Encounters on the Shore:
Geographies of Violence in Australia’s Contemporary Border Regime


Helena Zeweri


Based on the game “Operation,” this graphic by Wes Mountain perfectly illustrates the elements of the functioning body politic—and sovereignty—of Australia, including documents and offshore detention centers (2014). © Wes Mountain. Courtesy of the artist. Click to enlarge.

Since the resumption of offshore detention in 2012, the Australian border has become increasingly fluid yet highly regulated. By electing to process asylum seekers who have arrived by boat in offshore processing facilities, Australia now relies on extraterritorial mechanisms to reinstate sovereign power. As scholar Angela Mitropoulous notes, “Extraterritoriality is the border made transportable because the significant variable to be contained and harnessed is the movement of bodies” (2008). In this paper, I offer preliminary thoughts on how rethinking Australia’s shore in particular, as a disbursed geography of violence, rather than a fixed point of entry and exit, can reveal the dialogical relationship between sovereignty and violence—especially the violence that inheres in the moments of arrival that characterize contemporary migration journeys.

For the 1,246 asylum seekers who are currently living in offshore detention centers in Nauru and Manus island—whom the state has deemed “unauthorized maritime arrivals”—reaching the shore did not mark the end of a life-threatening journey across the unforgiveable waves and currents of the Pacific.1 In Australia’s current border regime, reaching the point where water meets land is also, I argue, entry into a complex border control regime that takes a particularly punitive stance toward asylum seekers, one that is openly strategic about how it makes asylum seekers’ bodies killable and non-grievable (Butler 2006).

Starting in September 2013 under the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, Operation Sovereign Borders marked an unprecedented partnership between Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection (formerly called the Department of Immigration and Citizenship) and Australia’s Defense Force to regulate its maritime borders. With a budget of $420 million, the policy created a set of task forces charged with deterrence, detection, and inception of incoming boats of asylum seekers; a global communications campaign designed to prevent boat arrivals; an incentive plan for Indonesian boat smugglers to stop their activities; and a new offshore detention complex in Manus and Nauru designed to house those who dare violate the policy. The official policy, still in effect today, states that no asylum seeker who arrives by boat will ever be resettled in Australia. Instead, they will automatically be placed in one of two detention centers, where they must wait for their claims for refugee status to be evaluated. Depending on the outcome, which might take up to 3 years to determine, they will either be resettled within a third country or repatriated.   

At the time this article is being written, a bill is being debated in Parliament to permanently ban anyone who has sought to enter Australia since mid-2013 without a visa. The ban would prohibit entry for life, even for business, tourism, or to visit friends or family. Despite the fact that most undocumented immigrants, statistically, are made up of visa overstays who have arrived via plane, the lifetime ban disproportionately ends up targeting unauthorized maritime arrivals. This signals that Australia’s contemporary border regime is now more invested than ever in declaring its sovereignty through the regulation of its shoreline. While this paper is not invested in the question of which mode of arrival constitutes a more “genuine” experience of suffering worthy of the state’s political protection, it is interested in the question of why those who arrive by boat, in particular, encounter an unprecedentedly punitive border control regime. Sara Ahmed’s notion of strange encounters is instructive here. For Ahmed, encounters are marked by two subjects that co-emerge in the process of facing each other (Ahmed 2000, 3). Through instantiating its border policy around maritime arrivals, the Australian state is not only asserting its inability to recognize the other, but is also re-reading the body of this other as particularly in violation of sovereign power and thus differing between this and other others (6).



Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection Campaign graphics aimed at dissuading asylum seekers from traveling to Australia by boat.
Click to enlarge.


