No One is Illegal

Negotiating Free Markets, Closed Borders, and Refugee Activism in the Neoliberal Era

Rethinking borders, the state, and human rights

There is a paradox at the heart of the state’s play with, and negotiation of, the meaning ascribed to human rights, border-control and the inflated importance of protection against ‘terrorism’, in the context of a globalised neoliberal world economy. There is a weakening of state authority over controls that enable a free and unencumbered transition of capital across nation-states and continents, across maritime borders, and across artificial custom, ‘border protection’ and quarantine lines. And yet, the borders which people traverse, whilst escaping persecution, torture, or murder have never been stronger, and have never been so intensely policed, surveilled, or encumbered as they are now.

The state is not surrendering its role as a regulator. In fact, enforcement of ‘free trade’ requires a gluttony of regulatory practices. However (and, yet again, paradoxically), intensified regulation serves to lessen the state’s authority over the transfer, exchange and operation of capital, precisely because the state needs to place the control over trade into the hands of capital. Regulation levels should not be confused with authority. This is the reason we witness, on the one hand, the weakening of state authority over its territory with the loosening of trade controls, near-abolition of tariff protections and the intensifying flow of capital across borders. All of these measures are intensely regulated by legislations and appropriate controls whereby the state grants trust to capital. On the other hand, the state asserts a merciless campaign of ‘border protection’ against asylum-seekers who attempt to reach its shores by boat, on the pretext of threat-prevention to state sovereignty. This paradox is a universal feature of the state, its various conglomerates such as the European Union, and a range of trade ‘partnerships’ that dominate the neoliberal order.

The state itself is imploding and reforming from within and from without, under the pressure of capital, which is the only constant.

The regime, which seeks the benefit for its corporate owners in relaxing chains of taxation, oversight and surveillance, is the same regime that enforces oppressive oversight and surveillance on population movement. If this seems paradoxical at face value, it is because the state itself is a paradox. In the globalised age, the borders are constantly reinvented, and are not neatly contained to demarcate the national ‘blood and soil’ lines of an imaginary community. State borders are redrawn in the course of a process that is riven with contradictions and uncertainties. Contemporary border politics constitutes a proverbial Bermuda Triangle in which the vulnerability of asylum-seekers, the profit motives of corporate, government, union and NGO ‘stakeholders’ in the detention industrial complex, and the discourse of ‘human rights’ championed by large sections of the refugee movement, are pitched against each other (however inadvertently) in a way that conceals the relentless interest of capital accumulation. ((‘A Gentle Reminder: Unions are Part of the Detention Industry’,, accessed 27 July 2015.)) Effectively, interests of state and capital conspire to make the discourse of human rights obsolete and irrelevant whilst inflicting deliberate trauma on those who seek safety at Australia’s shores.

The meaning of borders

When we talk about borders in the context of Australian policies on asylum-seekers and refugees, we are effectively talking about borders shifting in order to manage and exercise control over movements of people. The state itself is imploding and reforming from within and from without, under the pressure of capital, which is the only constant. Angela Mitropoulos articulated the dynamics of global geopolitics thus:

‘There is an interesting thing that happened over the last ten, fifteen years – globally – which is the notion of the harmonisation of border controls. So you have, for example, Australian immigration officers situated in Indonesia. The border, in effect shifts, and you have different states co-ordinating their border policing. You can’t think of the nation-state without thinking of it as part of an international complex. Historically, both emerged together.’ ((Angela Mitropoulos in an interview with Shift Magazine, September 2010, reproduced on, accessed 17 July 2015))

The ‘state’ of Australia made a remarkable move to delineate its territory for the purposes of fending off ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’ (as asylum-seekers came to be known). In 2013, the Federal Labor Government excised the mainland of Australia from the official ‘migration zone’ – a zone in which a person arriving without a valid visa could still make an application for a valid visa. This move followed the 2001 Howard administration’s excision of Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and Cartier Islands, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and Australian sea and resources installations as well as any other external territories, or state or territory islands, prescribed by regulations as “excised offshore places”.

