To delve into the ‘Nauru files’, the vast batch of documents disclosed last week to The Guardian by a source inside Australia’s immigration system, is to descend a political rabbit hole, to plumb an alternate politico-jurisprudential reality where weekly brutalities go totally unaccounted for.
The remoteness of Nauru’s detention facilities has been noted frequently as a quirk inherent to their relationship with Canberra, but, in the light of the leaks, it is becoming apparent that something far more sinister than physical distance has come to separate the camps from their nominal administration. The very language of the leaks is one of robotic detachment, instances of sheer depravity (suicide attempts and juvenile self-harm figure heavily) buried beneath layer-upon-layer of industrial cant and rampant redaction.
The ambiguous interplay at the heart of the affair, between Nauru, Australia and the private interests charged with maintaining the centres, has given rise to a situation where episodes of institutionalised child abuse might pass for minor cavils, the responsibility for which cannot be said to lie with any immediate party.
The Australian government has sought to challenge comparisons of the Regional Processing Centre to Guantanamo Bay. Critics who make such assertions are probably being generous, for Nauru is qualitatively worse than Guantanamo in several regards. At present, the infamous Cuban facility harbours no children. Nauru houses 93. Gitmo’s status as a military operation was never in dispute – the American state has been consistently identified with the annual atrocity exhibitions coming out of it. Nauru is a civilian prison, run by an Australian company and (theoretically) answerable to the Australian authorities. It has, however, become virtually impossible to demonstrate that regime’s direct culpability in the grim proceedings there.
Bush’s detention programme revelled in its own clandestinity. For a time, White House insiders were able to silence commentators with periphrastic appeals to national security. The Nauru institution, on the other hand, is not seen to represent an ‘extraordinary’ response to particularly perilous, pressing circumstances. It is, rather, cast as a brutal, albeit mundane extension of the Australian police apparatus, incidental in purpose and character.
The essential logic governing the system, that which has seen thousands of migrants held on terms more austere than those imposed upon serious criminals, is rarely called into question. The decentralisation of the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’, a project which has enlisted an array of NGOs in the absence of formal executive oversight, only serves to further reinforce the illusion.
This political dualism, in which the functions of the established police state are complemented by a corporate complex, subject to its very own codes and standards, is in evidence across the West today. The U.S. prison system remains the most eye-opening study. State governments there have been sued by subcontractors for a failure to fill penitentiaries. However, the exploitation of the European refugee crisis by profiteers hints at the imminent materialisation of something even more dire and explosive. As in the case of Nauru, it is already clear that abuses and lacklustre detention conditions are more readily tolerated where migrants are concerned. There is a perception of the desperate, huddled masses thrown forth routinely by the Mediterranean Sea as an ‘Other’, a ragbag of chancers and cultural troglodytes determined to leech off gullible First Worlders.
This hostility has been subordinated to more practical considerations. Outsourcing provides the neoliberal state an effective solution to the ideological contradictions it must face up to on a daily basis, namely that between its increasing political translucency and its (official) commitments to constitutional principle and humanitarian legalism. ‘Business’ culture, with its shirt-and-tie respectability and a jargon able to transcend ethical concern, has always been the envy of statesmen. Privatisation has blurred the lines that once convincingly segregated the commercial from the political in the common imagination.
The misdemeanours of government were always prone to fall back upon a handful of individual agents. Blair’s post-Iraq trial in the court of popular opinion has ruled ever against him, regardless of the lack of an actual prosecutory process.
On the flipside, trade interests are abstract and faceless by their very nature. The collapse of Enron, or G4S’ complicity in Israeli war crimes, might as well have been elaborate fictions, such is the entities’ subtraction from the ‘real’, daily lives of the masses. That such elements should now be entrusted with the running of prisons, those pits to which society strives to condemn its scoundrels and dissidents in the face of the wider public’s indifference (if not its enthusiastic consent), was only a matter of time. Savagery in the Nauru vein was, under these circumstances, but an inevitability.