Out of Sight, Out of Mind: On the History & Legality of Detention Centres
It’s official: Australia’s “Stop the Boats” campaign is a success. Or so the government claims. Back in 2013, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott ascended to his post in part because of his pledge to “stop the boats,” or, in less catchy rhetoric, to prevent asylum seekers – mostly arriving by sea from the Middle East and Asia – from reaching Australia. Instead, they are either resettled in Cambodia or detained indefinitely in centres in Australia, on Nauru, and on Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Manus Island. In return, Australia offers these countries aid money and pays their legal fees. As of November 2015, over 2,000 people were in Australian immigration-related detention facilities, 436 of whom had been held for over 2 years, with an additional 1,469 residing in third-country centres.
The measures are meant to deter irregular immigration and the dangers of boat crossings, yet desperate people fleeing countries like Iran, Vietnam, and Afghanistan continue to seek asylum in Australia. The detention centres are “cramped, hot and unhygienic…[with] limited access to water.” Physical and sexual abuse is common; children – including unaccompanied minors – are locked away with inadequate medical care; and violence is a regular reality. The frequency of suicide attempts and protests in the centres speak to their horrific conditions. Doctors and staff who work in the centres even face imprisonment for advocating on behalf of detainees. This is all illegal under international – but not Australian – law.
Here, I offer a glimpse into the history and legality of such centres vis-à-vis the Australian case, with three disclaimers. First, Abbott’s anti-“boat people” program is not new to Australia, but began in 1992 under PM Paul Keating. Second, Australia is not wholly anti-immigrant – it admits 200,000 immigrants and settles over 13,000 refugees every year. These policies only target asylum seekers arriving by sea. Finally, Australia is not the only country to have detention camps for would-be refugees (Camp Moria on Lesvos Island is another example).
Concentration camp, detention centre, and internment camp are different names for the same concept: “A camp where persons are confined, usually without hearings and typically under harsh conditions, often as a result of their membership in a group the government has identified as suspect.” In the case of Australia, the suspect group are boat people; during the Second World War, for Americans, they were people of Japanese descent, and for Germans the Jewish population; and in North Korea, the persons are critics of the state.
As the system of laws, norms, and treaties that currently governs global politics was still in its infancy, states were able to imprison “undesirable” people easily. The first camps were set up in the late 19th century by the Spanish Crown in Cuba to contain peasant guerillas and the detention centres constructed by the British to detain Boers and southern Africans during the Boer Wars. Often, governments carried out what would now be considered egregious human rights abuses by stripping people of citizenship or their humanity, labeling groups as a security threat, and/or simply building secluded, inaccessible internment facilities.
Thanks to the advent of technologies like television, mobile phones, and social media, the plight of those currently in camps is harder to ignore than in the past. Given the history of brutality associated with internment camps, international organizations like the UN have set up legislation and treaties to prevent their use.
For example, the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating the Status of Refugees enshrines the right to asylum, including access to courts, housing, and employment – and, most importantly for Australia’s asylum seekers, freedom from “penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence.” Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly states, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile;” Article 13 offers the right to freedom of movement; Article 14 guarantees “the right to see and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution;” and Articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 15, 25, 28 offer protection against the degradation of dignity, nationality, free trial, asylum, and other rights that have been violated by the actions of Australia and other governments using similar detention centres for asylum seekers and those deemed security risks. The UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (Opcat) takes these measures a step further for detainees, requiring “UN inspections of immigration detention centres.” These are just a few of many conventions, treaties, and norms that protect asylum seekers and people in detention without trial.
Countries like Australia often have national laws against degrading treatment, making such detentions illegal on multiple levels. How, then, do such camps persist? States can choose to ignore domestic and global outcry at their actions; bypass UN conventions, resolutions, and international norms (which are secondary to national law); use other nations as third parties for detention; and, of course, countries are free to legislate their own standards. The United States, in setting up a facility for the detention of untried, suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, utilized all four of these approaches. Australia has acted similarly towards asylum seekers: it ignores protests by its own people; refuses to ratify Opcat; organized offshore centres; and has changed its own laws – ruled constitutional by its highest court – to allow overseas detention of asylum seekers.
What hope can Australia’s asylum seekers possibly posses against such a rich, powerful nation? Many appeal to international public opinion for help or launch lawsuits against the government. If the wave of anti-detention sentiment gains enough force, it may be able to capsize Australia’s discriminatory policies. Already, asylum seekers have achieved some success – and not the kind trumpeted by the government – while contending detention on Nauru and Manus Island. Perhaps their strategy can usher in a new tide of humane treatment for asylum seekers not just in Australia, but the world over.
In the meantime, learn about your country’s internment and detention camp policies. The Global Detention Project offers information on many countries’ centres. For UK readers, I also suggest Standoff Film’s documentary “Campsfield House: An Immigration Removal Centre.”