In 2014, the Australian government invoked a strong need for intensified ‘border control’ that materialised in the creation of the Australian Border Force (ABF) as an operational arm of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP). The ABF is essentially a border-policing mechanism that implements government policy on asylum-seekers and oversees illegal trade in goods and services as part of customs watch. Officers of the ABF, some of whom are armed, are stationed in government-regulated immigration detention centres, ocean ports, airports and other places of arrival of people and goods.

The mobilisation of Australia’s national sentiment in defence of its borders over the past 15 years is a political project, which has – thus far – resulted in two major effects. First, asylum-seekers have been portrayed as a pre-eminent threat to Australia’s ‘national security’, and the nation’s populace has, for the most part, been successfully convinced that an elaborate regime of mandatory detention and offshore processing is indeed necessary if the ‘threat’ posed by a handful of people escaping persecution and death is to be contained. Second, the project has worked to conceal the rise of ‘vulture capitalism’, and the almost universal intensification of government service outsourcing to the corporate sector apparent since post-9/11 events in the US, which has made borders irrelevant to the world of multinational corporate giants. ((Antony Loewenstein, Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2013.)) As Angela Mitropoulus puts it: ‘Border policing is a way of creating differential markets, and of distributing people across those spaces. This requires a level of international cooperation, but this also requires the mobilisation of national sentiment at the same time.’ ((Interview with Angela Mitropoulos.))

The first outcome of the project occupies minds, hearts and media time of a significant number of citizens at times when government chooses to make ‘stopping the boats’ an election issue. The second outcome has been a lot less transparent, a lot more subaltern in the popular psyche, but with far more devastating consequences for the disenfranchised majority.

Trade and freedom

The post-Second World War economy is organised in a way that transcends borders of the nation-state in a very specific sense. The transnational movement of mobile factors of production – capital and labour – means that movement of trade occurs on an unprecedented level that has diminished the status of the state as the basic unit of account (and accountability) it has controlled in previous eras.

This ‘new kind of global economy formed, [is] one centered on powerful firms using national governments to make private global space for their operations.’ ((Saskia Sassen, ‘Finance as Capability: Good, Bad, Dangerous’, Arcade: A Digital Salon, 2014,, accessed 10 July 2015.)) The participation of governments is concentrated in the executive arms at the expense of legislative and judicial functions, and is implemented through a range of ‘independent’ commissions, set up inside the executive branch, leaving the parliament generally devoid of oversight of some of the major decisions transforming economic regulations, which had been the traditional domain of state intervention. Trade policy is an internationalised policy instrument, and cannot be seen as encapsulated solely within the national borders, but is commanded by interests of corporations. ‘These expanded powers [of corporations] create a parallel, private legal system that confers exclusive privileges on transnational capital. Governments pay the awards and foot the bill for the proceedings, which run into the millions.’ ((Peter Rossman, ‘Against the Trans-Pacific Partnership’, Jacobin, 13 May 2015.))

free-tradeSince the 1970s, the growth in trade, concentrated in highly industrialised regions, has surpassed the levels of previous periods, stimulated by growth in transnational trade partnerships, most significantly the World Trade Organisation, and a host of agreements such as GATT (General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade) and NAFTA (North-American Free Trade Agreement). The multinational corporations have become the main agents of the globalised world economy in a way that has undermined regulation and oversight by the state authority. The regulation-ruled ‘protectionist’ world economies, and individual fields of industry, have come under stresses that have resulted in job losses for the predominantly local population, as we have seen in the case of the manufacturing industry in Australia. Meanwhile, the world of finance has become wholly trans-nationalised as pension funds, insurance companies and the banking sector have sought out diversified portfolios, deregulation of stock markets and floating of national currencies. Trans-national monetary institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, have actively represented the interests of trans-national corporate capital to which the state bureaucracies have become beholden.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in negotiations of a new generation in ‘trade partnerships’. One of the most recent and relevant of these is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), in negotiation between 12 nation-states: United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. The TPP is a successor to GATT, and NAFTA, and is an attempt by the United States to forge a coalition in ‘free trade’ rivalling the European Union and mitigating the rise of China. In Australia, as elsewhere, curtailment on the oversight over the negotiations has ensured lack of transparency and accountability to the electorate, near-universal secrecy over the content and conditions of the TPP, preclusion of parliamentary debate (until the agreement has been finalised) and judicial oversight. ((Chief Justice RS French, ‘Investor-State Dispute Settlement – a Cut Above the Courts’, address to the Supreme and Federal Court Judges Conference, July 2014, Darwin.)) Fundamentally, the sole public discussion that has been engendered has been by important Wikileaks interventions. ((Philip Dorling, ‘Wikileaks revels local health and environment rules under threat’, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March 2015.))

