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The Isolation of Asylum Seekers: immigration detention in Australia

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Australia’s policy of mandatory, indefinite and unreviewable immigration detention was introduced in the early 1990s to respond to the arrival of asylum seekers by boat. The policy persists despite its failure to deliver policy goals, vast expense, international condemnation, and human damage. What explains this persistence? In this essay, I argue that immigration detention is best understood as the most recent iteration of administrative detention, a form of non-judicial incarceration with a long history. Governments in settler colonial Australia have found administrative detention indispensable for classifying and then incarcerating groups of people regarded as a threat to national security or identity. Significant historical examples include Aboriginal reserves, quarantine, and enemy alien internment; today’s offshore and onshore immigration detention centres share a similar purpose and character. Sites of unmitigated executive control, these different forms of administrative detention are control regimes with punitive effects. By demonstrating the embeddedness of this form of governance in Australia, the essay provides an endogenous explanation for the persistence of immigration detention, despite its harms.

Amy Nethery is a political scientist and Senior Lecturer at Deakin University. She researches the development and impact of asylum policies in Australia and Asia. She has a particular interest in immigration detention: its history, evolution, diffusion, legal status, consistency with democratic principles, and human impact. Dr Nethery’s scholarship has been published in leading international journals. Her PhD thesis entitled Immigration Detention in Australia won the 2011 Isi Leibler Prize for the thesis that best advances knowledge on racism in Australia.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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