States of exclusion : narratives from Australia's immigration detention centres, 1999-2003

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This thesis interrogates immigration detention as a space of intricate ambivalence - one which seeks to exclude, but which is also entreated to protect. The focus is so-called ‘unauthorised’ asylum seekers detained both within Australia and offshore on the Pacific island of Nauru between 1999 and 2003 - when the numbers of detained asylum seekers reached its maximum and the government introduced offshore processing centres. Australia’s immigration detention regime sits awkwardly with the discourse of universal human rights and brings into sharp conflict two robust political values: the right of endangered people to seek refuge and the right of the nation to determine who will enter. Focusing on the experiences of detainees reveals immigration detention as a complex regime through which the state’s dominating power targets the stateless, non-white, male body. This targeting is intentional, serving to secure sovereign borders and to rearticulate the naturalised ties between the national population and the modern state. Immigration detention holds the seeker in a limbo that sets parameters for the seeker’s experience of ongoing and intensifying insecurity. It specifically and intentionally fractures the identity of detainees: masochistic actions and collective protests, from hunger strikes to breakouts, reflect the common currency of anxiety and violence. The creation of offshore camps was, in part, a response to ongoing protests within onshore detention and the failure of onshore detention to stop boat arrivals. My chief focus here is the largest Pacific camp, ‘Topside’, on the island of Nauru. Unlike the onshore detention centres where publicised protests and breakouts screamed of continuing detention of asylum seekers, those on Nauru were effectively silenced. The thesis explores purpose as inscribed within the body of the exile. To give up hope for asylum is to face the possibility of endless wandering and death. Mechanisms of resistance, whether explicit protest or more passive waiting, are parts of the continuing struggle by the detained against mechanisms of exclusion and exception. The detained carve out small openings to contest their exclusion and to reassert an identity as survivors. There is a complex and fluid interplay between such resistance and government policies aiming to silence protest and limit identity – and ultimately to deter all unauthorised boat arrivals.
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