There are several parts to the TPP that are in high contention – the fact that executives of governments are preparing to sign up stand in sharp opposition to the critiques of most credible commentators. Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz led a team of economic experts in writing an open letter to the US Congress, ‘pointing out that the treaty’s investment enforcement mechanism, investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS), has been used “to challenge a broad range of policies aimed at protecting the environment, improving public health and safety, and regulating industry.”’ ((Rossman, ‘Against the Trans-Pacific Partnership’.)) ISDS clauses are an almost universal feature of thousands of trade and bilateral investment treaties – they are featured in 90% of the total current partnerships, many of which have been ratified by the Australian government.

Even the Australian Productivity Commission, a statutory agency with a responsibility to analyse the effect of government trade policies (amongst others), has renamed the plethora of ‘free trade agreements as ‘preferential trade agreements’ and admitted that any assessment of their impact was limited due to the highly restricted information available in the bureaucratic (let alone public) domain. ((Productivity Commission, Trade and Assistance Review 2013-14, Chapter 4, Canberra, 2015.))

A most remarkable feature of the new trade regime is the attempt to deregulate the circulation of labour power across borders.

A most remarkable feature of the new trade regime is the attempt to deregulate the circulation of labour power across borders. The recent negotiations of the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement have raised the ire of Australian unions on the ground that the terms of the agreement threaten the wages and conditions of employment of Australian workers. Specifically, the agreement would allow Chinese companies to employ migrant labour at lower wages and with no commitment to conditions of work specified in the relevant employment agreements or awards normally applicable to the Australian workforce. The unions made an emotional appeal to their constituents imploring them to lobby the committee assessing the terms of the agreement, citing the unacceptability of ‘preferential treatment’ for Chinese companies and workers at the time of record unemployment. ((See, for example, the petition prepared by Australian Council of Trade Unions)) Although the highly nationalist nature of this appeal should be rejected, the consequence of the agreement would mean that all workers – irrespective of their nationality – would lose fair pay and solid working conditions that the unions have fought for over the decades.

‘Under the “previous” global order, the world economy was structured largely (but never entirely) around territorial entities such as states, colonial empires, and geopolitical spheres of influence. The main novelty today is the increasing role in economic prosperity and underdevelopment of cross-border flows in relation to national states and to networks linking cities with one another and their hinterlands and the increased differentiation between localities and regions as a result of the spatial biases built into flow-networks.’ ((John A. Agnew, A World that Knows No Boundaries? The Geopolitics of Globalization and the Myth of a Borderless World, CIBPR Working Papers in Border Studies, CIBR/WP03-2))

Global interests of both trade and capital drive international geopolitics as much as they drive foreign policy interests of individual nation-states. Capitalism creates a permanent geography of conflict, from which asylum-seekers are forced to flee. ((Daniel Woodley, Globalisation and Capitalist Geopolitics: Sovereignty and State Power in a Multipolar World, New York: Routledge, 2015.)) Their plight is inextricably linked to the interests of corporates who profit from human misery, and the interests of the political class, which seeks to maintain this status quo while drawing on its benefits.

