May 7, 2014 | 5 Comments

Operation Sovereign Borders (Australian Government Customs and Border Protection Service)

From the curators: Operation Sovereign Borders is a multi-pronged initiative designed and implemented by the Australian coalition government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Announced on the day that Abbott and his ministry were sworn into office on September 18, 2013, the campaign is designed to “address issues around people smuggling,” and particularly Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMAs). Over 18 pages, the controversial storyboard on people smuggling uses the visual language of a graphic novel to detail the intense suffering and peril faced by those who journey from Southern Asia to Australia (usually landing on Christmas Island) in boats operated by people smugglers. Text in Farsi and Pashto on the front and back covers of the storyboard warns that “if you go to Australia by ship without a visa you will not settle down there.” It was commissioned from an external organization, STATT Consulting, as part of a range of services offered under the Neutrino program. Immigration, the act of coming to live permanently in another country, is as old as history—as is the urge to demarcate and police geopolitical territory, to attempt to circumvent such restrictions, and to exploit the misfortune of others for political or financial self-aggrandizement.

In translations of the annals of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, we find descriptions of the practice of gibbeting prisoners of war as an effective deterrent to would-be invaders and rebels: “Afterward those kings, as many as I had appointed, violated their covenants with me…they (i.e., my generals) destroyed them with weapons, both small and great, and left not a man in them. They hung their corpses on gibbets, stripped off their skins, and therewith covered the wall of the city.” Similar tactics, according to the ancient Roman senator and historian Tacitus, were employed by the British queen Boudica as a warning for the occupying forces of Rome in the first century AD. We find history littered with similar examples of corpses used as grisly signposts to tell people to stay away.

The word “invade” or “invasion” is found quite commonly in rhetoric around the subject of illegal immigration. For example, quickly googling the words “invasion,” “immigration,” and “asylum” together gave me 1,270,000 results scattered rather generously over article headlines, copy, and forum discussions, and debates. While governments today rarely use the gibbet anymore, public institutions have found many more creative ways to discourage would-be invaders. One such example is a recently published comic book commissioned by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (CBPS) addressing itself to Afghani émigrés trying to enter the country by sea.

As journalists Luke Mogelson and Joel van Holdt describe in painstaking detail, the journey is not an easy one: refugees risk drowning, malnutrition, dehydration, heat, and sickness. At the end of it all, as the comic warns, lies the prospect of capture and detainment by Australian authorities. For the Afghani immigrants, there are additional risks of capture, internment, and deportation crossing into the Pakistani border and during the long waits for passports in Karachi.

Much of the Australian CBPS comic is dedicated to a description of this entire process. That the comic operates under the assumption that its audience is unaware of the risks involved is absurd—if anything, real accounts of immigrants tell us that they are acutely aware of the risks involved. Also, contrary to what the comic shows, the majority are not escaping poverty, much less so with the blessings of their parents; more likely they are escaping religious or ethnic persecution, oppressive regimes, or war. The majority of Afghan and Pakistani IMAs (Irregular Maritime Arrivals) since 2010 have come from the Hazara communities, an ethnic and religious minority who have been the consistent targets of extermination by Sunni Muslim radical groups. Many who choose to undertake these journeys do so out of a profound feeling of hopelessness, that they have no options left.

The effectiveness of the gibbet stems from its stark physical brutality. Without a sufficient, and perhaps excessive, display of brutality, the deterrence will not work. The instrumentalization of the body serves to exact obedience through the spectacle of terror. It gives the unwanted invader, the foreign other, a direct and clear message that cuts through all reasons to invade, to set roots in foreign soil, to forge a new order on the ashes of the old: try, and your corpse too will adorn the borders of this land. Thus, the gibbet opposes the vitality and audacity of life with the threat and promise of confined death. Its understanding of what it opposes is absolute and uncompromising.

As an instrument, the comic lacks this persuasive power. The gibbet did away with abstraction in favor of a confrontation with unadulterated reality. The comic abstracts too much, and it misunderstands the psychology of the invader, which has not fundamentally changed in its urgency or tenacity (or perhaps our understanding of the word “invader” has changed). Given a choice between the risk of death and the risk of temporary internment, it is not hard to imagine which anyone would choose. Nothing that the émigré faces could be worse than what they have already gone through.

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 12.37.08 PM

Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (est. 2009, origins in the Department of Trade and Customs, est. 1901). A page from “A storyboard on people smuggling.” Part of Operation Sovereign Borders (est. September 18, 2013). Released on November 1, 2013. 18-page color downloadable PDF. Dimensions variable. Images courtesy of Australian Customs and Border Protection Service


How far can the state go to "protect" its borders from immigration before it becomes an act of violence?

