Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

The Cultural Exclusion of Irregular Maritime Arrivals

by Louis Everuss


In November last year, David Radford and Louis Everuss from the Hawke-EU Centre for Mobilities, Migrations, and Cultural Transformations, Hawke Research Institute, University of South Australia visited GRAMNet. In this post, Louis, a research student at the Centre, contributes a write up of a seminar paper he delivered, as well as some reflections on his time with GRAMNet.


Irregular Maritime Arrivals (IMAs) are a population of asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat. Despite the high success rate they have achieved when they have been allowed to apply for refugee status (Crock, Saul & Dastyari 2006, p.37), they are characterised in the Australian media as deviant outsiders and harshly treated by the Australian Government. While this representation and treatment of IMAs is extreme, it is not without precedent in Australian history. Prior to IMAs, both Indigenous Australians and Asian Migrants were structurally excluded from Australian society (McMaster 2002; Tazreiter 2002). I argue that the treatment of these three populations are not isolated instances of exclusion, but different parts of an ongoing cultural practice. A cultural practice in which specific minorities are functionally excluded in order to define the borders and sovereign power of Australian society.


Photo: Hadi Zaher

Photo: Hadi Zaher licensed under CC BY 2.0


In placing the exclusion of these populations within the same cultural practice I draw heavily on the theory of Giorgio Agamben (1998, 2005). Agamben (1998, p.109) rejects ‘social contract’ based explanations of group formations, and instead sees exclusion as the key process through which the borders of groups are constituted. Importantly for Agamben (1998, pp.1-12), these borders sit between people’s political existence (bios), which is included within the sovereign, and their biological existence (zoe), which is excluded. Zoe is not however excluded from the control and influence of the sovereign, but only from its legal and political structures. Agamben (1998, pp.4-7) refers to this biological existence as ‘bare life’, which is natural life caught in a new relationship with the sovereign. A relationship in which a sovereign’s decision is directly applicable, and in fact indistinguishable, to the bodies on which it applies.

While Agamben (1998, p.83) argues that maintaining ‘bare life’ is a functional requirement of sovereign groups, it is not one that citizens can be used for. This is because citizens have bios, a recognised political existence and a set of rights to match. Instead the figure that does provide the all-important example of ‘bare life’ is homo sacer, a category of person who has had their political existence stripped away leaving only their ‘bare life’. For Agamben (1998, p.83) ‘homo sacer presents the originary figure of life taken into the sovereign ban and preserves the memory of the originary exclusion through which the political dimension was first constituted’. It is this figure, and the relationship it embodies, that defines Australia’s cultural practice of exclusion. Indigenous Australians, Asian migrants and IMAs have all been placed within places of exception and treated as homo sacer. In each instance, the minority’s exclusion has been used to define the Australian majority left behind. The exclusion of Indigenous Australian’s was used to define a British Settler Australian majority, the exclusion of Asian migrants was used to define a White European Australian majority, and the exclusion of IMAs is used to define a modern ethical and neoliberal Australian majority.

Despite their connection within this ongoing cultural practice, there are still however unique aspects to the treatment of Indigenous Australians, Asian migrants and IMAs. I argue that one of the most notable of these aspects is the shifting grounds on which the exclusion has been based. While it was the perceived racial and ethnic differences that were used to exclude Indigenous Australians and Asian migrants (Armitage 1995; McGregor 2002; McMaster 2002), it is the perceived ‘moral’ and ‘economic’ differences that are used to exclude IMAs (Mckay, Thomas & Kneebone 2011, pp.116-117). Returning to the theory of Agamben, this shift can be understood as resulting from changes in the forms of human togetherness that sit at the heart of Australian society. In this sense, the grounds of exclusion reflect the Australian political existence or bios, that minority outsiders are deemed to lack. This explains why the minorities being excluded have changed from being racially defined to being morally and economically defined, during the same time that Australian society has embraced ethics of multiculturalism (Moran 2011).

While Agamben’s theory provides a starting point, these changes in the grounds of exclusion can also be further understood by drawing on the work of Mary Douglas (2002). Douglas (2002, p.140) argues that people are seen as having polluting qualities and subsequently excluded, when they are deemed incompatible with the basic postulates of a group. Thus, it is not only the lack of a relevant political existence that causes the exclusion of a minority, but also their incompatibility with the political categorisations of a majority group. Indigenous Australians for instance, were not just excluded because they failed to fit into Australian society, but because they challenged the application of terra nullius and the European property rights it enabled. Likewise, industrious and successful Asian migrants were excluded because they challenged the conception that ‘White Australia’ was racially and culturally superior to its national neighbours. Subsequently, I argue that IMAs are also excluded because they challenge the notion that Australia is an ethical society open to the economic and cultural contribution of outsiders; or as stated in the Australian national anthem, the idea that ‘For those who’ve come across the seas: We’ve boundless plains to share’.

