Border Protection as a Defence of White Sovereignty

This essay was written for for my Australian Foreign Policy unit in response to the following question:

How should we make sense of Australia’s approach to the arrival of asylum seekers by boat?

I suggest that we can only understand Australia’s refugee policies by viewing it as a defence of the white nation-state’s sovereignty. This attempt to legitimise white sovereignty over borders runs in tandem with the denial of Indigenous sovereignty, which is also perceived as a threat to the legitimacy of the white nation-state. In both cases, vulnerable groups are marginalised, demonised, and dehumanised by the policies of successive Australian governments. References are provided at the bottom.

The approach to, and treatment and fate of, asylum seekers arriving by boat to seek refugee status in Australia has been a topic of much contention over the past couple of decades. Recent debates surrounding how Australia ought to handle this usually frame it by starting from the Howard government’s response to the Tampa affair in August 2001 where 433 asylum seekers were picked up by a Norwegian vessel in Indonesia’s maritime rescue zone, but only 75 nautical miles from Christmas Island, an Australian territory. 131 were received by New Zealand, and the rest were taken to Nauru for processing under the fledgling “Pacific Solution”. (Brennan, 2003).

While this was a defining moment in Australia’s foreign policy that has shaped contemporary policy approaches from both sides of government, this is by no means the beginning of Australia’s refugee story, let alone the underlying principles that have informed it. This essay intends to argue that Australia’s approach to asylum seekers arriving by boat is in fact a defence of the sovereignty of the settler-colonial nation-state as a white construct and possession since the British invasion in the 18th Century. Stemming from this anxiety, various political actors have used asylum seekers as a means of competing for legitimacy regarding their approach to what is called “national security” in public discourse, leaving a vulnerable and demonised group at the mercy of political expediency.

In The White Possessive, Moreton-Robinson (2015) describes the modern nation-state of Australia as a white possession, with sovereignty and property rights granted by the Crown dominating the will and sovereignty of First Nations peoples. It is this devotion to property rights that drives those who possess to maintain the conditions that allow their continued ownership (Moreton-Robinson, 2015). With respect to national security, “these interests expand to accommodate what a nation or a dominant group within it possesses or thinks it ought to possess.” (Fernandes, 2018: 2). The “elastic concept” of security first applied to the expanding frontier, then to our internationally recognised borders and beyond. (Fernandes, 2018).

Just as opposition to Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination is dutifully carried out by the white nation-state, opposition to asylum seekers – namely, by excluding those who are not white – is an extension of the same mindset to maintain the hegemony of white possession. This is more explicit in the 20th Century with the introduction of the White Australia Policy, with “anxious men” passing legislation they claimed was important for the “self-preservation of the “national manhood” and “national character.” (Lake, 2004: 102). Following the Second World War, Australia accepted the necessity of migration but was hesitant to accept refugees of any kind and preferred skilled British migrants, or at the very least white Europeans. When the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was proposed, Australia was opposed to the right to enter another country without invitation, even to seek asylum, as “it would be tantamount to the abandonment of the right which every sovereign state possesses to determine the composition of its own population, and who shall be admitted into its territories.” (Heyes, quoted in Brennan, 2003: 2).

There were also pressures to bring in white migrants (although some held doubts about non-British migrants as well) due to existential fears of invasion from Asian neighbours to the north, another politically charged public debate that continues today with the perceived military and economic threat of China. (Brennan, 2003; Brophy, 2021; Fernandes, 2018). Despite the Whitlam Labor government finally abolishing the White Australia Policy, Whitlam also merged the Departments overseeing immigration and labour. Due to high unemployment rates and union interests, Whitlam was opposed to resettling refugees that would flood the labour market. In an outburst more reminiscent of One Nation rhetoric decades later, he was quoted as yelling “I’m not having hundreds of f—ing [sic] Vietnamese Balts coming into this country with their religious and political hatreds against us!” (Cameron, quoted in Brennan, 2003: 29). It was the Coalition under Fraser that moved to split the Departments again and accept higher numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat. No “invasion” ever occurred.

In 1992, the Keating Labor government got bipartisan support to begin mandatory detention, a “temporary measure” following arrivals from Indochina that was “extended in 1994 to all ‘unlawful non-citizens, and the time limit on detention was removed.” (McAdam & Chong, 2019: 95). Indefinite detention was described as “restrictive”, and according to the government it was intended to show a “clear signal to the world that migration in Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community.” (Commonwealth of Australia, quoted in McAdam and Chong, 2019). Four years later in 1998, the Howard government introduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPV), leaving refugees who were in the community having to prove their status without legal or financial assistance. For Hazara refugees from Afghanistan, this came with accusations and suspicions of false identities and terrorism from the Afghan and Australian governments. (Brennan, 2003: 48-49).