  1. May 7, 2014, 9:51 pm

    cameron tonkinwise

    “The gibbet did away with abstraction in favor of a confrontation with unadulterated reality. The comic abstracts too much.”

    At the risk of imputing too much intelligence to the Australian Government – they, and those who elect them, are just xenophobic brutes – I think the ‘comic’ works in other ways. Why choose an expressionistly illustrative form?

    A first answer is because the Australian Government thinks that refugees are child-like semi-literates. They are speaking loudly the way bigots do when speaking paternalistically to foreigners, mistaking translation difficulties for hearing impediments.

    A second answer, more in the style of Slavoj Zizek: the communication design is playing a dangerous game with the truth. The Australian Government obfuscates that it is trying to merely manage a migration logistical problem as best it can. The Government must not admit that it has a choice (let alone that it might enjoy) being inhumane to those most in need. But for this communication design to work, for it to scare would-be-refugees, the truth must be declared; these are democratically-endorsed anti-humantiarian concentration-camps – we will torture you, and not just because we have to, but because private contractors can enjoyably make money this way. If the communication looks like it is exaggerating, it will fail to work as a design (though I agree with Ahmed’s claim that anything less than gibbeting, and even that, fails to understand what motivates clearly smart people to flee their homes and culture). But if the communication is too realistic, it will evidence the sadism that is actually at work.

    So the cowardly, unethical designers who took this job, for money, had to make it look like the illustrated testimony of a child, so that it could be the disavowed truth.

    Because it is hard to admit that you are a nasty piece of work. But at least Australians can now join the emerging club of neo-Fascists with members such as UKIP, National Front, Tea Party, Putin…

  2. May 8, 2014, 1:11 pm

    Matt Kiem

    This is timely and much welcome international exposure of an ongoing condition of violence by design. While the article raises much that invites further discussion in this space it might be valuable to register some further contextual points.

    1. It must always be remembered that Australia is a settler colonial state. The very foundations of its political-economic infrastructures are invasion and genocide, and, particularly in the lead up to and exceeding the event of its federation, a liberal-nationalist form of ethnic cleansing. As many authors have noted, the invasion anxiety that characterises the political constitution of (white) Australia is animated by the logics of its initial act invasion. What (white) Australians seem to fear most is that some other group will do to them what they have done to others. The violent acting out is the mark of a profound sense of insecurity.

    2. If I recall correctly the comic under discussion was commissioned during the period of the previous Labor government administration. While the Liberal-National Coalition currently in power has successfully branded itself as the more hardline party, it is worth remembering that mandatory detention was initially introduced by a Labor government in 1992. This is to say that despite the spectacle of parliamentary politics, Australia’s border violence is a bipartisan project. It is also highly lucrative, with detention centre contracts worth billions. The politics to end this violence will emerge in spite of, not from, Australian parliaments.

    3. The problem is international. As stated in the piece, most of the people seeking asylum are fleeing conflict in other parts of the world. Additionally, however, the techniques being applied and experimented with by the Australian government and provider companies are exportable. As far away as Australia may seem, its experiments in the production of despair represent the honing of techniques within a global border industrial complex.

    4. On February 17 2014 a riot occurred on Manus Island Regional Processing Centre. Armed local nationals, including some working as guards at the centre, invaded the camp and proceeded to attack detainees. Reza Berati, a 23 year old Kurdish Iranian, was so badly beaten that he subsequently died. A Senate inquiry is currently under way in which much of the testimony delivered by ex-workers describe institutional practices designed to produce despair, antagonism, and violence. In an interview soon after the event, Liz Thompson, an ex-worker, stated: “It’s not designed as a processing facility. It’s designed as an experiment in the active creation of horror to secure the deterrence. That’s why I say again that Reza Barati’s death is not a crisis for the department. It’s actually an opportunity – it’s an opportunity to extend that logic one step further to say, “This happens.” But deterrence continues, Operation Sovereign Borders continue.”

    A valuable and much more comprehensive analysis of the situation has been made by Angela Mitropoulos:

  3. May 8, 2014, 3:38 pm


    Good to have a view of the situation from the other side. Interestingly, as I had mentioned in the piece, the majority of refugees fleeing Afghanistan\Iran are fleeing from ethnic\sectarian cleansing. The Hazaras and other ethnic\religious minorities are not put into detention camps, but very methodically eliminated. These are global networks of terror, sanctioned by democratically elected governments, extending from the Australian detention camps to state sponsored terrorism in Pakistan ( The difference in degrees of magnitude is, of course, linked to what they can get away with. I’ve always found it interesting how countries like Australia must resort to ad campaigns and detention camps instead of just wholesale slaughter, but it appears from the news you point to, Matt, that I was quite mistaken.

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