New Geographies of Violence: Security and Disenfranchisement

Detention and dispossesion

“We are arriving at an axiom in long-term thinking about international terrorism… the real danger lies, not in what it inflicts, but in what it provokes.”[1]

This article is not meant to offer a complete description of the complicated and contentious recent history of Israel and occupied Palestine; a field that legitimately lays claim to entire research centers in many of the foremost universities. It does not attempt to offer an expansive account of the colonization of the new world, nor the international migration of refugees. Neither is it an attempt at equating these situations, through the creation of convenient synthetic analogues where none exist.

Rather, it provides a concise discussion of the architecture of disenfranchisement, of geographical intervention under the guise and gloss of ‘security’, and of the shifting paradigms of modernity, expressly the rise of the nation-state, that have created the necessary pre-conditions for the emergence of new manifest and latent geographies of violence.

Two distinct events, the development of Immigration Detention Centers in Australia, and the usurpation of Palestinian land by Israel, may appear superficially incongruous, however, at the core of each phenomenon lies the subversion of architectural and planning methodologies in service of the violent enterprises of spatial demarcation and dispossession.

Villawood Fire

Fire: an architectural protest

10pm, 21st April, 2011. Commotion erupts at Villawood Immigration Detention Center, 27-kilometres from Sydney’s CBD. Flames rise from the Fowler building, spreading quickly to other buildings in the complex. A small minority of detainees, climb onto the roofs of their accommodation blocks, protesting the conditions of their lengthy incarceration. Most run for shelter from burning debris.

Many of the detainees had recently been transferred to Villawood from overcrowded Christmas Island. Most had already been in incarceration for extended periods, some for as long as seven years, awaiting judicial decisions concerning their immigration status.

Majid, an Iranian refugee involved in the protest was afterwards quoted as saying: “We were desperate… We just want attention. We did not hurt anyone. We did not hurt firemen. We did not attack security. I’m not an animal, I’m human. I’ve been in the detention centre for 20-months.’’[2]

This statement reveals the effectiveness of Immigration Detention Centers in alienating asylum-seeking refugees from Australian society. Violent protest, as a last resort, is a desperate means of attempting to establish communication beyond the high-security razor-wire.

What ensued was an inevitable media-frenzy followed by misdirected public debate and vacuous political rhetoric. The sanctity of the ‘Australian way of life’ and the otherness of the ‘unlawful’ refugee detainees again found itself at the fore of public attention.

What wasn’t adequately discussed in the media, however, is the fact that under international law, a person is entitled to make an application for asylum in another country when they allege they are escaping persecution. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Asylum seekers have legal status under international law, and the Australian government is signatory to the conventions which uphold this right. However, the government has failed to incorporate these conventions into domestic legislation and continues to incarcerate and classify refugee asylum seekers as ‘unlawful’.[3]

By world standards Australia currently resettles relatively few refugees. In 2004 Australia resettled approximately 6,000 refugees; compare this figure with the 20,000 refugees accepted annually in Australia in the early 1980’s. It is also illustrative to compare Australia’s current efforts with the annual refugee intake of other countries in the region and further afield, with the following figures taken from 2002: Iran 2,208,500, China 396,000, Thailand 336,000 Kenya 221,000… and the list goes on.[4]

Yet, as illustrated by recent protests at Villawood, the problem extends beyond Australian refugee intake quotas to the indefinite periods of incarceration, and the psychologically oppressive environments that refugees arriving in Australia are subjected to. This oppression involves an architectural language of isolation cells, cages, heavy gates, fences and razor-wire.[5] However, this has not always been the case. After all, the colonization of Australia by the English instigated two hundred years of mass-migration, resulting in the rich multi-cultural tapestry that is 21st century Australia.

Refugee processing in Australia bore an entirely different character in the 1970’s and 80’s. In the aftermath of conflicts in Viet Nam, Malcolm Fraser’s government dramatically increased Australia’s refugee intake in an attempt to decrease the number of Vietnamese arriving by boat.[6] Asylum seekers arriving in Australia were taken to hostels for newly arrived migrants, and families were given apartments to live in.[7]

Westbridge 1973

One such centre was the Westbridge Migrant Hostel, now part of Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. Accommodation at Westbridge initially consisted of Nissen huts, elongated, semi-cylindrical structures of military design, however these were replaced with multi-storey, motel-style units in 1968. It wasn’t until 1984 that a security section was implemented at Villawood, and 1992 that mandatory detention for refugee asylum-seekers was enacted in legislation by the Paul Keating government.[8]

The key practical distinction that here needs to be drawn is latently ideological yet architectural in manifestation. Prior to 1992 refugee asylum-seekers arriving in Australia were not customarily incarcerated. Yet between 1984 and 1992 the migrant hostel typology metamorphosed into secure, fenced, prison-like structures known as Immigration Detention Centres. Under the guise of ‘national security’ refugee asylum seekers were segregated from the general public, and fragmented from their own families. A further elaboration of this political scheme has been the development of Immigration Detention Centres in some of the remotest parts of Australia, and further a-field on neighbouring islands such as Nauru and Manus, thus restricting media access and limiting the extent to which asylum seekers can be humanized.[9]

Nationalism and difference

“The reality is quite plain: the ‘end of the era of nationalism’, so long prophesied, is not remotely in sight. Indeed, nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.”[10]

Much of the rhetoric surrounding the complex issue of refugee asylum seekers has centered on notions pertaining to national identity and national security. The early twentieth century was marked by policies of apartheid, assimilation and international, ideological wars. Countless lives have been lost, and continue to be lost, for the cause of nationhood. In fact, “the twentieth century, with its scores of millions of supernumerary dead, has been called the age of ideology.”[11]

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson proposes the following definition of the nation: “it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”[12]

The question of security arises in relation to an idealized concept of community, and to borrow from Benedict Anderson, the coherence of the ‘imagined community’ is seriously undermined by inherent social heterogeneity. The ‘way of life’ that Immigration Detention Centres are designed to protect may not exist, at least not in an homogenous or congruent manner.