It is also the case that in looking specifically at the contemporary grounds of exclusion used to ‘other’ IMAs, useful insights can be drawn from the theory of Zygmunt Bauman (2004). Bauman (2004, pp.5-7) similarly sees the exclusion of specific minorities as part of the design and creation of sovereign groups. What is unique about Bauman’s theory is its specific incorporation of modernising processes. Bauman (2004, pp.65-67) argues that modernisation and globalisation has led to a weakening of the structures that are central to people’s sense of security, and being forced to acknowledge this fact is a constant risk. This risk is further heightened by the presence of populations, such as IMAs, who are living, breathing examples of human rights and international law breaking down (Bauman 2004, p.67). As such, there is an extra impetus on governments to exclude these populations, protecting its citizens from the destructive realities of modernising processes (Bauman 2004, pp.66-67). By excluding IMAs on moral and economic grounds, the insecurity of modernity is hidden behind the deviance of IMAs. IMAs are presented as lacking rights, not because of the global situation in which they exist, but because of their own actions; their use of ‘people smugglers’, their inability to economically contribute and their attempt to take advantage of Australia’s generosity.


Agamben, G 1998, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
Agamben, G 2005, State of Exception, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Armitage, A 1995, Comparing the policy of aboriginal assimilation: Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, UBC Press,
Bauman, Z 2004, Wasted Lives: modernity and its outcasts, Polity Press, Cambridge.
Crock, M, Saul, B & Dastyari, A 2006, Future Seekers II, The Federation Press, Sydney.
Douglas, M 2002, Purity and Danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo, Routledge, Oxon.
McGregor, R 2002, ‘‘Breed out the colour’or the importance of being white’, Australian historical studies, vol. 33, no. 120, pp. 286-302.
Mckay, FH, Thomas, SL & Kneebone, S 2011, ‘‘It would be okay if they came through the proper channels’: Community perceptions and attitudes toward asylum seekers in Australia’, Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 113-133.
McMaster, D 2002, Asylum Seekers: Australia’s Response to Refugees, Melbourne University Press, Victoria.
Moran, A 2011, ‘Multiculturalism as nation-building in Australia: Inclusive national identity and the embrace of diversity’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 34, no. 12, pp. 2153-2172.
Tazreiter, C 2002, ‘History, Memory and the Stranger in the Practice of Detention in Australia’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 26, no. 72, pp. 1-12.


Louis reflects on his time with GRAMNet

In October of this year I was given the opportunity to spend two weeks at the Glasgow Refugee, Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet). My trip was supported by the Hawke-EU Centre for Mobilities, Migrations and Cultural Transformations at the Hawke Research Institute (HRI), University of South Australia (UniSA).

As a PhD student researching how asylum seekers are represented in Australian media, my visit to GRAMNet offered an amazing opportunity to meet academics and postgraduate students studying refugee and asylum issues in the European context. A common and striking part of the conversations I had with people at GRAMNet, was how similar trends in the policy and public opinion surrounding asylum seekers has developed in both Europe and Australia. This was a subject of significant gravity for many GRAMNet researchers, given the current prominence of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers.

One of the most interesting aspects of my trip to Glasgow however, was learning about GRAMNet itself. From the outset it was clear to me that GRAMNet based researchers take the principles of community engagement and interdisciplinary research very seriously. These ideals were practically incorporated into the research being conducted by the academics and postgraduate students that I met. They were also on display in the GRAMNet events that I attended and participated in, most notably its exceptional film series. Hearing about the creative ways in which researchers are drawing on methodologies from across the arts, humanities and social sciences often made me reflect on my own research and potential future avenues of study.

Most notably however, I was hugely impressed with the opportunities that GRAMNet provided for its postgraduate students. From the ability to work with leading community organisations, to involvement with an active post graduate network, association with GRAMNet is an exceptional asset for research students. My only regret was that I did not visit during GRAMNet’s amazing postgraduate workshop on the Isle of Mull.


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