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‘Humanitarian Borderwork’: Tensions Between Humanitarianism and Securitization for NGOs Working with Asylum Seekers in Australia



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5 Minutes

Guest post by Alison Gerard and Leanne Weber. Alison is Associate Professor in Law and Director of the Centre for Law and Justice at Charles Sturt University, Australia. Leanne is Associate Professor of Criminology, co-Director of the Border Crossing Observatory and Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. This is the final installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on Transforming Borders From Below organised by Marie Segrave and Nancy A. Wonders. The series includes short posts written by international scholars who discuss and develop ideas contained in articles published in a special issue of Theoretical Criminology on Transforming Borders From Below: Theory and Research from across the Globe.

What is humanitarianism? What happens when non-governmental organisations (NGOs) take on lucrative government contracts to provide services to asylum seekers? How does this ‘humanitarian borderwork’, defined as practices that contain a security logic that construct, shift and erase internal and external borders, differ from the work of NGOs in the criminal justice system or the immigration detention system?

Our case study explores the involvement of government contracted NGOs in the delivery of services to adult and unaccompanied minor asylum seekers on the community detention and release programme in Australia, the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS). Government contracted NGOs, who are mostly not-for-profit, are responsible for supporting those asylum seekers living in the community who are either technically ‘detained’ under the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) in non-secure locations that have been designated as places of detention, or who have been released from immigration or community detention. The aims of the SRSS programme are to provide support and assistance to asylum seekers who have yet to resolve their immigration status, and those who have resolved their status and are transitioning to living in the community.  

The study employs documentary analysis of policy and contractual arrangements informing the establishment of community detention and release. It supplements this analysis with interviews of key informants - government officials and service providers. We analyse the contradictory tensions that exist between humanitarian objectives that seek to ‘transform borders from below’ and governmental security imperatives that tend to co-opt agencies and limit their ability to achieve humanitarian aims.

Refugee protection is often the sum of conflicting objectives – humanitarianism on the one hand, and the securitisation of migration on the other. Tensions between these competing goals impact asylum seekers and other irregular migrants in countries across the globe, as well as the organisations and their employees who are responsible for administering both refugee protection and the securitisation of migration. This challenging operating context gives rise to new complexities for NGOs in their delivery of services to asylum seekers.

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Recent criminological scholarship has sought to evaluate the tensions between humanitarian and securitization discourse, policies and practices and how actors resolve these tensions (see work by Lee; Hadjimatheou and Lynch; Franko and Gundhus; Pallister-Wilkins). Conventional academic and public policy definitions posit that humanitarianism is about saving lives and alleviating suffering, making it a powerful and subjective concept. However, humanitarianism performs a dual and often contradictory role: it is utilized by various agencies to justify the care of ‘at-risk’ populations and it is also increasingly relied upon by state and non-state actors to legitimize border policing (see again work by Pallister-Wilkins). The recent ‘Humanitarian Battefield’ blog post by Glenda Garelli and Martina Tazzioli charts tensions between securitisation and humanitarianism in the Mediterranean,which have produced significant loss of life at sea and subjected individuals and organisations to criminalisation. 

The increasing visibility of NGOs operating to deliver social services within the criminal justice system, voluntarily or on contract, has shaped our analysis of NGOs working within community detention and release of asylum seekers. Within the criminal justice context, NGOs are often presumed by government and non-government stakeholders to be ‘inherently less punitive and more rehabilitative’ than the state and more inclusionary or supportive of an (ex-)offender (for a list of reasons see Tomczak and Thompson). Opponents of greater NGO involvement claim that outsourcing services to NGOs exploits volunteers and provides services cheaply by poorly trained and paid staff. Tomczak and Thompson developed the notion of ‘inclusionary control’ to theorize penal voluntary organization’s work. Their project involved qualitative research with 11 NGO practitioners in England and Wales, who operated in organizations that delivered services to prisoners, probationers and their families. Crucially, all were primarily funded by charitable trusts and foundations and were not in receipt of competitive contracts, although two delivered services on contract for the government. Tomczak and Thompson avoid the binary analysis of NGO work by depicting it as capable of being both inclusionary and exclusionary. Although the benefits could be construed as inclusionary and therefore positive, programmes that are voluntary and optional can quickly become a ‘surveillant, exclusionary extension of punishment’.

Translating government policy: community detention, community release and policing asylum seekers on the SRSS Program

Our study explored the following dimensions of ‘humanitarian borderwork’:

  • Policing a Code of Behaviour: Government contracted NGOs have sweeping powers to police compliance with the Code of Behaviour, a document that sets out expectations of behaviour that are said to represent ‘values that are important to the Australian community’ (DIBP 2017). The tone of the code is paternalistic and presumes asylum seekers are potentially a risky and dangerous population.  A breach of the code can result in a reduction of payment or re-detention.
  • Tensions experienced by staff as regards care and control aspects of their work: Our interviews with senior management revealed real tensions between dual imperatives of care and control, and suggested that these tensions may be handled differently by staff on the ground. For example, frontline staff wanted to ‘do more’ for their clients and measure ‘meaningful outcomes’ that went beyond the government’s narrow focus on compliance. From the management perspective, however, contractual obligations were the priority.
  • Co-opted and exclusionary ‘humanitarian borderwork’: Some of the other service providers interviewed in our research project felt that asylum seekers participating in the programme were unaware of how entangled their SRSS service providers were within government networks of surveillance and securitization. The SRSS caseworker that we interviewed consciously separated their humanitarian and immigration role. This hints at the variations in translating power at the local level which require further research and analysis.   
  • Unaccompanied minors and the borderwork of government contracted NGOs: Our article provides important insights as to the embedding of a security logic within the ‘humanitarian borderwork’ of government contracted NGOs providing care and protection to unaccompanied minors in community detention and community release. Unaccompanied minors are assigned to supervised group accommodation and provided with a dedicated caseworker, who acts as a liaison with essential services such as schools. However, caseworkers are also required to report to immigration authorities if their charges fail to attend school (other than through sickness), are subjected to any disciplinary procedures at school, or leave their assigned accommodation. The legal, social and economic position of unaccompanied minors is tenuous (see work by Nardone and Correa-Valez), and the threat of re-detention is ever-present.
  • Weighted towards securitisation and enforcement: The humanitarian borderwork undertaken by these government contracted NGOs is centred upon meeting policing outcomes: reporting breaches; managing government indecision; managing breaches; and promoting compliance. The contractual nature of the humanitarian assistance translates to very little in the way of support to unaccompanied minors in their schooling and associated activities. More work is needed to understand the outcomes this produces for young people in the system, and this work should be informed by the existing knowledge about the effects of out-of-home care on young people in contact with the criminal justice system.


Our analysis of SRSS policies establishes unequivocally how contracts with humanitarian agencies have been set up to facilitate and translate the government’s power to exclude. More research is needed to identify how these tensions are managed in a range of provider organizations at the caseworker and management level, and as part of the interagency relationship.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Gerard, A. and Weber, L (2019) ‘Humanitarian borderwork’: Tensions between humanitarianism and securitization for NGOs working with asylum seekers in Australia. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/05/humanitarian (Accessed [date])

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