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No Horizons

Anna Trembath and Damian Grenfell Baxter and Beyond: Where Now for the Refugee Movement?

Horizons orient us. For the detainees at the Baxter detention centre, namely refugees that have come to Australia outside the formal refugee programs, horizons can only be remembered or imagined. In one of the most de-humanising functions of this facility, its occupants can only see the sky from their compounds, unable to position themselves geographically, watch the sun set or rise, or imagine where the roads lead as the earth’s surface curves away.

The Baxter immigration detention facility, opened in 2002, is situated on the desert highway leading out of Port Augusta, South Australia. Minister for Immigration Phillip Ruddock has indicated that the centre was designed to solve the problems of the now-closed Woomera by ‘managing’ detainees more ‘effectively’. He has labelled Baxter a ‘holiday camp’, and stated that the lack of barbed wire gives the installation more ‘amenity’.

As the site of protests over Easter, it was immediately evident to activists that Baxter is no holiday camp. A massive complex, Baxter is all steel and high fences, outer and inner walls, huge floodlights, innumerable cameras and guards, and excavated land between the buildings and compounds. There may be no barbed wire, but the electric fence that carries up to 9000 volts serves as a far greater practical disincentive for those wanting to escape, while removing the relevance of barbed wire as a symbolic image of repression.

Baxter can house up to 1200 people, though the centre currently holds approximately 300 women, men and children. Detainees are subjected to inordinate levels of surveillance to prevent any kind of resistance, whether it is self-harm, property damage or attempts to escape. Kept away from the outer fences, refugees are carefully divided into nine different compounds. Movement between compounds is restricted and monitored, and strip searches are frequent. Privileges such as phone access are regularly deprived. Ten specially built solitary confinement cells serve as a further disciplining function. This is repression through dissuasion and it is little wonder that many consider Baxter a refinement in the incarceration of refugees rather than a step forward in the treatment of asylum seekers.

As with the protests at Woomera in 2002, the convergence at Baxter involved the logistical challenges of transport, communications, indymedia, first aid, food, water supplies, legal observers, waste and hygiene. Forced to camp on a hillside some two kilometres from the centre, activists also needed to contend with antagonistic police, negotiate with local Indigenous people for access to their land, consider the negative effects of the protest upon the detainees, and work through different strategies for action. Beyond these immediate challenges, however, convergences such as Baxter indicate that the refugee movement will need to confront several key issues as it moves forward.

Firstly, the convergence confirmed the trend towards the militarisation of policing, coupled with the criminalisation of protest in Australia. At Baxter, police donned full riot gear when no riot was ever evident, constantly flew their helicopters over the camp at all hours, refused to identify themselves when arresting or confiscating gear, conducted ‘snatch squad’ arrests to disrupt the protests, and utilised extensive surveillance technologies. One of the most terrifying moments occurred when police drove into the activists’ camp, armed with machine guns and supported by riot police, on the ostensible pretext that helicopter surveillance had sighted somebody with a gun. This confrontational approach typified how protesters have become synonymous with criminals in the minds of the increasingly militarised law enforcement agencies.

The employment of state resources in ever more violent policing techniques also extends to the ways in which physical sites of conflict have come to be protected and defended from protests. In conjunction with Baxter’s geographic isolation, extraordinary levels of state resources are engaged to regulate or prevent public access. In this sense, the heavily protected electric fence at Baxter serves a similar function to the barricades that surrounded the Crown Casino during the S11 protests in Melbourne, and at the WTO ministerial meeting in Sydney last November. While at those economic forums the point of the fences was to protect those meeting inside, at Baxter the fences serve to incarcerate and also to limit the parameters of potential protest actions. The levels of police violence at Baxter, coupled with extraordinary resources directed into building such a prison complex, have very real effects on activist tactics. Hence, new strategies need to be found that will be able to subvert and out-manoeuvre the trend towards state violence.

Beyond the immediacy of state coercion, the Baxter protests also showed that a second critical issue facing the movement relates to the ways refugees are drawn back into broader political frameworks by activists. A kind of ‘pro-borders’ position has been prevalent within some refugee groups, epitomised by the image of a map of Australia in barbed wire, accompanied by the question ‘is this your Australia?’ Rather than being a critique of borders themselves, such a position questions the kinds of borders we have. Several groups that broadly fall within the ‘pro-borders’ framework would not support the Baxter convergence, preferring to continue to apply other forms of pressure on policy makers.

In contrast, a dominant chant at refugee actions has been ‘no borders, no nations, no deportations’, suggesting a radical cosmopolitanism. In this context, borders are taken to be an artificial construct used in part to regulate the flow of peoples. This ‘no borders’ position, a more radical ideological position that appears to flow into a preference for particular forms of direct action, dominated the Baxter protest. Either way, the ‘pro-borders’ and ‘no borders’ positions present problems for the refugee movement in moving forward.

In the case of the ‘pro-borders’ position, maps of Australia made out of wire and written statements about the ways in which Australia is seen by the world do little to help in understanding how such a policy of refugee detention came to be. More importantly, the question ‘is this the kind of Australia we want?’ is problematic in that it runs the danger of leading to a focus on how we, as non-refugees, relate to Australia, rather than primarily focusing upon the conditions of refugees in detention. A barrier between ‘us’ (non-refugees) and ‘them’ (refugees) remains unchallenged, as ‘we’ still exist in the privileged position of deciding who comes into ‘our’ country.

In contrast, while the ‘no borders’ position creates a critical opportunity for placing the treatment of refugees within broader globalising processes, it faces two potential problems. Firstly, it runs the risk of oversimplifying the ways in which borders are constructed. The depth to which borders resonate with people suggests that they are highly complex constructions and not simply manufactured by political and market forces. In fact, it is because they resonate so strongly with people that the state (remember Howard’s electoral claim that ‘we and we alone will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’) and the market (especially found in advertising) can, and readily do, manipulate the idea of borders.

Secondly, there may be a far stronger similarity between how the no-borders and pro-borders positions approach refugees than may at first be evident. On the poster for the Baxter convergence was a quote from indigenous artist Lilla Watson:

If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together.

Ostensibly, such a position attributes much greater agency to the refugees than the pro-borders position. However, there is the danger that those on the outside are determining the actual meaning of that ‘liberation’ and that refugees are being re-cast into a broader political struggle. Not only may refugees fail to identify with this struggle — for borders may remain very important to them — but they may also resent having their attempts to survive and flee persecution reconstructed as an overt political act. Space must be created so that refugees, rather than being drawn into ideological battles of those fighting for their rights on the outside, can determine what resistance and liberation mean for themselves. Helping create that space is the solidarity that is needed.

The Baxter convergence showed that there remains significant opposition to mandatory detention. For such protests to continue, strategies will have to be found that confront with creativity and discipline the tactics used by police, and ways of organising will need to be further developed to ensure that ideological conflicts do not take the focus away from the conditions of the refugees themselves. Such protests must continue as resistance can serve to humanise the process of mandatory detention, breaking down the illegitimate barriers that have been constructed to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’, so that at some point we can share a common horizon.