Vulture capitalism and its (dis)contents

Decmil Group Limited is a Western Australian-based company (a wholly owned subsidiary of Decmil Group Limited), which provides design, civil engineering, and construction services, mainly to the resources sector. It is also an official sponsor of the Fremantle Dockers Football Club. The company’s foray into the detention industrial complex is a little known case, but one which encapsulates the microcosm of typical relationships between corporate interests and the high stakes involved in maintaining the policy of mandatory detention and ‘offshore processing’.

East Lorengau, Manus Island, Photo provided by the author.
East Lorengau, Manus Island, Photo provided by the author.

In 2013, DIBP contracted Decmil to perform works on the Manus Island. The island is the location of the detention camp for boat arrivals where, in February 2014, an asylum seeker, Reza Berati, was murdered and scores of asylum seekers wounded. The Manus Island contracts are part of a deliberate strategy by Decmil to diversify away from the mining and resources industry and into new markets that are expected to perform better than the post-mining boom resources industry. Clearly, Decmil leadership was convinced that the detention industrial complex represented a burgeoning opportunity for profit-making that has dissipated in the resources sector.

Australian government contracts database shows that contracts awarded to Decmil by DIBP for the work on Manus include:

  • Funding for ‘architectural engineering’ worth nearly $280m, for works carried out from 16 December 2013 to 30 January 2015;
  • Funding for ‘project management’, worth over $161m from 18 June 2013 to 30 June 2013.

An article in the WA Business News, dated 22 August 2014, detailed the works performed under the contract to Decmil issued in December 2013 and extended in August 2014: ‘The original contract for the project required Decmil to build accommodation facilities, central dining and recreational facilities, operational and logistical facilities and supporting engineering facilities and services. Under the contract extension, Decmil will move the project to the delivery phase with the construction of warehouse and storage facilities, upgrades and repairs to roads, as well as repairs to the existing water and sewerage treatment plants, improvements to public roads and the inclusion of surgery capability in the medical facility.’ (( (text cited in this note is behind the paywall) )) This summary of works encompassed the construction of a ‘transit centre’ and accompanying infrastructure facilities in East Lorengau, where asylum-seekers whose refugee status had been determined would be transferred from detention and await resettlement.

Serious unanswered questions surround the awarding of the original Manus Island contract to Decmil. These include the speed with which the procurement process was completed, questions about the DIBP backdating the contract, and insider trading allegations that the details of the contract were leaked to the market, leading to a significant level of unusual share buying activity and price surge in the Decmil share price before an official announcement of the contract had been made. ((Andrew Burell, ‘Mining contractor Decmil denies Manus deal was leaked’, The Australian, July 25 2013, (behind paywall)))

Decmil banks with the National Australia Bank, which owns 7.5% of shares in Transfield Services, a company that manages the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. This is an important relationship given that Decmil was ranked 16th of the 163 WA-based companies, with the net worth of $528.8m, in 2014. Decmil’s share price rose 2.3% as soon as the details of the contract became known. The company doubled its profits in 2013, when the contracts were first awarded, relative to previous year. Decmil reported that for the full year ended 30 June 2014, its revenue was up 17% to $617 million and after tax profit was $49.7 million. Its increased revenues and profits were bolstered by the Manus Island contracts.

In February 2015, the Australian Financial Review reported that Decmil ‘had sent workers to Manus Island on incorrect visas, as the required work permits would have taken up to three months to process’. ((‘Manus Workers on Wrong Visas’, The AFR, 7-8 February 2015, p.21.)) The Commonwealth was paying $74,000 a night for the ‘floating hotel’ used to house up to 180 workers employed by Decmil on Manus, adding to the bill for $13.3m for the seven months to 31 May 2013 (although the total bill would have been doubled as the Bibby Progress remained moored off Manus Island until November 2013).

