 26, 2013.]

See also the website: xBorder Operational Matters

Summary:

  1. Violence is integral to the policies of Operation Sovereign Borders and mandatory detention. That violence can only be justified by giving credence to and encouraging racism.
  2. Successive Australian government policies are a global problem that require a range of global responses.
  3. The subcontracted, multi-agency character of internment, deterrence and expulsions makes everyone complicit. It also makes active non-compliance and refusal possible at each step in the supply-chain.
  4. Campaigns in support of asylum seekers and refugees have to confront their own “positional errors” and “unintentional-but-repeated” reiterations of colonial sovereignty.

By way of a preamble

At stake in the politics of the border are the lives and well-being of real people who are, as is everyone else, seeking out a better life. This is why everyone moves. In the case of unauthorized travel across oceanic and land routes, people are simply more desperate because they are fleeing violence and devastation. They are prepared to take the risk no matter how much they might be deterred. The greater the hindrance, the more the border is militarized, the riskier that passage becomes.

Given this, the only real function of attempts to halt unauthorized movements are: the creation of a market in ‘people-smuggling’ because of prohibition; the resort to ever-greater levels of violence in deterrence; and the production of vulnerabilities that can be exploited for profit (either by the growing industry of internment, deportation and repulsion or by the creation of hyper-exploitable pools of labor). No one but the most wealthy win from this dynamic.

In any event, the wider truth of such repulsion and deterrence efforts have to be situated within a broader history. First, border controls have been effectively abolished for money, goods, and the wealthier, whiter people of the world. And secondly, but related to the extreme character of Australian border panics, Australia has a specifically anxious position within the history of the English empire, situated as it is inside the global South.

That said, below are the key points that have emerged from discussions with others in the preceding months about how to break out of the downward spiral Australian politics has become mired in. They are crucial to emphasize in any discussion of Australia’s current border politics—and to any discussion about how create sustained change while intervening in the present moment.

1. Violence is integral to the policies of mandatory detention and Operation Sovereign Borders. That violence can only be justified by giving credence to and encouraging racism.

Operation Sovereign Borders is the continuation of the Cronulla riots by other means. This explains both the recent history of that violence, its aims and scope, and its forms of legitimization (both pre-emptive and retrospective).

All of the government’s media tactics (from impugning the testimony of injured asylum seekers to incorrect claims of illegality) are an attempt to obscure the integral nature of violence to these policies and to legitimate it.

In the wake of successive drownings that occurred as a result of increasing controls on unauthorized movements, Operation Sovereign Borders was sold as a life-saving measure against ‘people-smuggling.’ This involved a sleight-of-hand substitution of ‘people-smugglers’ for those travelling on boats, even as the distinction on the high seas is invalid. It was also sold as a necessary means to defend sovereignty by “stopping the boats.” It sought to alleviate growing concerns over deaths at sea with the claim that such measures would “save lives” while, at the the same time, giving a nod and a wink to xenophobic panics.

In its actual conduct, as was predicted, the Australian government has endangered lives by successive acts of refoulement, is accused of causing injury to asylum seekers, and has undertaken unauthorized ‘people-smuggling’ into Indonesia.

Seen in the context of changes to asylum seeker and refugee policy, it is clear the Australian government is currently undertaking a violent, racist campaign of expulsions and repulsions. OSB, pending decisions on Temporary and Bridging Visas, the “Code of Conduct,”[1] the appointment of the parliamentary member for Cronulla, Scott Morrison, as the Minister for Immigration (whose actions have notably included the cancellation of the visa of a student who was violently bashed by neo-Nazis), and the closure of onshore internment facilities and the transfer of those detainees to offshore camps are part of a general campaign of repulsion and expulsions that cannot be accomplished without violence, injury and worse. At the centre of this campaign is a white supremacist view of Australia.

Subcontracting, besides making internment camps into a source of profit, allows for blame-shifting. The multi-agency nature of Operation Sovereign Borders has similarly concealed lines of authority and responsibility for what occurs in the conduct of this policy, including obscuring clear delineations of chains of command within and above the Navy and other agencies involved with OSB, detention and deportation.

The Minister for Immigration is in command of combined military and militarised forces—and other organisations involved in detention—but routinely shifts responsibility for the ‘accidental-but-on-purpose’ consequences of policy downwards to those other agencies. This is an inversion of the terms of responsibility for policy and ensconces politicians in the realm of hardly-plausible denials (as occurred with the revelations of successive transgressions of Indonesia’s borders during operations to ‘turn-back’ and ‘tow-back’ boats). Those ‘subcontracted’ agencies are, in other words, set up to take the fall if anything ‘goes wrong’ or—more accurately—if it becomes known.

