Prisoners of the global enclosures make a break for it.

AUSTRALIA -Friday, June 9 2000. Within less than 48 hours, over 750 asylum-seekers had broken out of three remote refugee prisons in Australia, experiencing freedom for the first time in over 6 months. The vast majority of the asylum seekers are from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, told reporters that the escapees had the choice of returning to detention or face charges which could see them disqualified for visas under migration laws which require that applicants to be of "good character". Con Sciacca, from the Opposition Labor Party and Shadow Minister for Immigration, said that the escapees would not be getting any sympathy from the public.

All three refugee prisons are in remote, desert locations where nightly temperatures regularly reach freezing. At least 10 people have been taken to hospital having collapsed from exhaustion, cold and a lack of food. Since Thursday, many of the escapees have been returned to their respective prison camps, but many remain free, if without any support, including food and shelter. Each of the prison camps is located hundreds of kilometres from major cities.

The siting of the refugee prisons in remote locations has an economic and political basis. It has made access to legal aid, community support and media scrutiny almost impossible to sustain. Since 1994, a series of laws have also restricted access to legal information, including communications from the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

Moreover, the convergence of a restructuring of rural economies and the explicit peddling of xenophobic explanations for rising unemployment and declining incomes by all major parties (Labor, National, Liberal, Green and Democrats) in the last decade -- a tactic which prompted the subsequent rise of the openly racist One Nation in 1996 which targeted migrants and indigenous 'welfare bludgers' as the cause of rural misery -- has resulted in the political isolation of asylum seekers.

No political party in Australia is prepared to defend the right of asylum seekers to justice, including freedom from arbitrary and lengthy imprisonment. The refugee prisons highlight the racist exceptions to the rule of law in Australia, including the singular exception to the principle that someone be charged and tried before a court before being imprisoned. This 'external' exclusion from the rule of law adheres to the same racist logic as that of the 'internal' mandatory sentencing regime for petty property crimes, currently practiced in two Australian states, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, whose indisputable target is indigenous peoples.


On Thursday, over a hundred people tore down the barbed wire fencing at the Woomera prison camp and headed for the middle of the nearby town to stage a protest against poor conditions, overcrowding, refusals to provide access to telephones and newspapers and the slow processing of visa applications. During the rest of the day, another three escapes were mounted bringing the total numbers to around 600. They joined others in the centre of the town chanting 'We want freedom!' They have been held in the Woomera prison camp for over 6 months.

On Friday morning, after having endured cold, without food since Wednesday, and with the only available water from a bore well, the group -- made up of men, women and several children -- approached the local church to ask for asylum and humanitarian aid. A church staffer told them to remain where they were and refused to allow them to sleep inside the church during the night or to give them any food.

After negotiations with a representative from the Department of Immigration, over half of the escapees from Woomera returned to the detention centre with assurances that applications for asylum would be processed faster and that the protesters would not be disadvantaged by having undertaken the action.

Under half of the escapees have refused to return to the prison insisting that they did not trust the Department of Immigration to stick to any agreement.

By Friday morning, approximately 120 people broke out of the Curtin detention centre and began walking toward the nearest town of Derby, which is 50 kilometres away. Police set up roadblocks in the path of escapees heading for Derby, and by nightfall had forced a return to the detention centre.

Late Friday, reports appeared that several more had escaped from another detention centre, Port Hedland in Western Australia, by scaling the barbed wire perimeter fencing.

Incarceration industries make money from xenophobia
Businesses in nearby towns tend to see the refugee prisons as a source of revenue, if not exactly jobs, since the collapse of mining and other local industries. Moreover, with rural towns providing some of the most significant support for racist organisations like One Nation, the building of refugee prisons near those remote towns has been welcomed both politically and economically. A number of shire councils and rural commerce bodies have lobbied the Federal Government to open a refugee prison near their towns. The head of the Christmas Island Chamber of Commerce has been lobbying the Federal and State Government to establish a permanent detention centre there citing dwindling revenues from the Christmas Island Casino. Kambalda, a town in the Western Australian goldfields, has made representations to the Federal Government to build a permanent detention centre there in the hope of creating a new industry after a series of mine closures.

The automatic imprisonment of all onshore asylum seekers since 1994 has seen the construction of a number of new refugee prisons around Australia in rural areas. It has also meant that whilst the refugee prisons are welcomed, local burghers remain unconcerned about the treatment and health of the asylum seekers. Derby Shire President, Mr McCumstie, shrugged off reporters' questions on the availability of water by saying that there was plenty of water still lying around from the recent wet season. He claimed that people were happy to have the refugee prison nearby because it boosted local businesses. It is widely believed that the town's 'economy' depends on the refugee prison for its viability after the rocket base -- on the site of which the prison camps was recently built -- was closed down.

Mr McCumstie went on to add, "There's been no outward antagonism toward them at all, but that could change if they start to affect the day-to-day activities of people in the towns." Riot police from the Australian Protective Services cordoned off the town centre, thereby restricting access to local stores for residents, and have actively discouraged them from contact with the protesters. Local authorities also suggested to locals that they keep their children away from school whilst the protesters were in town.

