Domination redeployed: the entanglement of race and gender in the Australian Refugee and Asylum Seeker regime

By Inari Saltau

In the state of so-called Australia, gender and race are deeply intertwined within the structure of the colonial state and are central to the logics that underpin and uphold Australia’s punitive, protectionist, border-centric Refugee and asylum-seeker regime.


Gender and race conceptually construct and are used to validate the policies and treatment of Refugees and people who seek asylum in Australia, which are I argue are continuations of the invasion, colonisation and ongoing state sanction white-supremacist narrative that is foundational to Australia as a settler-colony and as nation-state. 


At the centre of the Australian state is the invasion of the landmass now known as Australia built upon the dehumanisation and attempted genocide of the hundreds of Indigenous nations through a declaration of ‘Terra Nullius’ (land without ownership) (Bolger 2016: 144). By discursively reducing Indigenous peoples to native flora and fauna European colonists falsely claimed sovereignty over the continent. Moreover, British colonists employed a racist hierarchy framed within a pseudo-scientific discourse to justify the practices of eradication, assimilation, child-theft, land acquisition, imprisonment, sexual violence, abuse, and enslavement as well as a gendered narrative that there was a need to ‘save’ Aboriginal women and children (Strakosch 2011: 20; Watson 2009: 2-3).


The Australia state was established by colonisation and is founded upon structural white-supremacy and racism and the racist ideology that founded the state remains crucial to upholding the conception of settler-colonial sovereignty and patriarchal logics that support the cruel Australian Refugee and Asylum seeker regime (Moreton-Robinson 2015: 141). 


This is exemplified in the refugee and asylum seeker policy of the Coalition government ‘Operation Sovereign borders’. The name of the policy itself reveals the insecurity the settler state feels over the inherent illegitimacy of Australian sovereignty (as this was never ceded by any of the hundreds of Indigenous nations at the time of British Invasion). ‘Operation Sovereign borders’ is the name of the current border policy that has seen ‘unauthorised’ maritime arrivals intercepted and detained on Manus and Nauru (Fraenkel 2016: 279). Much like the practices of oppression that have been used against Indigenous people in Australia over the past 230 years, the methods of domination used against the imprisoned population on Manus and Nauru have also included systematic torture, sexual assault, restricted and inadequate health care, starvation, illness, violence, psychiatric cruelty and deeply traumatic living conditions which have been imposed on all of the prisoners including men, woman and children (Boochani 2018; Evershed, Farrell and Davidson 2016).

Mandatory detention is a mere continuation of long employed colonial domination methods that are rooted within Indigenous oppression, false sovereignty, the desire to legitimise that sovereignty and the racist reiteration of incarceration, domination and torture on non-white peoples.  

Drawing upon the theory of the kyriarchal system that has been adopted by academic, journalist and poet Behrouz Boochani to describe the intersecting oppressions (such as sexism, racism and colonialism) that uphold hegemonic dominance in society in his theorisation of the Manus detention centre (in which he is currently detained); it is important to note that while I discuss racialised policies specifically in this context, it is impossible to disconnect race from the other interconnected forms of systematic oppression.


As Boochani elaborates, in the Kyriarchal system the racism intrinsically entwined into the logic, rationalisation and implementation of the offshore detention prisons is also connected to, and reinforced by, patriarchal gendered standards. The imprisonment of hundreds of men on Manus (all of whom have either been separated from their family units or are single) feeds into a narrative that their masculinity poses a threat to Australians and, when combined with racially charged stereotypes, has been deployed to delegitimise their status as Refugees. In terms of gender the pervasive accounts of sexual assault and violence that have occurred on Nauru against imprisoned refugees and asylum seekers (most predominantly women and children), highlights the inherently cruel use of gender as a structure of the Australian detention regime (McPherson 2014:89)


The Australian white-supremacist regime that controls people seeking asylum and refugees is built upon colonisation, is structurally racist, and this racism is supported and reinforced by patriarchal narratives of gender. By understanding the processes of false sovereignty, settler colonialism, Indigenous oppression, racist immigration policy, forced incarceration and torture that has characterised the two-hundred- and thirty-year history of the settler-colonial Australian state it is possible to better understand how this history has formed an inherently racist and gendered refugee and asylum seeker model that urgently needs to be replaced. Finally, in understanding these connections it is possible to reconfigure new, Feminist conceptions that have the potential to operate outside of the Kyriarchal, colonial, racist and sexist paradigm.


Inari is a white settler living on the lands of the Jagera, Yuggerapul and Turrbul peoples. He is the National Director of Outreach and Engagement for the One Woman Project and studies critical development and gender studies at the University of Queensland.


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