Technologies of Disempowerment: Institutionalised Trauma in Australia’s Detention Network

Stream: Panel 37 - Public Policy & Social Justice: Migration, Race and Asylum Panel 
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 2.00 pm – 3.30 pm


This paper is based on interviews with volunteers who visit asylum seekers in Australia’s onshore immigration detention network. A recurring theme in these testimonies concerns the arbitrary exercise of power within these facilities. Interviewees describe a Kafkaesque scheme of constantly shifting permissions and prohibitions; a world in which unpredictable rules dictate the minute details of asylum seekers’ day-to-day lives. This paper argues that, far from being an incidental characteristic of Australia’s detention network, these features might be understood as technologies of disempowerment. The opaque and capricious exercise of power at the micro level serves as a constant threat, underlining the tenuousness of their position. Just as leisure equipment might disappear without warning or explanation, so too might asylum seekers be woken in the night for relocation or deportation. Drawing upon a body of literature that understands trauma in terms of powerlessness and disruption, this paper argues that – even while paying lip services to human rights – Australia’s onshore detention network operates at an emotional level to produce and maintain trauma.


Michelle Peterie (Presenter), The University of Sydney