The EU and offshore asylum processing
This PRIO policy brief examines the Australian model of offshore processing of asylum seekers, including the failures of the model.
In this interview, Ekatherina Zhukova, Senior Lecturer at Lund University and Julia Morris, Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, explore the increased privatisation of immigration detention centers and outsourcing asylum to private corporations.
Based on Morris’s forthcoming book Asylum and Extraction in the Republic of Nauru in February 2023 with Cornell University Press, they discuss the concept of “refugee extractivism” which captures how people become subject to extractive technologies that track their movements across territories. This refugee extractivism operates as a form of human or intimate extractivism, since what is extracted is people’s vital energy, their time, their material resources, which bring profit to private industries. Zhukova and Morris also explore the consequences of the refugee extractive industry being intertwined with other traditional toxic industries such as phosphate mining.
It is my pleasure to interview and introduce Julia Morris, who is Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Julia’s research focuses on migration and the environment through the framework of resource extraction. She has done extensive ethnographic fieldwork in the Republic of Nauru, Australia, Geneva, Fiji, as well as projects in Guatemala and Jordan. Julia’s latest book is titled Asylum and Extraction in the Republic of Nauru, and it is forthcoming with Cornell University Press in February 2023.
Let me start by asking you about your forthcoming book. What has brought you to writing a book on asylum and extraction?
Thank you very much for having me. I wrote this book really from a place of anger and frustration at the increased propensity for governments to outsource asylum and outsource border operations to third countries. I was initially doing research as part of my PhD for an organisation in Texas that focuses on issues around the increased privatisation of immigration detention centres. So thinking about that kind of outsourcing to private corporations, and also the involvement of NGOs in upholding practices of immigration detention, and enforcement at large, eventually took me to Australia. There I started doing my PhD research because Australia has a completely privatised immigration detention system.
completely privatised immigration detention system
As I was doing the research in Australia, I realised where the high value contracts were, and where the tremendous industry lay, both in terms of private corporations as well as NGOs and state government agencies, was in Nauru through the contracted offshore industry around asylum. I was then able to get a year-long research permit to conduct research in Nauru, and doing that research also enabled me to see a lot of the colonial and post-colonial continuities between past histories of resource extraction in the regions that governments had outsourced asylum or border operations to. It was really starkly brought into vivid, vivid reality a lot of what I had been thinking about in other locations, but as manifested in this context, where there have been past histories around phosphate extraction through to the present operations around what I conceptualise as a form of human extraction.
a form of human extraction
It also really allowed me to think through and critique a lot of the humanitarian promotion of asylum and refugee resettlement systems, which is often upheld as something benevolent but which I see as another form of border control and border enforcement that places people in a position where they are having to rely on bodily and quite intimate narratives of suffering and persecution in order to move across the border. So looking at the industry, that was already so in place, that extrapolated to Nauru, enabled me to critique those sorts of arrangements in a place where what was happening was clearly so egregious.
That is very interesting, especially the privatisation aspect of immigration. In this regard, what role does the state play in enabling these privatisation practices?
It is an interesting question because I think part of the ability for these sorts of arrangements to be carried out is this: they are outsourced among a spectrum of different players, so it is very difficult to have any sense of accountability when you have so many actors involved. But ultimately, it is state agencies that are able to pass laws that enable these kinds of third country, regional cooperative agreements, as they are often termed, to come into play. So it was not as if there were no state actors that were operating, there were a number of Australian Government officials and divisions who were active in Nauru, at the same time there were a spectrum of different industry players too. But all of the contracts were ultimately stemming from the Australian Government so that is where the finances lay and that is where all the industry contractors were tied in financially.
What caught my attention when I was familiarising myself with your work, is the concept of refugee extractivism. Would you like to tell me more how this concept has come about and what it means in your research?