Further, the delegation which visited China, and included a senior Decmil executive and an officer from DIBP, reportedly embraced the bright lights of Shanghai on a government-funded junket, spending an estimated $44,000 on luxury accommodation in a ‘karaoke bar’ and ‘female company’. The pretext for the trip was an inspection (which took only a couple of hours to complete) of Ark China, a supplier of modular buildings for the Manus expansion, amid a four-day trip for the men. ((‘Shanghaied: a $44,000 tab for taxpayers’, AFR, 7-8 February 2015, p.20.))

East Lorengau, Manus Island. Photo provided by the author.

Decmil has been a ‘partner’ of the Fremantle Dockers Football Club since 2006, and is an Official Coaches Sponsor until the end of the 2015 season. Decmil also supports the ‘Live the Dream’ program, where 16 young people, mainly from regional WA, ‘become immersed in the culture of the Fremantle Dockers Football Club and “live the life” of an AFL player for five days’. This means that the Dockers are benefitting financially from the profits made in Australia’s offshore detention industry. But it also means that Decmil’s relationship with the Dockers assists the company to build its image of a ‘good corporate citizen’.

A written request to the Fremantle Football Club CEO to meet with refugee activists and discuss the sponsorship arrangements with Decmil was flatly refused. Notwithstanding allegations of corruption of both Decmil and DIBP officers, as reported by the Fairfax newspapers (and which were never publicly resolved), the tripartite relationship between the corporate giant, the government department, and the football club, illustrates the extent to which the agenda set by capital and supported by the political class permeates all aspects of social, political and cultural life.

No crime to seek asylum: ‘Human rights’ and state authority

In October 2001, the arrival of the Norwegian freighter, MV Tampa with 438 asylum-seekers, predominantly Afghani Hazara escaping merciless persecution by the Taliban, marked a watershed in Australian border politics. The refusal of the Howard government to admit the ship into Australian waters was bitterly criticised world-wide as the breach of the laws of the sea and international human rights obligations, including most United Nations mechanisms Australia had ratified.

At home, however, Howard’s manipulation of the ‘Tampa affair’ in the aftermath of the 9/11, led to hysteria against refugees and asylum-seekers that, eventually, sank the very institution of asylum. The Howard government introduced the ‘Pacific Solution’, opening detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where asylum-seekers were detained until their applications for temporary protection visas were processed. The government won what had been regarded as an unwinnable election, on the back of fear it had manipulated using an event that otherwise would have been seen as an innocuous arrival of persecuted people. Sara Ahmed explains the ease with which events were transformed into a nation-building exercise:

‘[I]t is through announcing a crisis in security that new forms of security, border policing and surveillance become justified. We only have to think about how narratives of crisis are used within politics to justify a “return” to values and traditions that are perceived to be under threat. … the declaration of crisis reads that fact/ figure/ event and transforms it into a fetish object that then acquires a life of its own, in other words, that can become the grounds for declarations of war against that which is read as the source of the threat … to announce a crisis is to produce the moral and political justification for maintaining “what is” (taken for granted or granted) in the name of future survival.’ ((Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Routledge: New York, 2004, pp.76-77))

Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle, Christmas Island. FLICKR, HADI ZAHER CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle, Christmas Island. FLICKR, HADI ZAHER CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The politics of fear has maintained its hold on the public discourse about asylum-seekers since the Tampa incident, growing to the extent that, in 2015, it has morphed into more than just a fear of the ‘other’ – asylum-seekers, especially Muslim asylum-seekers – and has become a threat to the ‘future of the nation’. In late 2014, the Australian government passed laws that effectively nullified the state’s ratification of the United Nations Refugee Convention, and introduced the most regressive legislation regulating the terms under which asylum-seekers’ claims for refugee status are lodged, and the limits to which they are approved.

For asylum-seekers on Manus Island, including those who may ‘choose’ to be housed in Decmil-built transit centre on East Lorengau, the legislative changes mean that even if their refugee status is determined, they will never be permitted to settle in Australia. At the time of writing, asylum-seekers on Manus Island are anticipating forced deportation if they refuse offered resettlement, or if their refugee determination finding (performed in circumstances where there was no objective oversight) was negative. The institution of asylum, as understood and legislated by the Australian government, has been transformed beyond any intention outlined in international law, allowing the political class in Australia to ‘shift’ the responsibility away from its jurisdiction onto people who escape persecution.