However, most people with a TPV were eventually given permanent protection visas under Howard, with the whole policy scrapped under Rudd in 2008. Rudd’s government dismantled a number of the Howard era policies regarding asylum seekers in detention, including shutting down the detention centres integral to the “Pacific Solution”, but continued to use strong rhetoric on border protection and national security. While removing policies that punished refugees that had already arrived, they continued construction and operation of offshore detention centres in territories excised from Australia’s immigration zone and “did not significantly alter any of the policies that limited access to Australia’s asylum system in the first place.” (Stats, 2017). In only slight contrast to the Coalition, Labor’s “utilitarian concept of general deterrence allows that it is only necessary that “sufficient” numbers of people are punished in order to create a deterrent effect.” (Pickering & Weber, 2014).

With Tony Abbott’s campaign message of “stop the boats”, referring to asylum seekers as “boat people” in an effort to dehumanise them, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd ultimately reversed what positive policies the Labor Party had implemented. The 2013 election rhetoric took place within a framework wherein “any boat arrival becomes a “failure” of border policing, a concession to people-smugglers and their “business model”, and an egregious breach of sovereignty.” (Coulson, 2020; Grewcock, 2014). It also brought back the myth of “queue jumpers”, painting those asylum seekers arriving by boat as “illegal” and unauthorised arrivals taking the place of those waiting in official channels. Under international law it is not illegal to seek asylum, and the refugee intake of Australia is divided between official and “unofficial” refugees to manufacture outrage and to set an entirely arbitrary cap despite our international obligations. (McAdam & Chong, 2019; Hodge, 2020).

Having won the 2013 election, the Coalition government started Operation Sovereign Borders, militarising the process of border protection against boat arrivals and ramped up security and offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. Being military operations, access to information and facilities was restricted, hiding border patrol activities and human rights abuses behind the guise of “national security”. (Hodge, 2020). By 2016, the approach was bipartisan, with Labor in opposition supporting Operation Sovereign Borders but looking to improve procedures and treatment of asylum seekers. (Gunn & Mintrom, 2017). Pickering and Weber (2014) stated “the inability to think beyond deterrence in one form or another has now become the hallmark of border control policies in Australia and further afield.” It wasn’t until the “Medevac Bill” was introduced in 2018 that, with Labor’s support, the crossbench led by MP Dr Kerryn Phelps helped to allow a more transparent and fast-tracked medical transfer process. The Morrison government wasted almost $200 million reopening the Christmas Island facilities, but it was never utilised and asylum seekers were brought onshore. (McAdam & Chong, 2019).

While blatant racial discrimination is no longer the central (but by no means non-existent) justification for Australia defending its sovereignty and borders, the approach to asylum seekers is undoubtedly informed by its history. The myth of the “illegal” immigrant, I believe, goes hand in hand with the myth of the “white men’s country” spoken about in the early 20th Century (Lake, 2004). The rhetoric of dispossession by “Asiatic hordes” and “boat people” feeds existential anxiety in “white” Australia. These fears are “embedded in the nation’s denial of the continuing existence of Indigenous sovereignty,” which serves to legitimise “patriarchal white sovereignty and its right to exert border protection against others.” (Moreton-Robinson, 2015).

The dehumanisation and criminalisation of asylum seekers by successive governments is also reminiscent of the treatment of Indigenous populations from invasion to the present day. Indigenous populations, under the legal fiction of terra nullius, were violently displaced by the incoming white nation-state, including massacres, sexual abuse, and forced relocation to missions (Maddison, 2009; Moreton-Robinson, 2015). In 2016, the Guardian reported on the largest leak of documents pertaining to the conditions and abuses within detention centres in Nauru, including violence, sexual abuse, and self-harm (Farrell et. al., 2016; Evershed et. al., 2016). This was corroborated by eyewitness accounts of torture, with occurrences of “solitary confinement, dehumanising and humiliating treatment, physical violence and sexual abuse, the indefinite length of detention, and the improper treatment of ill-health.” (Rae et. al., 2018).

