How Australia's Twisted Racial Politics Created Horrific Detention Camps For Immigrants
By Amanda Taub /

What happens when you take a nation with a history of white supremacy and racial insecurity, paint on a superficial glaze of political correctness, and add politicians willing to exploit xenophobia for electoral gain?

If the nation in question is Australia, you get a set of astonishingly harsh policies towards asylum seekers that have left some of the world's most vulnerable people in danger of persecution and abuse. Those same conditions also produce similar results in other parts of the world, including Europe and the United States — but Australia's policies are particularly cruel, and to understand why you have to look at the country's unique history.

A PSA from the Australian government designed to deter refugees and other migrants from traveling to Australia without prior authorization, featuring General Angus Campbell

Australia's "boat people," immigrants who arrive in fishing vessels and makeshift boats, have been made scapegoats for the country's racial and cultural anxieties. By demonizing asylum seekers as lawbreakers and terrorists, Australia's politicians are able to use xenophobia as an effective wedge issue, while still maintaining a politically correct veneer of support for multiculturalism on other issues.

It's xenophobia lite: all of the populist flavor, none of the overtly-racist consequences.

The history of preserving "White Australia"

Dutch migrants immigrating to Australia in 1954 under the White Australia Policy's system of racial preferences (Matilda)

Australia's image of itself as a white, Anglo-Saxon country — one that is distinct from its Asian neighbors in language and culture — has been central to its national identity from the very beginning.

One of the first laws that Australia passed when the modern Australian state first formed in 1901 was the "White Australia policy." Its official name was the Immigration Restriction Act, which is a little less blunt than the more commonly used "White Australia," but not much.

That law sharply limited non-European immigration, with the goal of maintaining Australia's "British" character — which essentially meant keeping Asian immigrants out. It enjoyed considerable popularity for decades. At the start of World War II, then-Prime Minister John Curtin praised the policy, saying that "this country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race."

The White Australia policy was abolished in 1973, and replaced with a new set of immigration laws that did not use race as a factor in eligibility for visas or citizenship. However, the issues of national identity and white supremacy that led to the creation of the White Australia policy have lingered.

The Tampa: the rise of nativist populist politics


MV Tampa, anchored off the coast of Christmas Island during the 2001 standoff with the Australian government (AFP/Getty Images)

In August 2001, a Norwegian container ship called the MV Tampa picked up 438 refugees who had become stranded at sea. They were in international waters, approximately 90 miles from the shore of Christmas Island, a remote Australian island that lies about 300 miles south of Indonesia.

The Australian government refused to allow the Tampa into its territorial waters. The captain turned towards Christmas Island anyway and Australia threatened to prosecute him for people smuggling. When it looked like he might continue on anyway, Australia sent special forces troops to board the ship. They took the refugees to Nauru, a remote island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and forced them into detention.

Within weeks of the Tampa incident, the Australian government passed legislation for the so-called "Pacific Solution," a name that sounds like it was focus-grouped at theWannsee Conference. (Perhaps someone decided that the old saying "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme" was an imperative obligation.) That law required refugees who were  intercepted at sea to be detained in camps on Christmas Island, or deported to detention centers in the nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

This hardline policy on asylum seekers quickly became a political wedge issue — and an extremely effective one. The "Pacific Solution" helped the party in power win reelection several months later.

The opposition Labor Party soon also embraced populist, anti-migrant rhetoric on the issue of unauthorized migrant boats. Since then, Australian politicians have spent much of the last decade and a half trying to one-up each other on who could show the least kindness toward vulnerable migrants.

The complex roots of Australia's racial insecurities

Mireille Bondi Protest

Artist Mireille Astore, who came to Australia in 1975 after fleeing civil war in Lebanon, stands in a barbed wire cage on Bondi Beach during a 2003 protest against Australia's mandatory detention policy (DAVID HANCOCK/AFP/Getty Images)

The populist backlash against "boat people" appears to be a way for Australians to air the racial anxieties and grievances that gave rise to the White Australia policy, but under the more socially acceptable guise of a discussion of law and order.

In the debate over asylum seekers and unauthorized migrants, Australia's desire to maintain a particular racial or religious character has been re-cast as the need for it to maintain control over its borders and ensure that proper procedures are followed.

Putting the conversation in those terms appears to have granted the public permission to have a conversation about race and immigration that would otherwise have seemed impermissibly bigoted.

For instance, in a 2010 speech, then-Prime-Minister-hopeful Julia Gillard defended Australians who opposed asylum seekers, explaining that "expressing a desire for a clear and firm policy to deal with a very difficult problem does not make you a racist," and that it was wrong to label such people as "rednecks." The implication was clear: the debate over migrant boats exists in a sort of safe zone, in which anti-immigrant sentiments could be aired freely without prompting accusations of racism.

Oxford's Reza Hazmath and the University of Melbourne's Jaffa McKenzie have writtenthat, according to much of the academic literature on the subject, "national anxiety drives the populist backlash against boat people," including "national concern over Australian identity and a fear of invasion, grounded in the historical threat of being ‘swamped' by Australia's Asian northern neighbours."

And according to Monash University professors Fiona McKay, Samantha L. Thomas, and Susan Kneebone, "this construction has been formed through an overwhelmingly negative and sensationalized focus on the method of arrival, and the constant linking of arrivals by boat with labels of ‘queue jumpers,' ‘terrorists,' ‘boat people,' and ‘illegals.'"

