In the Absence of Sympathy: Serious Criminal Offenders and the Impact of Border Control Measures



Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Rebecca Powell and Marie Segrave, Monash University. Rebecca is the Research Manager of the Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre and the Managing-Director of the Border Crossing Observatory. She is currently completing a PhD titled ‘‘I still call Australia home’: The deportation of convicted non-citizens from Australia and the impact of policy and practice from a criminological perspective.’ Marie is an Associate Professor in Criminology at Monash University and is a key researcher with the Border Crossing Observatory network. She researches in a wide range of areas but her work is primarily concerned with migration, regulation, exploitation, and criminalisation. She leads the Monitoring slavery and exploitation research pillar at the Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre. This is the eighth instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series, which includes short posts based on chapters from the book 'Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility', edited by Andriani Fili, Synnøve Jahnsen and Rebecca Powell. 

I committed crimes, sex offences but no sexual penetration or anything like that, it was just touching. And exposure, but I am being classed as a paedophile, by the judge….’ [Terry, s501 deportee, Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre, Victoria, Australia]

This excerpt from an interview with Terry was for the Border Crossing ObservatoryAustralian Deportation Project', a project that sought to document practices of criminal deportation and the impact of deportation practices. The research team gained access to one of Australia’s onshore detention centres (Villawood Immigration Detention Centre) - a very rare opportunity- and spent time interviewing men awaiting deportation. The study was focused, inter alia, on people who had been convicted of and had been imprisoned for a serious offence or offences in Australia and, as a result of that conviction, had their visa cancelled (or a pending application refused) on character grounds, under section 501 of the Migration Act. Along with 14 other convicted non-citizens, Terry was interviewed by Associate Professor Marie Segrave. As the project was designed to focus on migration policies and the impact of deportation on convicted non-citizens and their Australian friends and families, the focus was never the conviction itself. However, as the excerpt above illustrates, in the midst of an interview about migration status, detention and deportation, charges and convictions came to the fore. This illustrates the ways in which research  can challenge us as researchers both in the moment and in the contextualising of a participant’s story in the midst of the analysis.

At the time of the interview, Terry was a 60 year old convicted non-citizen from the UK, who had lived in Australia for over 40 years. He had established a life in Australia, was married and had children. He recalled going through some of the steps towards citizenship but had not bothered to attend the citizenship ceremony, which is the official red stamp to enable an individual to be, officially, a citizen. As a consequence of a number of sex offences against children, he was awaiting and fighting deportation back to the UK, a place which held no ties or prospects for him.

Terry’s account of the serious criminal activity he engaged in was unexpected and challenging. In the moment, such revelations from participants, particularly when they are not sought nor desired, can be uneasy to navigate. For Marie, the focus was to remain in the interview without acknowledging the uneasiness of being told that this man who had been so helpful and engaged with the research process, was also a man who wanted to seek to push blame away from himself and to downgrade a sexual offence because it ‘didn’t involve penetration’. It also, of course, reveals Marie’s narrow view of the participant that she had as she approached this interview because her focus was on the deportation experience and not the criminal offending. On reflection, this kind of approach to an interview is something that can easily creep into the research process when you are pushed for time, when you are doing many interviews, and/or if you are too focused on the big picture of the broader project without thinking about the person, who sits with you to speak to one aspect of their experience or knowledge or viewpoint, and their life.

This experience added a complex layer to the way we considered our positionality as researchers informed by feminist and critical research methodologies. In the chapter ‘In the Absence of Sympathy: Serious Criminal Offenders and the Impact of Border Control Measures’ in Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility, we explore how sympathy has historically been an aspect of the how trust and rapport is built with those whom we interview. In this research, there is some aspect of the interview process that offers the participant an opportunity to speak to the harm and impact of deportation: a question rarely asked, and one which seeks to know more about their experience without judgement of their lives or lived history in Australia.

In our co-authored chapter, we reflect on this interview and draw on other research experiences from the wider project, and examine the role of sympathy in our work on criminal deportations research within the broader canon of border criminology. We consider that as researchers, if we seek to contribute to more nuanced and informed analysis of restrictive border control policies by offering an account of the impact of such polices by those whom experience it, we give voice to a view that is rarely heard from those ‘who matter’. The reality is that non-citizens whose lives are impacted by restrictive policies that result in a period of imprisonment, followed by a period in immigration detention and deportation, and then release into the community, often do not arouse the sympathy of the public at large. In the case of Terry, his effort to push blame onto his victims as he went on to explain to Marie, and to excuse his behaviour, was difficult and challenged any kind of sympathy Marie had towards Terry as someone who was impacted by Australian border control policy. Yet it while this part of the interview was not relevant to the research, there is an awareness from the researchers that it is an aspect of his story that will not be shared in the research findings.

However, this interview and the discussions that it gave rise to within the research team led us to ponder the issues we consider in this chapter: which we distil into a recognition that there is often an absence of sympathy in this area.  Those who have their visa cancelled and who may then be deported under s501 of the Migration Act are typically not viewed in a sympathetic light, as they are, after all, individuals who have been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for at least one serious offence. The dominant media and political landscape is filled with rhetoric that paints this group of non-citizens as a risk that must be ‘pre-empted’ (McCulloch and Wilson) or ‘exported’ from our shores (Weber and Pickering).  Further, this absence of sympathy is revealed amongst legal practitioners who represent convicted non-citizen clients and reflected in this chapter. From those legal practitioners we interviewed, client criminal status, particularly for those non-citizens who have committed serious offences, often negatively impacts on case load decisions of advocates who may be sympathetic to the consequences of deportation to the individual and their loved ones. As Rebecca found, many legal practitioners simply cannot manage to take on seemingly unwinnable visa cancellation review cases for serious offenders due to resourcing constraints.

Finally, the chapter offers a reflexive account of the interview experience when participants can surprise us or offer an account that is at once unexpected and something we may not be prepared to hear. Whilst there is an established body of reflexive research scholarship on working with serious criminals, including those who have committed violent, physical and sexual offence, very little is known about the realities of researching convicted non-citizens, particularly in the Australian context. In that regard, we hope that our chapter will make a valuable contribution to this collection of real challenges and approaches to border criminologies research for those researching criminal deportations.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Powell, R. and Segrave, M. (2019) In the Absence of Sympathy: Serious Criminal Offenders and the Impact of Border Control Measures. Available at: (Accessed [date])

Found within

Prisons and Detention; Crime and Offending; Courts and Sentencing


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