In 2007, near the end of first “Pacific Solution”, Howard also initiated the Northern Territory Intervention which increased policing and regulation of Indigenous communities and individuals on the moral pretence of preventing child sexual abuse, of which a later report by the Rudd government identified a total of four cases (Moreton-Robinson, 2015). This is despite decades of activism and attempts to communicate known concerns to the government, but rather than dialogue, the Intervention further stripped already destitute communities of their dignity and autonomy (Maddison, 2009). Similarly, the view of asylum seeker “bodies” as targets for military operations and the dehumanising conditions of detention centres leaving them without social, educational, and work prospects, removes dignity and autonomy from another vulnerable group (Hodge, 2020; Salyer, 2020).

Both Indigenous populations and asylum seekers represent the same “threat” to the white patriarchal nation-state, albeit from different perspectives. The discussion of “white” Australia’s sovereignty and border protection against the “others” arriving by boat to seek asylum cannot be properly understood without an analysis of white possession and the history of violence and dispossession against the Indigenous peoples within our borders. Any challenge to the sovereignty of the nation-state over its territories since Federation has been met with hostility and trepidation by Australian governments. While the more blatant and explicit racism that underpinned these policies has been swept aside legally, this historical and cultural context is required to understand Australia’s approach to asylum seekers.

While border security and asylum seekers were not a major campaign topic for the 2022 Federal election, the outgoing Coalition government attempted a last-minute scare on election day by disclosing the interception of two boats heading to Australia from Sri Lanka (Jones, 2022). Despite this, Labor was elected to government along with an increase to the Greens and independent crossbench numbers. Labor’s current known policies towards asylum seekers are similar in approach to the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era, aiding those already residing in the community and bettering the processes and treatment of those offshore. However, offshore processing will likely continue, along with boat turn backs and regional arrangements with Southeast Asia and other countries for  processing and resettlement. (Refugee Council of Australia, 2022). Richard Marles, the new Deputy Prime Minister, stated there would be no change to border policy (Knaus & Senanayake, 2022).

It can be assumed that the same approach will continue unless properly challenged.


Brennan, F. (2003). Tampering With Asylum: A Universal Humanitarian Problem. University of Queensland Press.

Brophy, D. (2021). China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering. La Trobe University Press.

Coulson, I. (2020). What Do Prime Ministers’ Speeches Tell Us About Historical Attitudes to Immigration? Agora, 55(1), 32-39.

Evershed, N., Liu, R., Farrell, P. & Davidson, H. (2016). The Nauru Files: The lives of asylum seekers in detention detailed in a unique database. The Guardian.

Farrell, P., Evershed, N. & Davidson, H. (2016, August 10). The Nauru files: cache of 2,000 leaked reports reveal scale of abuse of children in Australian offshore detention. The Guardian.

Fernandes, C. (2018). Island Off the Coast of Asia: Instruments of Statecraft in Australian Foreign Policy. Monash University Publishing.

Grewcock, M. (2014). Back to the Future: Australian Border Policing Under Labor, 2007-2013. State Crime, 3(1), 102-125.

Hodge, P. (2020). A grievable life? The criminalisation and securing of asylum seeker bodies in the ‘violent frames’ of Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders. Geoforum, 58, 122-131.

Jones, J. (2022). Illegal maritime venture intercepted. Australian Border Force.

Knaus, C. & Senanayake, D. (2022, May 24). Election day press release about asylum seeker boats ‘a disgrace’, Richard Marles says. The Guardian.

Lake, M. (2003). On History and Politics. In S. Macintyre (Ed.), The Historian’s Conscience: Australian Historians on the Ethics of History (pp. 94-105). Melbourne University Press

Maddison, S. (2009). Black Politics: Inside the Complexity of Aboriginal Political Culture. Allen & Unwin.

McAdam, A. & Chong, F. (2019). Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs: A Frank, Up-to-Date Guide by Experts. NewSouth Publishing.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015). The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. University of Minnesota Press.

Pickering, S. & Weber, L. (2014). New Deterrence Scripts in Australia’s Rejuvenated Offshore Detention Regime for Asylum Seekers. Law & Social Inquiry, 39(4), 1006-1026.

Rae, M., Holman, R. & Nethery, A. (2018). Self-represented witnessing: the use of social media by asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres. Media, Culture and Society, 40(4), 479-495.

Refugee Council of Australia. (2022). 2022 Federal election: Refugee policies of Liberal-National Coalition, Labor and The Greens.

Salyer, J. C. (2020). The Denial of Human Dignity in the Age of Human Rights under Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders. Contemporary Pacific, 32(2), 512-521.

Stats, K. (2017). Joining the ‘Race to the Bottom’: The Rudd Government’s ‘Tough but Humane’ Approach to Asylum Seekers. Arena Journal, (47/48), 98–123.

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