Bare Life and Immigration Detention

The following essay is not my work.  It is the work of my daughter, Sophie Cusworth.  At 20 years of age, her writing ability far exceeds my own, and her wisdom, intelligence and understanding far exceed what is reflected in current Australian politics.   She, and the collective raised voice of young people like her, gives me hope for the future.

immigration detention

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The “fundamental categorical pair” of modern governmentality and Western politics is, as Agamben suggests, not that of friend and enemy, but that of exclusion and inclusion, or bare life and politically valued life.[1]  Reworking the Aristotelian distinction between ‘zoe’, or biological existence, and bios, “the political life of speech and action”[2], Agamben conceptualises ‘bare life’ in referencing the ‘homo sacer’ of Roman Law: the banned – the figure who can be killed and is yet not worthy of sacrifice.  However, ‘bare life’ is not synonymous with mere biological existence, but rather is life stripped of its political significance. Thus, ‘bare life’ is the animalistic nature of humans – “a zone of indistinction and continuous transition between man and beast”.  As Agamben suggests, bare life always exists within the political, dually: it is included in the political by way of its exclusion, and in the form of “unlimited exposure to violation which does not count as a crime” [3]. The distinction between bare life and life which is recognised as valuable is one which is made by the state, and therefore stems from the concept of sovereignty, in which the governing body has supreme power. In this essay I will explore Agamben’s theory of ‘bare life’, in relation to the current Australian governmental approach to Immigration Detention, arguing that within such a context, the concept of human rights for ‘bare life’ loses meaning. In doing so, I will consider the effects of the perception of threat, and the state of exception as both an ideological and a physical structure.

The right to seek asylum from persecution, rights violation and serious harm is protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and multiple international Conventions to which Australia is signatory. In adhering to these international obligations, the government of Australia is required to “recognise, protect and promote the individual rights of those seeking asylum” including, according to the Law Council of Australia’s Asylum Seeker Policies[4], the rights to education, welfare, legal advice and representation, employment, reunion with family and the right “not to be arbitrarily detained”. Similarly, Australia is obligated to ensure “that asylum seekers who enter Australia are not penalised for doing so without a valid visa, or for their mode of arrival”, provided that they are able to present themselves to relevant authorities without delay, and in doing so, present worthy reason for their arrival. At the heart of these international obligations stands the principle of non-refoulement, by which States are prohibited from “expelling or returning a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. Thus, it is evident that the ideals supposedly upheld by Australian law do not align with currently enforced policies and the conditions of Immigration Detention, demonstrating the flawed nature of Liberalism in practice. The Liberal theory of the social contract, or code of conduct is designed to protect members of a society from harm, extending acceptance and tolerance of individual expression and diversity.[5] However, this toleration, and the consequential protection, is only afforded to those whose behaviour does not conflict with the dominant ethos of the society.  If society can deem seeking asylum, in particular via boat, as ‘wrong’, asylum seekers will not be offered the protection of the social contract, and therefore cannot appeal to the rights afforded to those existing within the contract.

Under modern governmentality, asylum seekers and refugees are the symbolic figures of ‘fearism’: “the systematic (often unconscious) production and perpetration of fear on others”.[6] Herein, fear does not exist merely as an emotion, but as a politicised technology[7] from individuals and directed towards others, becoming a “dominant relational mode that aligns bodies to a particular sense of belonging”. Thus, fear produces both fearful subjects and fearsome others, further entrenching boundaries of “us” and “them”. This fear is successful in allowing some bodies to “inhabit and move in public space” and by restricting this movement of other bodies to enclosed spaces.  The role of public and governmental discourse and political and media propaganda is pivotal in this process. When the ‘Other’ is deemed a threat to ‘our’ own sense of well-being, ‘we’ begin to “demand ‘their’ exclusion from the sphere of human values, civil rights and moral obligations”.[8]  The use of descriptors such as “illegals”, “detainees”, and “scum”[9] are an act of symbolic violence, or the violence of language[10], assisting in the fear-mongering against asylum seekers in Australia. So too is unwarranted conflation of reports on asylum seeker claims and on threats to national security and terrorism. As a consequence, these ‘threats’ to national belonging and existence become the enemy, excluded from belonging, and are restricted to an enclosed space: the Immigration Detention camp, the very “materialisation of the state of exception”[11] in which the rule of law is dismissed for what is considered the greater good. This state of exception exists as a result of perceived threat to the sovereignty of the state, and can be considered an apparently ‘innocuous’ space wherein normal order is suspended, and in which “whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law but on the civility and ethical sense” of those acting as sovereign.[12]

The detention camp as a physical and permanent fixture in time and space, as opposed to the declaration of a state of emergency, intensifies the bare life’s vulnerability to potential violation and violence[13].  The physical camp (in this case, the Immigration Detention facility), is fixed in close proximity to the “core area of power”, whilst simultaneously inside its territory but outside its law. Prior to the existence of the camp as a construct, an outlawed person would be “driven into exile”.  However, in utilising a physical space for the homo sacer, they are suspended in a position of exception and are thus “constantly at risk of arbitrary power” at the hands of the sovereign guard. Therefore, Agamben argues, the camp is the “sign of the system’s inability to function without being transformed into a lethal machine”[14] The “system” of modern governmentality, and sovereignty as its product, establishes these circumstances under which human rights may be considered meaningless.