In other words, it lets Australians avoid explicitly claiming that Australia's character as a white, Christian country needs to be protected. Instead, the populist rhetoric focuses on the ostensibly race-neutral proposition that asylum seekers' failure to follow "proper procedures" is a sign of dishonesty or even dangerousness, making them a threat to law and order.

The result: vulnerable people at risk

Christmas Island Detention Center

The detention center on Christmas Island (Scott Fisher/Getty Images)

The result of all this, in the words of UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, is a "strange obsession with boats" in Australia. The country has enacted policies that have been effective at stopping migrants' boats, but at the price of placing many refugees in danger of abuse, persecution, and death.

Thanks to the Pacific Solution and its successor, Operation Sovereign Borders, migrants who reach Christmas Island are not able to seek asylum in Australia. Instead, they are held in detention camps before being returned to their countries of origin, or deported to Nauru or Papua New Guinea.

The Australian navy has also begun aprogram of intercepting migrant boats at sea, transferring their passengers to fully-enclosed lifeboats, and then forcing their crews to pilot them to Indonesia.

Refugees who do reach Australian territory are forced into camps on Christmas Island or are deported to camps in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, where they are detained under awful conditions. There are credible reports of detainees being seriously abused at the camps, including sexual abuse of children by camp guards. Even very young children are held in detention indefinitely while their claims are processed, and are sometimes separated from their families.

In one chilling instance, advocates recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of a six-year-old girl who has been detained on Christmas Island for more than a year. Immigration authorities had separated the child from her mother, who was taken elsewhere shortly after they arrived by boat. The child, known only as "A.S.," was reportedly deprived of adequate medical care and is now suffering from serious psychological and physical injuries.

Australia also returns migrants to their countries of origin without properly evaluating their claims for asylum, seemingly ignoring international and Australian law on refugees.

Asylum seekers from Sri Lanka's Tamil minority are particularly vulnerable. Australia often conducts only a cursory initial interview before returning them to Sri Lanka, which is currently governed by a brutal dictatorship with a track record of torture, forced disappearances, and other abuses of ethnic Tamils. That practice violates international law, which prohibits countries from deporting refugees to countries where they will face persecution. So focused is Australia on preventing unauthorized immigration at seemingly any cost that it donated naval patrol boats to Sri Lanka's government — which is facing a UN investigation for war crimes — in order to enable it to intercept Tamils as they attempt to flee the country.

There is also evidence that migrants face persecution if they are resettled in Nauru. For instance, some locals recently attacked a group of refugee children, beating them severely while reportedly shouting "all motherfucker refugees, we will kill you, this is our country and no one can protect you." The Australian government refused to take responsibility for the children's safety, even though it had sent them to Nauru in the first place. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said that the incident was "wholly a matter for Nauru."

The echoes of Australia's early 20th century White Australia policy are unmistakable, as is the Australian racial anxiety driving them. Founding a nation out of British colonies in the South Pacific was never going to be racially uncomplicated, but Australia's failure to reconcile its politics and its policy with its geography has left large numbers of people in perilous camps and legal limbo, suffering for the sake of Australian identity politics.

4.3 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 12,524 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Donald Trump Is the Mirror and Hillary Clinton Is the Mask
Chris Agnos · 3,168 views today · Disclaimer: I do not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for president. I think the scope of the political debate is far too narrow for the kinds of actions that need to...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 3,027 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Mark Corske's Engines of Domination (2014)
60 min · 2,849 views today · Political power -- armed central authority, with states and war -- is it part of human nature? Is it necessary for human communities? Or is it a tool that ruling elites use to...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 2,221 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 1,558 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,539 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Gil Scott-Heron Deconstructs Colonialism and Black History in His Own Unique Style
3 min · 1,142 views today · His-Story: I was wondering about our yesterdays, and starting searching through the rubble and to say the very least, somebody went to a hell of a lot of trouble to make sure...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 1,021 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 919 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 900 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 826 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 547 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Planet Earth II Could Be Best Nature Doc Ever Made
3 min · 494 views today · 10 years ago Planet Earth changed our view of the world. Now we take you closer than ever before. This is life in all its wonder. This is Planet Earth II. A decade ago, the...
Anarchists - What We Stand For
unknown · 472 views today · Anarchism : The word “anarchy” comes from Greek and means “no rulers”. As a political philosophy, anarchism is based on the idea that organization does not require rulers—that...
For Those Who Don't Want to Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils
Peter White · 393 views today · Ranked-choice voting is catching on, and Maine might become the first state to help citizens vote for candidates they actually want.
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 380 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Are You Lost in the World Like Me?
3 min · 293 views today · Animated film by Steve Cutts for 'Are You Lost In The World Like Me?', taken from These Systems Are Failing- the debut album from Moby & The Void Pacific Choir. 
The Revenge of the Lower Classes and the Rise of American Fascism
Chris Hedges · 277 views today · College-educated elites, on behalf of corporations, carried out the savage neoliberal assault on the working poor. Now they are being made to pay. Their duplicity—embodied in...
Eckhart Tolle: Your Facebook Ego, That's Not Who You Are
2 min · 263 views today · “Identification with thoughts and the emotions that go with those thoughts creates a false mind-made sense of self, conditioned by the past: the "little me" and its story. This...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
How Australia's Twisted Racial Politics Created Horrific Detention Camps For Immigrants