The running of all refugee prisons in Australia have been contracted to Australian Correctional Management, a subsidiary of the US incarceration giant Wackenhut Corp, which is also contracted to deport. In addition, ACM manages 30 prisons worldwide, including a number of prisons in NSW, Queensland and Victoria.

Whilst the Government routinely draws attention to the monetary gains from 'people-smugglers -- generally, poor Indonesian fishers who can receive up to 20 years imprisonment even if no money has changed hands -- there is never any mention of the millions of taxpayers' money that is delivered over to the migration prohibition industries to keep out and incarcerate around 4,000 people per annum. The illegalisation of asylum seekers is the basis for an industry in Australia upon which at least one megacorporation makes a lot of profits. The Prime Minister, John Howard, recently announced an additional $240m for the detection, deterrence and interdiction of asylum seekers who arrive without papers.

Recent changes to the law & the creation of reserves of cheap labour.
Under laws introduced in 1992, anyone who makes an onshore application for asylum and is without papers is subject to automatic imprisonment. No court is able to review the length or merit of that detention. The so-called 'mandatory and non-reviewable detention' regime was first introduced by the Labor Government with the support of the Liberal and National parties. Australia's is the only western government that practices a system of automatic and non-reviewable incarceration. It also receives and grants fewer applications for asylum, both on and offshore, than any other western country.

This is the only instance in Australian law which dictates imprisonment without trial, where such imprisonment is automatic, where no Australian court can review the decision to imprison or the duration of such confinement, and where people who are imprisoned have committed no crime or been charged with any. In the words of the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Migration (JSC), "Immigration detention is an administrative sanction, that is, the deprivation of liberty other than as the result of a conviction for an offence."

According to Amnesty International, "The government's refusal to give asylum seekers a fair chance to challenge in court why they remain behind barbed wire for months or even years-a right granted to convicted felons-makes immigration detainees second class prisoners although they have committed no crime ... Making laws to declare automatic detention legal does not make the arbitrariness of it acceptable."

The imprisonment of asylum seekers is not confined to the purpose-built refugee prisons. The JSC noted, "If individual circumstances warrant, detention can be provided in prisons or, for short periods, pending transfer, police cells or remand centres." Such measures-as well as chemical and physical restraints and isolation-are routinely used in order to remove people defined as 'trouble-makers'. Sedation is common practice during deportation

The Australian Government recently froze all on- and offshore applications for asylum. This means that all applicants for asylum are treated and defined as illegal. It also decided, with the support of the Labor Party, that all successful onshore asylum applicants could only be granted a 3-year visa, would not be eligible for welfare or medicare, and could not bring family members to Australia. This extended the policy of the previous Labor Government which denied newly-arrived and legal migrants access to medicare and welfare services for 6 months -- a policy that the current Liberal-National Government extended to the first 2 years of stay.

Through such policies, the Australian State actively creates the basis for a pool of workers prepared to do any work for as little pay as possible, liable to sweatshopping in manufacture, dangerous work in building, and below-subsistence work in agriculture. Just as 'mandatory and non-reviewable' imprisonment mirrors 'mandatory sentencing', so too this strategy of ensuring an impoverished and inescapable segment of the labour market is mirrored by the operation of the so-called Community Development Employment Programme in indigenous communities. The CDEP, introduced in 1974 by the Liberal-National Government after the near-total collapse of indigenous employment with the introduction of Equal Pay laws, guarantees the continuing existence of racism as the principal instrument of labour market segmentation, informalisation and the obstacles to unionisation.

Global enclosures
It was not until the last decade that people began to move in some numbers from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to Europe, North America and Australia. Even so, at least three-quarters of such movements occur between the poor countries, and are held in check by a vast system of co-operation between states -- and between states and the UN High Commission for Refugees -- to exclude asylum seekers from the wealthier countries which are the principal donors to UNHCR activities. Ever since 1997, the UNHCR has endorsed forced deportations, from Tanzania to Rwanda; to ex-Yugoslavia from around the world; from Australia to Kosova; from Australia to East Timor.

Over the last decade, all Western countries have drastically changed their laws relating to refugees and migration, most notably the European Union's Schengen Agreement and 1996 legislation in the US. Severe visa restrictions, as well as outright bans, have been placed on "refugee generating countries". Western governments have effectively transformed the character of the UNHCR into the body responsible for ensuring the so-called "right to remain"-i.e., into an administrator and overseer of refugee camps inside or close to the borders of countries people have taken flight from in order to stop them becoming refugees in Western countries. In addition, the proliferation of "safe third county" laws have worked to confine asylum seekers to border camps and poorer countries.

The so-called misery created by 'globalisation' could not take effect if it were not for the system of enclosures that maintain a supply of undocumented and illegalised workers who are susceptible to hyper-exploitation. In other words, without this system of global enclosures which makes the flight from poverty and devastation illegal, there would be no meaning to the phrase 'foreigners who take our jobs'. In this way, corporations make use of richer states and the latters' dominance of the UNHCR to create cheap labour reserves, the bottom rung of a world labour market which provides the precise measure to the conduct of the race to the bottom.