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.