There are multiple layers to it in that you have extractive processes, which are these forces that push a lot of people to move from their homeland regions. That can include everything from massive land grabs, or ecological destructions from mining, or the implementation of neo-colonial development programs, all of which generate migrations. But then I was trying to push that further, and argue that extractivism does not just stop there. But that people are then subject to extractive systems of legal technologies that track their movements across territories. Then thinking about these processes of intimate extractivism, where what is extracted is people’s vital energies, their time, their material resources, all of which profit a vast industry of corporate, non‑governmental, government and other actors.
what is extracted is people’s vital energies, their time, their material resources
Thinking about these different layers of extractivism where you have, perhaps as in the case of Nauru, past histories of extractivism around more traditionally thought of resources, so in the case of Nauru this includes extraction of minerals and phosphate, through to contemporary practices of extractivism around migrants, so from minerals to migrants, and these intimate processes profit some of the same industry actors. There were actually a number of organisations who had past histories of either working in mining industries or remote offshore sites in Australia, who then had some of these lucrative contracts around the refugee industry in Nauru. So they already had the infrastructural setup in order to move into this new human commodity sector.
I see refugee extractivism, really as twofold. You have these forces that are pushing people into becoming refugees, as well as the extractivism that extracts value from people as refugees at the same time, some of which people might be coming with very good intentions. I often talk about the extraction of value can both be financial, as well as moral. So a lot of non-governmental actors, for example, where people were often coming with very good intentions, but at the same time were extracting feelgood value, as well as financial value from refugees, as well as people who are putting forward refugee claims. So that is not to discount how this new form of extractivism also relies on people having to extract value from themselves and perform to a particular narrative in order to move across the border.
extraction of value can both be financial, as well as moral
As you do a lot of ethnographic work, what role has your ethnography and particularly ethnographic methodology played in seeing this extraction of value from refugees? And of course, ethnographic methods offer a particular lens for seeing things like this, so please tell me a little bit more about your ethnography.
Without the ethnography, I would not have understood the extent of practices of extractivism that were playing out in Nauru. Nauru is a very controversial context. A lot of the narratives that envelop the country really centre on civilisational narratives that position the Nauruans as cannibals or as underdeveloped and draw on these colonial tropes that Nauruans are uncivilised and running around chasing refugees on the streets. When I went to Nauru and actually conducted research there, I realised that the realities were quite different. Actually there were hugely negative impacts of the refugee industry on locals as much as migrants, as well as contracted personnel in the industry. So it was really crucial to conduct that on the ground field work research in order to see how that was playing out, as well as to see the specifics around how lucrative the refugee industry had been for Nauru.
hugely negative impacts of the refugee industry on locals as much as migrants
In my book, I pair the impacts of the refugee industry with a lot of the literature that looks at the impacts of other forms of toxic industry operations on the ground. So whether that be mining industries, or toxic, outsourced chemical plants in countries in the Global South, and I saw a lot of stark parallels there. Just as one example, when I was in Nauru, not that long after I had moved there, I was whisked into the post office by a friend who is Nauruan who announced to me that today was actually refugee royalties day and did I mind queuing with her in the post office to receive her cheque. It turned out that a few days after phosphate royalties day, which is when local landowners still collect cheques for the amount of phosphate extracted from their land, there was a similar kind of financial arrangement where local landowners, who owned what was really lucrative land, were receiving cheques from the Australian Government. These landowners were receiving cheques for leasing their land to various refugee industry organisations, the resettlement organisations for example, who had constructed resettlement housing for migrants who had received refugee status on the island, or for leasing land for the immigration detention centre sites. So there were so many stark parallels as well as literal continuities and ways in which the refugee industry was brought into the phosphate industry, that if I had not conducted that deep ethnographic work in the country, I never would have been able to think about or to discover. So doing this ethnographic work in Nauru was a really important process of discovery.
I also find it interesting what you are saying about the connection between extractivism in Nauru and other forms of extractivism and toxic operations like mining, chemicals and so on. To what extent do you think the concept of refugee extractivism can help us to also think of alternative futures or alternative ways to address the climate crisis we face today because of all these extractivist industries?
I think it is a very helpful concept for making visible a lot of the contradictory logics that push people to move from colonial histories around displacement and land grabbing and resource grabbing, so that that initially causes those dynamics of displacement through then to the different technologies of border enforcement, whether that be asylum and refugee resettlement systems. Increasingly, we see a lot of outsourcing and externalisation of asylum, which I also see as very much this form of extractivisim. Dynamics are pushing people to move, as well as profiting from trying to then keep people in place, or to only allow people to access labour markets as low wage workers. I think it is very helpful to make visible a lot of these contradictory push and then capitalisation and commodification sorts of dynamics, and to make clear just how paradoxical it is to them to package on these extra systems of extracting value from people who have been forced to move from very precarious histories in the past through to the present.