‘It is no crime to seek asylum’, is an often-heard argument mounted by refugee rights activists. But there is no mechanism in international law, least of all not in the United Nations Convention on Refugees (the Convention), which compels the state to grant asylum. The Convention asserts – rather forcefully – that the right to leave is universal. It is, however, conspicuously silent on the right of entry. The Convention joins a range of international legal mechanisms in maintaining the power of the state – the sovereignty of the state – on the right of entry. This is quite a contrast to implications of ‘free trade’ agreements, which guarantee free flow, over nation-state borders, of capital, goods, information, intelligence and labour to and from respective signatories.

Forced migration is, in and of itself, a collective endeavour

The logic of international law, including the Convention, places the onus on the individual to ‘prove’ that their claim for seeking asylum is a legitimate one. The individual, thus, becomes, a site for the exercise of state authority, a site for accountability, and a site for enforcement. ((Saskia Sassen, ‘Beyond Sovereignty: Immigration Policy Making Today’, Social Justice, vol.23, no.3, 1996.)) Irrespective of its limited jurisdiction, international law fails to account for the direct effects and implications of the geopolitical order, which has to date rendered forced migration one of the most serious of its consequences. Forced migration is, in and of itself, a collective endeavour: people move, or are moved, forcibly, in order to escape persecution, torture, and in many cases, a certain death, and they do so because they belong to a group identified and targeted for punishment. In the vast majority of cases, people are escaping state power, and their futures remain enmeshed in the geopolitical order that marries the power of the state to the power of capital. Therefore, any movement seeking to achieve the benefit for asylum-seekers must not bow simply to the limits of arguing for ‘human rights’:

‘Advocates of human rights cannot avoid the fact that human rights rely on a sphere of determination (for historical reasons, the nation-state) that, from the beginning, was less the assertion of human rights in any universalisable and inclusive sense than the inauguration of a power to grant rights and to not grant them according to a particular division: citizen/non-citizen.’ ((Angela Mitropoulos, ‘The Barbed End of Human Rights’, Borderlands, vol.2, no.1, 2003,, accessed 17 July 2015.))

For the benefit of refugee advocacy and activism, the ‘human rights’ discourse is unworkable, deficient, and defeated, for a range of reasons I have explained in my previous writings. ((Jasmina Brankovich, ‘Walking Backwards Over Sand’, Upswell Magazine, May 2015,–upswell-magazine)) It has been appropriated by the state, which aims to act so it ‘saves lives at sea’. The idea that one can simply call for the release of ‘children out of detention’, for example, without doing the same for their parents or carers, or simply all asylum seekers, means that the refugee advocacy movement is bowing to the powers of the state which enacts the boundaries around ‘deserving refugees’, sets up ‘processing systems’ which are always – always – bound to the state legislative mechanisms, whether they exist or not; and, ultimately, works to preserve the power of the state executive in determining what it means to be a ‘refugee’. Human rights do not exist outside of the borders, nor do they apply equally to all within them.

The refugee rights movement invests much effort in disclosing the persecution of refugees inside the camps, and exposing the deliberate brutality inflicted by the government policy and detention industrial complex, designed as yet another form of ‘deterrence’. But the horror stories featuring in the media have failed to make a dent in the national psyche which has imbibed the prevalent meaning of asylum-seekers as ‘queue jumpers’, ‘economic refugees’, and undeserving of ‘special treatment’ while their fellows languish in overcrowded camps, mainly in developing countries. At times of increasing economic and political uncertainties at a global level, asylum-seekers who arrive by boat have come to symbolise the vulnerability of borders and the threat to the Australian nation-state. The appeal to ‘human rights’ may make for a valid moral claim, but has been unsuccessful in engendering empathy and compassion for asylum-seekers in the wider population, thus failing the test of political relevance. ((See my Upswell article for a more detailed discussion.))