In other words, the operational secrecy surrounding OSB is a direct function of attempts to blur the difference between those who openly embrace or make excuses for racist violence and those who do not. This involves a constant shift between legitimating and denying the coercive force used against unarmed, desperate people.

That these various coercive agencies have been turned into an extension of the Cronulla riots is evident from the presence of the rabidly Islamophobic Australian Defence League among Naval personnel and other organisations involved in the conduct of OSB. Indeed, the ADL’s fantasies that asylum seekers are part of an invasion by Muslims has been echoed by the Prime Minister’s statements that Australia is “at war” with people who are not at war with anyone. Customs and Border Protection have—with the incentive of over $80 million dollars at a time when the Government claims fiscal austerity—resorted to talk of fighting a “passionate” “war” with “guns” and “bullets.”

While the Navy has, under sustained pressure from social media, announced an investigation into the presence of the ADL, much of this amounts to instructions not to make naval personnel’s membership of far Right groups visible on social media. It would appear that after two decades of increasingly frenetic xenophobia, Australia’s defence and naval forces have become an attractive destination and recruiting ground for far Right racist groups.

Some degree of racism is in many ways functional to the resolute conduct of Operation Sovereign Borders. If it were not, then the emphasis would be less on making sure that the opinions of OSB personnel about asylum seekers were invisible on social media and more on ensuring that members of racist groups did not have military force at their disposal on the high seas and outside public scrutiny. Given the ADL’s Islamophobia, their presence in the midst of a potential conflict over territorial boundaries with Indonesia in the context of a policy to ‘turn back the boats’ is of particular concern.

Beyond questions about the presence of the ADL, recent changes to the rules under which Naval personnel work point to a larger problem unfolding in the conduct of Operation Sovereign Borders. Those changes mean that Naval personnel will, as General Hurley put it, “not face individual criminal sanctions under the Act for giving effect to government policy.” Whether this attempt to indemnify Naval personnel from charges can withstand the test of various laws and conventions, and for that matter, individual consciences, remains to be seen. What is clear is that a lot of effort has been put into preparing for, hiding and excusing the violence of Operation Sovereign Borders.

2. Successive Australian government policies are a global problem that require a range of global responses.

For more than two decades successive Australian governments have based their electoral strategies on and extended the policy of mandatory internment. This has generated a downward spiral that cannot be resolved through recourse to national forms of representation and electoral cycles that turn on a few thousand votes in some marginal electorates. Ultimately, a problem that comes about because of deeply racialised conflicts and claims over the representational and literal boundaries of Australia cannot be solved by recreating those figurative or actual boundaries in the conduct or mind-set of campaigns against Operation Sovereign Borders, mandatory detention or Bridging and Temporary Visas.

This downward spiral is not just Australia’s problem. Australia has long been a laboratory for the invention and export of policies around the world that have contributed to the same dynamic elsewhere—as with the export of ‘offshore’ internment camps, electoral tactics that demonise asylum seekers, subcontracting mechanisms, and so on.

Sustainable and meaningful change requires the development of grass-roots connections that cross the border both inside and outside Australia. There are already range of things that have been raised to bring pressure to bear on the Australian government, from calls for sanctions, discussion of protests at Australian embassies and events overseas, to calls for disinvestment. Those calls should be supported and extended because and inasmuch as they generate a crucial leap beyond a national-centric campaign and world-view. Continuing resort to national representation and forms of organisation are not part of the solution. If campaigns are not seeking to make this leap in some way then they are not part of any meaningful conversation or action for change.

3. The subcontracted, multi-agency character of internment, deterrence and expulsions makes everyone complicit.

Everyone has been made complicit, from nurses to charities to naval personnel. This means that active non-compliance is possible at every point in the supply chain. Border protection and internment is a military-industrial-ngo complex that stretches around the world and across a series of occupations and institutions.

The subcontracting and offshoring of the Australian government’s mandatory internment policy has enabled risk-shifting and blame-shifting. The multi-agency and “all-of-government” structure of Operation Sovereign Borders has similarly made it possible to obscure lines of responsibility and command. All of this has involved greater numbers of people and organisations in the conduct of border policing and internment by distributing money, jobs and transforming suffering into profits. This has involved moving internment facilities to other countries and it has reached outside government agencies through subcontracting.

Protest rallies may well have their place. But instead of relying on politicians to step outside the dynamics of national representation, active non-compliance with the machinery of the internment camps will and can make a difference now. Non-government organisations, religious organisations, superannuation funds, union members and individuals have to decide now whether or not to be complicit with (and in some cases make money from) the system of extrajudicial internment—and with the violence of deterrence that is at present unfolding on the high seas. Whistleblowers should be defended, as should every act of refusal and non-compliance. Politicians should be held accountable but it is not politicians who put these policies into effect on a daily basis.