If you were to summarise the main finding of your book and a takeaway message what would you say it is?
I would say that it is an emphasis on the importance of enabling the ability of people to move across borders, and not upholding asylum and refugee resettlement as a solution, but instead thinking much more expansively about the benefits that are achieved from supporting people’s ability to move, to live, to work, and to find livelihoods across borders. What I argue in the book is that by upholding asylum and refugee resettlement as something benevolent actually provides more value to refugee industry organisations that have been contracted to places like Nauru on a permanent basis. Instead of upholding or supporting ‘refugees welcome’ movements, we should think more expansively about the benefits of open freedom of movement.
the importance of enabling the ability of people to move across borders, and not upholding asylum and refugee resettlement as a solution
So we should reconsider the role of the space in how we address the question of being a refugee. In this regard, you have done so much fieldwork in other places, to what extent has this also informed the argument of your book?
I think it has been very helpful doing this research at other outsourced asylum sites like in Guatemala and in Jordan, and seeing how these dynamics are not just something that are localised to Nauru – they are particularly stark in Nauru where you have these multimillion dollar industry contract contracts – but there are similar kinds of logics that are being implemented around the world. The most recent one being the UK Government’s agreement with the Rwandan Government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for refugee processing and long-term resettlement. It has been very helpful to see this is not something that is just specific to Nauru, Nauru is one particular egregious case, but we see these kinds of dynamics continuing to happen around the world. And actually, it is quite counterintuitive to support asylum and refugee resettlement at large because again it provides more value to a lot of the industry actors who are being contracted into these various outsourced asylum sites around the world.
What has this book inspired you to do now? What are you working on now? And what are you thinking of working in the future?
I am actually just starting up a new project in Christmas Island, which is another of the on-again off-again, third country asylum processing sites that the Australian Government has used. It is actually an Australian territory, and it is a region that has a similar history around phosphate extraction. But it is also a region where there has been a huge amount of financial support given to environmental protection. So on the island, you have this big phenomena of red land crab migrations that happen once a year, where very tiny bright red crabs that scuttle across the island. The Australian Government has put a lot of money into supporting the mobility of these crabs. So you have bridges that zig zag the road and tunnels that go underneath the roads in order to facilitate the migration of these little red land crabs that happens once a year as the adult crabs move from the jungle in the centre of the island to the coast to lay their eggs and then move back again. These crabs literally cover the island, but at the same time Christmas Island has also had an on-again off-again immigration detention centre, so as well as these infrastructures for mobility design to facilitate crab migration, there are infrastructures of immobility designed to deter, or to immobilise, or to limit, the migration of humans. I’m thinking about these contradictions as non-human and human mobility and immobility and the experiences of people living and working in these human and non-human migratory pathways and so I have just done this work in Christmas Island around that.
I have also been doing some ongoing research in Guatemala that looks at how environmental protection works as an instrument of migration governance, looking at programs in the country that have been funded by the US Government to employ mostly Central American asylum seekers who have received refugee visas in Guatemala as rangers in national parks around the country. I am thinking about some of the contradictions of protection in these contexts and what is being protected and again looking at the interface between human and non-human mobility and protection.
This also makes me think about another dichotomy: proximity and distance. Because on the one hand outsourcing asylum creates a distance between the main population or the mainland and island, but at the same time it has proximity to all the capitalistic structures and industries. So there is also another dichotomy if you like: proximity and distance.
Yes, very much so and I think that is one of the main reasons why it has become increasingly popular to use islands or remote areas and territories as a site for carrying out processing and long-term resettlement as a way to not allow activists and advocates to mobilise, to protest and to create networks with people who are being incarcerated in those places. That kind of distancing works very productively for governments.
Thank you very much Julia for sharing your insights. I wish you well with this project and as you continue your work on the important topic of refugee extractivism.