Conclusion: no-borders campaigning and the future of the refugee movement

It is imperative that the refugee movement demonstrates that there are common interests – economic, cultural and political – shared by asylum-seekers and the working-class in Australia. This is a challenging task, that would take a long time to achieve, but a change in conversation is required in an environment where the refugee movement is not gaining any traction on the issue of boat-arrivals. The effective endorsement of the ‘turn-backs’ policy by the Australian Labor Party national conference in July 2015 is an unmistakeable sign that the solutions must come from the outside of the parliamentary system, and be propelled within it by the members of parliament who hold views in affinity with those of the refugee activists.

Building a no-borders campaign requires a multi-pronged approach that demonstrates there are more important commonalities between asylum-seekers and ‘ordinary’ Australians, than there are insurmountable differences. Exposing the links between corporates in the detention industrial complex, government policy, and the damage wrought on the economy and, by extension, on the ‘tax-payer’, would be the first tactic.

The refugee movement would benefit from adopting a model of the campaign advocating divestment from the fossil fuel industry. The campaign kicked off in the United States in 2011, when a small group of students launched an attempt to persuade the Harvard Management Company to remove its investments – and cut-off profit flowing – from the oil, gas, and coal industry. To date, the US campaign involves over 200 organisations, and advocacy group, has launched a similar campaign in Australia. In the US, the divestment campaign has brought together universities, schools, health-care organisations, philanthropic bodies, faith-based organisations, NGOs, and government agencies. The total value of assets divested amounted in 2014, to $50b. ((Arabella Advisors, Measuring the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement, 2014,, accessed 20 July 2015.))

There is little evaluative evidence to demonstrate that divestment campaigns affect the financial markets’ valuations of targeted companies. However, this is not primarily the chief goal of the divestment tactic. The anti-fossil fuels campaign aims to shape the public discourse on real causes behind climate change, in a similar way that the divestment campaign against South African companies raised alarm around institutionalised apartheid, during the last two decades of the twentieth century. It is not possible to measure the impact of divestment (which in the South African case was accompanied by boycotts and sanctions), but there is widespread belief that divestment was an important part of the worldwide opposition to apartheid which brought it to its end in the early 1990s.

The disruption in the supply chain is aimed to make investment in detention and compliance with government policy unpalatable to service users

The current divestment campaign against companies that are a part of the detention industrial complex subcontracted by the Australian government provides an example with the HESTA Divest campaign that is making incremental gains. ((HESTA is an industry superannuation fund for workers in health and community services, which invests in detention through Transfield Services. The stated overarching goal of this campaign is to disrupt the supply chain in the detention system, rather than aim for a devaluation in the share price of the said companies. The disruption in the supply chain is aimed to make investment in detention and compliance with government policy unpalatable to service users – mainly industry superannuation fund investors who are the focus of this campaign, and who are asked to pressure their unions to divest their investments from key detention players such as Serco and Transfield.

Government outsourcing on the detention industry peaked in the last financial year: ‘Between 2009-10 and 2013-14 annual expenditure has increased from $118.4 million to $3.3 billion, growing at 129 per cent per year.’ (( The scope of services negotiated with private providers is the major reason behind soaring costs of detention. There are a number of reasons for this level of cost: governments do not only outsource services because they are driven by the neo-liberal agenda and its unswerving ideological underpinning of ‘small government’. Governments outsource the liability and moral hazard inherent in the detention industrial complex because governments want to lessen their accountability for human rights abuses that are a daily occurrence in the camps.

The key to launching a workable divestment campaign is communicating effectively about the precise challenge to borders that involves contesting the space occupied by corporations profiting from the detention system which props up the ruling political class whose interests are enmeshed with the interests of capital. The process of identification that needs to be made, in other words, is the one where a persuasive argument is made to the broader public that there is still much more to lose in a race to the bottom in asylum-seeker policy – and nothing is to be gained.


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