Beyond the Moment of Arrival

Most asylum seekers who have attempted to reach Australian territory since 2009 have been fleeing violence, persecution, and everyday forms of economic and political instability in zones of prolonged conflict, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, or politically repressive regimes, such as Iran. In 2015, after what many media outlets called “the year of the refugee,” humanitarian organizations clamored for European nation-states to give entry to hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis who had crossed the Mediterranean to Greece in the hopes of making it to Germany. These organizations, along with many members of the public, expressed outrage at images of Aylan Kurdi, a three year-old Syrian refugee whose drowned body washed up on Turkey’s shores. They called on EU nations to welcome those coming by boat (Broomfield 2016; Miller 2016; Rendon and Samiou 2016; Kings College London 2015). Within Australia itself, several refugee advocacy organizations have actively protested the government’s turn-back of boats, calling on all arrivals to be accepted to Australia and for the closure of both detention centers. While undergirded by compassionate intentions, this logic risks creating a false equivalency between access to the nation-state and permanent political protection and belonging.

For those asylum seekers who have reached Australia and now live in Manus and Nauru, encounters with the shore have been marked by multiple forms of violence. Their arrival is not the moment when the most precarious part of the journey has been overcome. Nor is it the time when political citizenship or temporary political protection becomes a true possibility. From being apprehended and boarded on a naval ship, to being given full body searches and relegated to offshore prison-style complexes, the asylum seeker’s entry to the shore is when he/she becomes the antagonistic and ever-threatening figure of the “unauthorized maritime arrival.” Many scholars have shown that asylum seekers confront numerous points of entry which are neither equally meaningful nor steps on a teleological path toward political citizenship, economic prosperity, and social belonging. The ongoing uncertainty about their fates demands serious and critical reflection on the prevailing notion of the shore as a space of entry and beginning, where one harrowing journey ends and a better life or the potential for its realization, commences. Ruben Andersson notes that in the context of EU migration, migrant mobility and immobility cannot be neatly mapped on to particular temporal moments especially as migrants face long waiting times for processing (2014). In her ethnography of undocumented immigrants struggling to achieve citizenship in France, Miriam Ticktin shows that being granted official refugee status does not always translate into the ability to find steady employment in the formal market, or a sense of social belonging (2011, 95). And as Heather Cabot argues, when asylum seekers do get access to legal help, they also encounter systemic breakdowns, the fragmentary and unequal application of asylum law, and the triaging of authentic versus inauthentic refugee narratives as a condition of recognition (2015).

I therefore want to suggest that the logic that equates the rejection of refugee boats with the state’s resistance to including asylum seekers in the polity, also equates the migrant’s inability to access the shore with exclusion. In doing so, this logic assumes that the moment of arrival also marks the first time when genuine inclusion is possible. However, by examining how sovereignty gets articulated at the Australian shore, I will show that arrival simultaneously marks the asylum seeker’s exclusion from the territorial polity and inclusion into a relationship of strict surveillance, control, and systematic disenfranchisement by the state. Through both actively deterring asylum seeker arrival and placing those who do arrive in offshore detention, the Australian state produces the asylum seeker as a figure of bare life (Agamben 1998), one that is key to reproducing the foundations upon which the sovereign political and legal order exist.


Australia no way
Poster produced by the Australian government warning asylum seekers not to enter Australia via boat.. Click to enlarge.

Making Killable: Operation Sovereign Borders

Operation Sovereign Borders is an unprecedented effort to regulate Australia’s shores. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has circulated booklets, billboards, and animated short films throughout refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran in an attempt to deter people from seeking refuge in Australia. Their materials included the phrase “No Way: You Will not Make Australia Home,” set against an image of violent waves, followed by details on how boats would be turned back. The Department also circulated a collection of animated pamphlets showing what would happen to asylum seekers if they were to enter Australia via boat. Targeted mostly at Afghan Hazara asylum seekers, it included illustrations of the sense of displacement, lack of security, and searches they would confront upon entry into Australian-controlled territory and in detention centers. The campaign openly and explicitly attempted to remove Australia as a possibility from the asylum seeker’s imagination, and explicitly detailed the physical and psychological violence the state carries out in offshore processing. In making the realities of its offshore processing regime known, the state, in effect, disclosed that it would actively make subjects both killable and deportable.