Agamben’s theory is embodied in the treatment of the asylum seeker ‘crisis’ demonstrated by ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ and its forerunner, former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. In addition to the potential for the role to be extended to include counter-terrorism responsibilities, thus again coupling claims for asylum with terrorist threat, Morrison denied responsibility for the safety of four unaccompanied minors living in Nauru. After the minors were subjected to physical and verbal violence, and two of them hospitalised, Morrison stated that the incident was “wholly a matter for Nauru”.[15]  In literally marginalising those seeking asylum from the Australian community, a physical state of exception is created, despite the claims of international law and the memorandum of understanding between Nauru and Australia. The Law Council of Australia states that when arrangements for claim processing and resettlement are made between Australia and other States, “Australia also remains responsible for ensuring that Rule of Law principles and human rights obligations are adhered to under any such arrangements”.[16]  However, by arriving in Australia by boat and without a visa, asylum seekers defy the social code of conduct by opposing the dominant ethos of Australian society, despite adhering to international law. This simultaneously produces and allows for the perpetuation of both the state of exception and of objective violence. The theory of objective violence offers two categories: systemic violence, or “the catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems” and the aforementioned symbolic violence, “violence embodied in language and its forms”[17], both evidently working in the state’s governance of asylum seekers and refugees, and immigration’s perceived threat to state sovereignty. Thus, asylum seekers are not merely denied basic rights in detention, but they exist outside of the parameters within which others may appeal to human rights and political value.

Symbolic and systemic violence, appeals to sovereignty, and the state of exception, both figurative and physical, are mechanisms of the contemporary governmentality under which rights violations are enabled. Evidently, in allowing for and working towards the production of fear and perceived threat, a state of exception to normative legal and ethical procedures can be created, in order to protect the sovereignty of the state. In the maintenance of this system, and the detachment from law, lives are alienated, dehumanised and stripped of political value – and it is by this process that these ‘bare lives’ may become a constant subject to violation. Despite pre-existing laws and codes of conduct to protect and uphold the rights of those detained in Immigration Detention services, the camp working as a state of exception enables the suspension of these legal obligations, and therefore renders human rights meaningless for those detained.

[1] Agamben, G and Heller-Roazen, D 1998, Homo Sacer, Stanford UP, Stanford, CA.

[2] Ziarek, E. P 2008. ‘Bare Life on Strike: Notes on the Biopolitics of Race and Gender.’ South Atlantic Quarterly 107.1 89-105.

[3] Ziarek, E. P 2008. ‘Bare Life on Strike: Notes on the Biopolitics of Race and Gender.’ South Atlantic Quarterly 107.1 89-105.

[4] Law Council of Australia 2014. Asylum Seeker Policy. Available from: [Accessed 08 November 2014].

[5] Mill, J S 1924. On Liberty, Oxford U.P, Place of Publication Not Identified.

[6] Zembylas, M, 2010. ‘Agamben’s Theory of Biopower and Immigrants/Refugees/Asylum Seekers’. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 26/2, 31-45.

[7] Ahmed, S. 2004. The cultural politics of emotion. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

[8] Zembylas, M, 2010. ‘Agamben’s Theory of Biopower and Immigrants/Refugees/Asylum   Seekers’. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 26/2, 31-45.

[9] Giles, A 2009. Asylum seekers ‘scum’: Australian NT politician Adam Giles. [Online Video]. 16 October. Available from: [Accessed: 09 November 2014].

[10] Žižek, S 2008. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, Picador, NY.

[11] Agamben, G and Heller-Roazen, D 1998, Homo Sacer, Stanford UP, Stanford, CA.

[12] Jenkins, F 2004. ‘Bare Life: Asylum-Seekers, Australian Politics and Agamben’s Critique of Violence’ 10(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights 18

[13] Robinson, A, 2011. ‘In Theory Giorgio Agamben: the state and the concentration camp’. Cease Fire Magazine, 07 January.

[14] Agamben, G and Heller-Roazen, D 1998, Homo Sacer, Stanford UP, Stanford, CA.

[15] Whyte, S, 2014. ‘Scott Morrison washes his hands of children attacked on Nauru’. Sydney Morning Herald, October 28.

[16] Law Council of Australia 2014. Asylum Seeker Policy. Available from: [Accessed 08 November 2014].

[17] Ziarek, E. P 2008. ‘Bare Life on Strike: Notes on the Biopolitics of Race and Gender.’ South Atlantic Quarterly 107.1 89-105.