Guest post by Isotta Rossoni, MSc Student in Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of Oxford.
On Tuesday, 20 January 2015, Border Criminologies and the Transformations Cluster of the School of Geography and the Environment welcomed Professor Alison Mountz for a talk on the topic of 'Island Detentions and the Erosion of Asylum in the Enforcement Archipelago.'
Mountz's research focuses on the role of islands in immigration enforcement. Since the 1980s states have increasingly relied on the externalization of border control. Due to their isolation, islands are ideal locations for the confinement of migrants and asylum seekers; geography becomes a tool for managing and securitizing immigration. Yet, Mountz stresses that island detention should not be understood separately from broader immigration policies. Indeed, islands are just one element of the enforcement archipelago.
The seminar focused on two islands where Mountz has recently conducted fieldwork: Lampedusa and Christmas Island. Italian and Australian territory respectively, historically, geographically, culturally different, they nonetheless share several similarities. In particular, both islands have recently been transformed into carceral spaces.
For a while Lampedusa was a safe haven, a transit point for migrants en route to Italy and Europe. As the EU expanded, external border control gradually became more stringent. In 2004 Italy enacted a policy of 'respingimento,' whereby migrants and asylum seekers approaching the coasts of Lampedusa by boat were intercepted at sea and returned to Libya or Egypt. Over the years, the authorities have often neglected to identify individuals, in breach
of European legislation and of the non-refoulement principle. This has often resulted in people being sent back to transit countries, rather than to their countries of origin. Recently, Lampedusa has also seen an increase in detention.
Drawing on her interviews with migrants, detention centre staff, and locals, Mountz painted a picture of the detention experience on the island. Her research findings show that migrants suffer restlessness and inner turmoil. Experiencing something akin to a 'living death,' they feel that time hangs heavy on their hands. An uncomfortable sense of uncertainty, a direct consequence of their precarious conditions, severely affects their physical and psychological wellbeing. Mountz went on to argue that staff working in detention centres hold ambivalent attitudes both towards their job and the migrants/asylum seekers themselves. She pointed to the locals' different and often contradictory emotional responses to this vulnerable population, ranging from compassion to dehumanizing tendencies.
This ambivalence may be better understood by considering the impact of immigration policies on the island's economy. As the detention apparatus grows, Lampedusa's tourism industry declines. Islanders have lost their main source of profit and are forced to turn to the immigration industry. They also feel abandoned both by Italy and the European Union, left alone to deal with the migration issue.
Similar trends, Mountz argued, can be noticed on the other side of the globe. In 2001, following the Tampa incident
, Australian PM Howard signed the Pacific Solution
, which involved the interdiction of migrants at sea and their diversion to nearby islands, many of which had been excised for asylum processing purposes. Among these was Christmas Island. While the Pacific Solution was ended in 2008, successive governments have drafted new policies and continued to outsource detention to islands such as Nauru, Manus and Christmas Island.
In this remote corner of the world, where food prices are going through the roof and conversely, alcohol is remarkably cheap, the immigration industry is booming. People are flying in from neighbouring countries to seek employment. Mountz mentioned how locals are now renting out rooms in their homes to accommodate the newcomers. While Christmas Island may represent a source of income-generating opportunities, like Lampedusa, it is also a carceral space. Indeed, people working in detention centres refer to the island as a prison and speak of themselves as 'doing time.'
Migrants who are detained on islands such as Lampedusa or Christmas Island have restricted access to the asylum system, or may be unable to file asylum claims altogether. Legal representation is also limited. Mountz described how the island remains inscribed on the body of migrants/asylum seekers even when they reach the mainland; their legal status is inextricably linked to the point of arrival, and the trauma of location continues to haunt them.
Islands―intended as enforcement archipelagos―are everywhere, Mountz concluded, yet migrants are also resorting to innovative ways of mobilizing islands elsewhere. Via the social media they are making their voices heard, spreading awareness and recounting their journeys: where they've come from, their experiences, desires and hopes. An example of this is the group 'Lampedusa in Berlin
Much of what happens in detention centres, whether on the mainland or on islands, escapes the public gaze. If we wish to open up the black box of border control, question current immigration policies and advance new solutions, we must first lend our ears to these human experiences, and take seriously migrants' calls for a politics of location.
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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
Rossoni, I. (2015). Island Detentions. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/island-detentions/ (Accessed [date]).