Off Shore Detention is One Australian Export the World Could Do Without

The UK government plans to banish people to an island where “nothing makes sense”…

An island where nobody really lives.

Ascension island today is known among botanists as an island taken over by invasive species and among space buffs as a former, possible landing place for the space shuttle. As the BBC reports, nobody lives there permanently. The island burst into the news this week as the UK government announced it was considering an Australia-style immigrant prison on the island. Outrage ensued, but unfortunately, as long as Australia’s “deterrence system” of immigrant prisons appears to be successful, other wealthy countries will see torturing immigrants as a way to deter immigration. Before rushing ahead to create yet another monument to racism and religious intolerance, however, the UK should pause and think about the damage such a crime against humanity will do to its own sense of self and national identity.

The Logic of Deterrence

Some countries attempt to justify immigration detention as necessary for the safety of the public, but offshore detention on remote, inhospitable islands like Nauru is clearly not designed to keep immigrants or the general public safe. Offshore detention is clearly designed to deter new immigrants from coming. By forcing people to run a gauntlet, rich countries hope to dissuade them from immigrating in the first place.

In Australia, the need for deterrence is couched in double-speak about preventing people from taking dangerous boat journeys. By this argument, punishing people by putting them in inhumane conditions out of sight on distant islands is necessary to prevent them from putting their own lives at risk. This argument, often also used by European governments, is clearly ridiculous. If governments were worried about peoples’ safety crossing the ocean or desert, they would create safer, legal ways to come.

The real reason for offshore detention is to make immigrating to Australia or the UK even more dangerous and unpleasant than it already is. Realizing that dangerous sea and desert crossings are no longer enough to prevent people from immigrating, governments first added mandatory detention. But in order for detention to work as deterrence, it must be inhumane. And placing people in inhumane conditions makes voters uncomfortable. So off shore detention begins to look like a good “solution”.

Off shore detention serves two purposes. One, it makes it difficult for lawyers and journalists to visit the detention centers, hiding conditions from voters and allowing voters to delude themselves into thinking they live in a country based on law and order, not a country where innocent people are locked up and tortured simply because they lack the right piece of paper.

Second, off shore detention keeps the immigrant out of the country, but still under its jurisdiction. This adds a form of psychological torture to the detention. Despite the long and dangerous journey, the immigrant has still not reached their destination. In some cases, they may be further away from the promised land than they were when they started. Utter demoralization is therefore an important aim of off shore detention. As someone once said in a slightly different context, the cruelty is the point.

The Darkest Side of Off Shore Detention

Before going down the road to off shore detention, the UK should take a long, hard look at how off shore detention has permanently scared Australia and Australians. Being tortured causes long term, inter-generational damage, but so does the act of torturing others. Engaging in off shore detention will change who the UK is. There will be no way, in the end, to hide what the country is doing, no way to fully sweep it under the rug, no matter how far away the island is or how few journalists are allowed to visit.

Apparently, the UK government was also considering the island of St. Helena, where Napoleon was exiled, as a candidate for an off shore detention facility. The comparisons between off shore detention and exile are emotive, but I was immediately reminded of another famous off shore detention from the past, that of Captain Dreyfus by the French government on Devil’s Island. Dreyfus was sent to Devil’s island to cover up the gross incompetence, religious hatred and racism of the French government. The ensuing scandal exposed the rot at the heart of the French empire and placed a lasting stain on the country, becoming a historical monument to French institutionalized racism and religious intolerance. In an age when the racist monuments of the past are being torn down, the UK should be wary of creating a new one.

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