The state’s stance went beyond rhetoric. Figures released in August 2016 revealed that in 2014, 12 boats of asylum seekers arrived in Australian territory. Eight boats, carrying about 630 passengers, were turned back after the government gave $5000 to Indonesian boat navigators (Hasham 2015; Phillips 2015). Meanwhile, there have been ten deaths and 64 cases of self-harm or threatened self-harm in offshore detention centers; one asylum seeker committed suicide and others have died from heart attacks. Some refugees are said to have swallowed nail clippers and insect repellant due to stress; others have attempted to burn themselves so they could be taken to Australian territory for medical attention (Whyte 2015). The state’s stance of maintaining its policy in the face of continuous incidents like these reveals the staunch mechanisms of control through which life is deliberately and explicitly subjugated to the power of death, a unique enactment of necropolitics that links death to sovereignty. As Achille Mbembe has shown, to exercise sovereignty is to control mortality in an effort to deploy power (2003, 12). Necropower in particular constitutes a form of governance in which destroying human bodies and populations are instrumentalized to enact sovereignty.

In recent years, the government’s rhetoric has become increasingly couched in the language of benevolence and compassion. Current Immigration Minister Peter Dutton recently noted that alleviating the struggles of those in Nauru and Manus would lead to more asylum seekers attempting to arrive by boat: “ ‘No action …will cause the government to deviate from its course. We are not going to allow people to drown at sea again” (Hasham 2016). After the image of Aylan Kurdi circulated through the media, former PM Tony Abbott declared once again the need for tougher border protection saying that the best way to stop drownings was “ ‘to stop illegal migration’ ” and prevent the profit-hungry practices of “evil boat smugglers” (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2015). In the move to justify existing border policies on the basis of making asylum seeker lives livable, while at the same time declaring its capacity for making them killable, the Australian state constructs its sovereignty. Avoiding the shore is how asylum seekers can preserve their lives, but on arrival they will unequivocally be made killable. Here, the shore’s extraterritoriality is crucial—it is a geography of disbursed biopolitical governance that stretches from the Australian coastline proper to boat navigators in Indonesia and detention centers in Manus and Nauru where the state’s benevolence coexists with its ability to foster the slow death of those who traverse its waters.

As offshore detention centers consolidate Australia’s sovereignty, they also seek to banish it from the asylum seeker’s imaginary, instantiating the country as a kind of non-place. A story I heard while doing fieldwork at a May 2015 Amnesty International-led teach-in about detention centers is particularly telling. An English teacher who formerly worked at a detention center in Manus described how his colleagues were warned never to mention the word Australia in any of their lessons; Australia was not supposed to exist for the young children in their classrooms. Prison guards would sit in on daily lessons to make sure teachers were not smuggling the word into lessons or in casual conversation with students. In the space of offshore detention, this example reveals the Australian state asserting its ability to determine who is included and who is excluded, exercising its sovereign power through actively erasing itself as a site where aspirations for political citizenship can be realized.


No Way BW
Poster produced by the Australian government warning asylum seekers not to enter Australia via boat. Click to enlarge.


Australia’s maritime border policy, in which the preoccupation with the shoreline and sovereignty are paramount, demonstrates how arrival cannot be understood as the moment when the chance for a better life starts and one’s humanity as a political subject is recognized. Moving beyond this logic would entail transcending the premise that asylum seekers’ subjectivities, desires, and life-worlds are moving on a teleological trajectory, one in which the triumphant moment of arrival stands in direct antithesis to the loss of displacement. What this logic and the logic of Australian sovereignty share is that they both render asylum seeker subjectivities as one-dimensional forms of life, “figures” who are over-represented in their strangeness (Ahmed 2000, 5) and who simply need respite from harrowing violence. As we continue to heed the exceptional circumstances under which today’s refugees seek political protection and citizenship, we should note the state-sanctioned forms of violence that inhere in and follow all-too ephemeral moments of respite both on and off the shore.

1 See the statistics on immigration detention provided by the Australian Human Rights Commission at https://www.humanrights.gov.au/immigration-detention-statistics.


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