The isolation of asylum seekers

For Australian political scientist Dr Amy Nethery, a senior lecturer at Melbourne’s Deakin University with a longstanding interest in her country’s asylum policies, the invitation to participate in the Darwin College Lecture Series came out of the blue.

“I don’t know how they came across me,” she says. “But my hunch is that as I’ve been working in this area for about 15 years, looking very deeply at how Australia’s migration policies have evolved, there’s quite a lot of my work out there for anyone interested in the subject.”

Amy’s lecture examines both the human impact of Australia’s hard-line approach to asylum seekers, and the ways in which their treatment forms a continuum with the country’s historic use of administrative detention. She draws a line from the earliest days of Australia’s use as a convict colony, to the 19th century use of quarantine as a means of controlling entry, via the treatment of First Nations people and the detention of people with ‘enemy alien’ heritage during the First and Second World Wars.

“Our current use of detention for asylum seekers draws on a long history of administrative detention all the way back to colonial times, which has shaped how Australia has responded both to incomers and to non-white residents throughout its history. But once we see it for what it is, we don’t have to be trapped by this model.”

Having studied anthropology as an undergraduate, Amy completed her PhD on immigration detention in Australia in 2010. It has been the primary focus of her research ever since.

“It’s a subject which needs investigation from different angles, and it’s an area of research which is growing. There’s been lots of work by legal and human rights scholars, but political scientists haven’t picked it up as much as I think they should! The policy is expensive, harmful, damaging to Australia’s international reputation, and doesn’t achieve what it sets out to achieve.”

While the Lecture Series’ focus on isolation is not an aspect which Amy had considered central to her work, once looked at through that lens it fits the theme on multiple levels.

“There’s the isolation of the individuals detained, and that of the remote places both within Australia and the Pacific islands where the detention centres are established. But it’s also a useful term in describing Australia’s own position globally, in taking such an extreme approach.”

Addressing a Cambridge audience will provide a fresh perspective which Amy is looking forward to.

“There will be a diversity of views in the audience, which I’m used to – it’s a subject on which people have very strong views. I imagine many people will have the current political debates about immigration to the UK at the forefront of their minds. So what I will point out is that Australia’s approach has arisen from a particular context deeply related to Australia’s history as a settler colony. It certainly should not be viewed as an example to follow.”


Dr Amy Nethery will give her lecture 'The isolation of asylum seekers' as part of the Darwin College Lecture Series at 5.30pm on Friday 27th January at Lady Mitchell Hall.