4. Campaigns in support of asylum seekers and refugees have to confront their own “positional errors” and “unintentional-but-repeated” reiterations of colonial sovereignty.

Just as Indonesia’s borders have been traversed in the conduct of Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders, so too has a sense of entitlement ranged freely across campaigns against it. Australia’s migration and asylum seeker border has no naturally-given location. It is extra-territorial. It is situated at airports and offshore detention centres around the world. The terms by which it operates can be excised from the functioning of parts of the law, as has been in the case of asylum seeker policy and the extra-legality of the internment camps. It can be made retrospective and pre-emptive. And, not least, the policy of ‘turning-back the boats’ has necessarily required the transgression of Indonesian territorial waters.

The violence, and indeed increasingly extra-legal violence, that enforces these shifting bureaucratic and legal placements of the Australian border has propelled an ever-greater recourse to mythic or naturalised definitions of what it means to be Australian. But even without these turns to an explicit Southern Cross fascism, widespread Australian emotional attachments to invocations of sovereignty remain an expression of colonial anxieties and white supremacy. The borders of Australia are the legacy of English colonization. They are neither natural or eternal. They are constantly reasserted.

Regarding recent debates within the Refugee Action Network over Invasion Day events, and many other similar conversations: there is no place for either the practice or mythology of Australian nationalism in the context of campaigns to dismantle the internment camps or support those who, in many cases, are fleeing violent exercises in colonial nation-building elsewhere. There is a contradiction here that needs to be confronted, however uncomfortable it may seem, but it is not a conflict between Indigenous people and asylum seekers. Assertions of or attempts to incite such a conflict is a manoeuvrer that serves to make the history and persistent power of White Australia invisible by appearing natural. Moreover, actions which undermine the heartfelt solidarity between many Indigenous people, asylum seekers, refugees and migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds are, at worst, actions on behalf of government policy and, at best, gestures that seek to lessen the anxiety of English colonial entitlement so as not to end it. At some point, then, it needs to be said that those who continue to adhere to the assumptions or sentiments of white supremacy or colonial entitlement—not least in the midst of campaigns in support of asylum seekers and refugees—exempt themselves from any serious conversation about how to bring about meaningful change.

Conclusion

Breaking with the downward spiral of border politics requires stepping outside the presumptuousness and anxious reiterations of colonial sovereignty and acknowledging the ways in which the operations and development of border controls function within a global system. This shift can emerge from and be accompanied by practical focus on the ways in which the violence of OSB and detention can only be justified by relying on and encouraging racism, and on the risk-shifting and blame-shifting dynamics of the infrastructures of internment and deterrence.

Within this, steps can be taken now to globalise the opposition to those systems of internment, expulsion and repulsion while highlighting the ways in which complicity within that system has become dispersed and therefore, at the same time, becomes open to refusal and non-compliance at each link in the supply-chain.

Far from being unrealistic, all of these things have in fact been occurring already. They already involve a diversity of tactics and perspectives that can be supported in that diversity, and they can moreover be networked, highlighted and extended.


[This was written after long discussions with various people about how to focus a shift in the conversation and bring about change most effectively. Many thanks to Sanmati Verma, who also wrote the note on the “Code of Conduct” below, Alana Lentin, Beyond Borders (Melbourne), RISE, and many others.]


  1. The new “Code of Behaviour” for asylum seekers in the community on Bridging “E” visas — complete with the invocation of miscegenation — appears designed to incite broader sections of the populace, outside the defence forces, to violence against asylum seekers. As Bridging Visa conditions become harsher, with no work and conditional income support, the Minister has already signalled what kind of ‘anti-social behaviour’ — such as gatherings of bridging visa holders in apartment blocks — will constitute a breach of the ‘Code of Conduct’ and which can result in a cut to income support or being sent offshore after visa cancellation. The more impoverished people become, the more they will have to resort to informal and ‘illegal’ economies to survive. The ‘Code of Behaviour’ then becomes a fait accompli — a standard designed for and compelling breach — and then giving license to the consequences that follow for asylum seekers. The ‘Code of Conduct’ vests power over asylum seekers’ lives directly in the hands of the Australian populace — the very same people whom the Minister predicts will be aggrieved by asylum seekers engaging in ‘anti-social acts’ by gathering in large groups in one-another’s homes. The Minister’s attempt to dissolve certain categories of Protection visa and make these the subject of his personal powers is a further attempt to dictate and curtail the flow of asylum seekers into the country along racial lines. Reposing power with the Minister for determing claims under ‘complementary protection’ simply enables the Minister to grant visas to people from ethnic backgrounds that constitute his key constituencies. [written by Sanmati Verma and others]