Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Resisting the ‘Structurally Embedded Border’ in Australia



Time to read

3 Minutes

Post by Leanne Weber. 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. She researches border control and migration policing using criminological and human rights frameworks. This is the fifth 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.

In many countries around the world, governments are amplifying the reach of their internal border controls. The precise policies may vary, but the core elements involve making access to goods and services increasingly dependent on immigration status, and building an ever-expanding surveillance apparatus of public agencies and private individuals capable of denying services to those without legal entitlement and possibly bringing them to the attention of immigration authorities. In the UK, these trends were initially evident in ‘policies of immiseration’ directed at asylum seekers, then in the ‘hostile environment’ that affected much wider categories of immigrants including longstanding residents. Similar policies are also appearing in other European countries, notably Denmark, and scholarly research in Europe is beginning to describe these systems in terms of ‘everyday bordering’. In the US, the progressive devolution of responsibility for immigration enforcement from federal to state level has been a hotly debated and widely researched topic, particularly in relation to the recruitment of state and local police services that had historically remained independent of these functions.

In Australia, there has been longstanding involvement of state police in immigration control, and their role is relatively uncontested. But federal governments have been steadily building new networks of surveillance that I have dubbed the ‘structurally embedded border’. At times, this has involved the passing of legislation that has been openly communicated to the public, as in the introduction of sanctions on employers who take on workers without the necessary visa status. At other times, networks of information exchange have been built by stealth through unpublicised MOUs agreed with federal and state agencies who are required to check visa status before issuing driver’s licences, enrolling students or providing medical care.  Few Australian academics would realise that when they submit their results, routine reporting processes at all universities ensure that information about the academic progress, and sometimes attendance, of their international students is submitted electronically to immigration authorities via specially provided portals.

In previous research, I have identified that the structurally embedded border in Australia operates via two modalities: the assembling of public and private agencies into ‘migration policing networks’ aimed at the identification of potentially deportable non-citizens, and the systematic withdrawal of services to certain categories of immigrants with a view to conserving resources for citizens and generating ‘voluntary departures’. At the time I was asked to contribute to the special issue on Transforming Borders from Below for Theoretical Criminology, I had just completed 28 key informant interviews with providers of health and education services, and with legal advisors and refugee advocates, most of whom worked for independent or state-funded agencies with Australia’s federal system. The aim of that study was to build a deeper understanding of the operation of the structurally embedded border as it applied to asylum seekers living in the community on precarious bridging visas. As it turned out, the interviews also unearthed many examples of resistance by these service providers to the federal project of expanding the structurally embedded border, often driven by their professional values.

The reported acts of resistance aligned neatly with the two modalities of the structurally embedded border and involved both acts of omission and commission. Acts of commission aimed at ‘filling gaps’ in provision directly challenged federal policies of service denial and attrition. Avoiding incorporation into networks of data exchange with federal authorities (an act of omission), thwarted the expansion of the federal surveillance apparatus by depriving it of information. In terms of the potential for transformation of borders from below, it was clear that the federal government still wielded enormous power to counter these resistance efforts and prosecute their exclusionary project. However, I concluded in the article that these acts of resistance do shift the balance of power away from the hegemony of state-centric borders – even if only slightly, and sometimes just for brief periods of time – towards the creation of alternative, transversal borders that cut across them. As noted in the article, Victoria is known as a particularly progressive state, and has well developed structures of state support for asylum seekers who are denied services and constantly threatened with removal due to federal policies. It cannot be assumed that a similar level of resistance would be found elsewhere. However, in the absence of more inclusive policies at federal level, acts of resistance by service providers, of whatever magnitude and wherever they may be found, are a constant reminder of the potential for transformation of borders to occur from below.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Weber, L. (2019) Resisting the ‘Structurally Embedded Border’ in Australia. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/05/resisting (Accessed [date])

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