This month marked one year since large parts of the world went into their first national lockdown. As the long term effects of isolation and, in the UK, Brexit, are increasingly apparent, the UK government has taken this moment of deep uncertainty to push their outwardly hostile immigration agenda. Last week, Home Secretary Priti Patel reasserted her desire to pursue an offshoring strategy, where asylum seekers are deported to a territory, such as Gibraltar or the Isle of Man, while their claims are processed. In this edition, we look at the precedent of offshoring as one approach within a wider context of externalising migration processes.
Offshoring had already reached headlines in the UK last year when Priti Patel wanted to establish an asylum processing centre on Ascension Island – a volcanic island with under 1,000 inhabitants in the middle of the Atlantic. While these plans have been widely condemned and rejected, offshoring has a long history of ramping up feelings of ‘invasion’, with successive governments looking to evade responsibility for legitimate asylum claims. At the outset of the Iraq war in 2003, Tony Blair’s Labour government floated similar ideas of establishing "regional protection zones'' near conflict areas and “transit zones” at the edges of the EU, to process asylum claims extraterritorially. Though never carried out, this proposal has been fundamental in shaping EU policy and discourse ever since. Although the UK received as little as 35,099 asylum claims as of this time last year, a similar narrative has been disproportionately stated.
Australia has a notorious record for offshoring, using the Pacific's Nauru, Manus and Christmas islands to detain asylum seekers. Even given the controversial nature of these policies – the aforementioned detention centres have faced closure on several occasions due to gross human rights violations – the UK's Home Office has modelled so-called 'immigration reform' on this stringent approach. Behrouz Boochani’s memoir No Friend But the Mountains was completed through text messages and voice notes while he was imprisoned on Manus Island, and was instrumental in drawing attention to the hellish existence in Australia’s offshore detention system. The plight of asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island was portrayed in the documentary Island of the Hungry Ghosts, eerily set alongside the regular migration of 40 million native crabs and the rituals surrounding the spirit inhabitants of the island. More recently, the ongoing violence of Australia’s immigration system has been explored in Temporary, a podcast series by The Guardian.
Whether interdiction at sea, withholding maritime rescue operations, or deportation to islands through offshoring, the ocean is central to contemporary migration prevention strategies and is the liquid site of abhorrent injustices. Researcher Laura Lo Presti writes that “the landscape of migration control has recently morphed into a terraqueous and semi-cartographic platform – consisting of an inextricable and violent entanglement between land and water – on which people materially and symbolically move or stand still, live and die, are visibilised or silenced as bodies or points, stories or numbers, moving subjectivities or geometric lines.” She charts the ambiguous role of maps in providing visibility for navigation and rescuing missions while, on the darker side, how they are used to track the “over-mapping of undesired movements”. These territorial politics of the world’s ‘wet zones’ help elucidate offshoring ideology: policy is used to keep migrants out of sight, deterred, with their existence always framed as ‘illegal’.
Image description: The construction of Australia’s offshore detention centre on the remote Christmas Island required the establishment of a close-by port to import labour and materials from mainland Australia and other countries. This photo shows the port building in progress.