Nationalism, as a phenomenon, is subject to charges of Foucauldian relativity in the same way that the rise of madness or the remembrance of history is temporally and culturally dependent. And as a phenomenon, nationalism is still in its relative infancy, a product of the machinations of globalization and capitalism. Its rise is inextricably derived from three key events in the calendar of modernity: firstly, the democratization of print media through the convergence of capitalism and emerging print technologies, secondly, the dissolution of empires, and thirdly, secularization.[13]

Nationalism provides an illusion of homogeneity that seeks to assert its own existence through the identification of that which it is not, that which is ‘different’. According to Gilles Deleuze, “thought ‘makes’ difference, but difference is monstrous. We should not be surprised that difference should appear accursed, that it should be error, sin or the figure of evil for which there must be expiation. There is no sin other than raising the ground and dissolving the form.”[14]

The problematic of nationalism and security is clearly complex and cannot be synthesised into a concise form. However, at its crux resides the fact that nation-states, imagined communities, employ architecture and planning as a means for separation, alienation and disenfranchisement under the guise of security.

Security: architectures of disenfranchisement

“The logic of ‘security’ is thus employed beyond the narrow military sense of the word – as protection from bodily harm or damage to property – as a political ideological concept that promotes itself through the configuration of the built environment, resource allocation, and freedom of movement.”[15]

The architectural language of security is chiefly concerned with the aim of separation. It creates artificial dichotomies of community and other, of friend and foe. Walls of enormous mass and height, fences of razor-wire, surveillance posts and security check-points; these form the architectural vocabulary of security. Geographical space is demarcated with this physical language, thus imposing, or perhaps creating, the complete disenfranchisement of the already disenfranchised refugee asylum seeker. In the case of the Australian Immigration Detention Center, the refugee may technically have arrived on Australian soil, but it is not the same Australian soil as the ‘lawful’ citizen. This fact is architecturally re-enforced, creating a no-mans-land, generic and oppressive in quality. It is the architectural continuation of the rhetoric of the dichotomy between the developed world and the Third World. It is the embodiment of the politics of capitalism and the protection of capital from the world’s poor majority.

This architectural language of security is global in character, is culturally transferable, and is certainly not unique to Australian Immigration Detention.

The wall, or the fence, is the recurring trope in this discourse. Saudi Arabia has installed massive concrete ‘isolating walls’ along its border with Yemen. India has built ten-foot-high mud-walls across Kashmir, with a view to fencing the entire 1800-kilometre border with Pakistan. Botswana is erecting electrified-fences along its border with Zimbabwe, in a fashion reminiscent of the high-voltage ‘death fences’ of South African apartheid.[16] The claim to national security has left physical scars across the landscape, tracing the shifting, arbitrary and synthetic borders of nation-states.

Israel: frontier architecture

“Perfecting the politics of fear, separation, seclusion and visual control, the settlements, checkpoints, walls and other security measures are also the last gesture in the hardening of enclaves, and the physical and virtual extension of borders in the context of the more recent global ‘war on terror’. The architecture of Israeli occupation could thus be seen as an accelerator and an acceleration of other global political processes, a worst-case scenario of capitalist globalization and its spatial fall-out.”[17]

The vocabulary of architectural violence consists not only of manifest interventions: the fence, wall or surveillance post, as discussed; but also of latent maneuvers, such as the subversion of planning methodologies.


The settlement of Migron in civilian-occupied Palestine – a frontier scenario. Following the first Oslo Accord in 1993, it became increasingly difficult for Israeli settlers to obtain permits to develop settlements in the West Bank. What developed in response is an architecture of subversion and sophisticated obfuscation, unofficially (and illegally) facilitated by the Israeli government.[18]

In 1999 settlers in the West Bank complained of poor telephone reception as they drove around a particular hill on the main highway. The hilltop was owned by Palestinian farmers and had been cultivated with figs and olives. The Israeli military decided that the construction of a mobile phone antenna on the hilltop was a matter of national security, above and beyond the ownership claims of Palestinian farmers, and initiated construction with the mobile phone provider Orange and the Israel Electric Corporation. What subsequently followed was the progressive development, from the initial infrastructure necessary for the construction of a communications tower, to the arrival of housing blocks, to what has become the largest of 103 similar outposts littered throughout the West Bank. This land-grab was executed under the guise of ‘security’, and is representative of the tactics employed in establishing Israeli settlements on Palestinian soil, many of which have sprung up around telecommunication antennas.[19]

Geographies of violence

Architectural systems of security extend beyond the physicality of mere fortification. The wall or fence becomes a ‘bureaucratic-logistical device’ for the creation of geographic and economic separation. By demarcating habitats and segregating “the limit of different legal statuses, the barriers are administrative apparatuses of population control. Their convoluted paths create an archipelago of exclusion that separates out zones of democracy where civil liberties are exercised from those where no rights fully apply.”[20]

Whether an isolation cell in an Australian Immigration Detention Center, an electrified-fence along the Botswana/Zimbabwe border, or an ‘illegal’ outpost erected around a telecommunications tower in occupied Palestine, the architectural language and ideological justification is the same. It is a language of violence and subversion. Security, in the name of the nation, of ‘imagined communities’, is evidently justification enough for violent architectural intervention, both latent and manifest. It is important to remember that ‘security’ is chiefly concerned with ‘perceived’ threats, and rarely actual ones. However, in the post-September-11 climate, colouring both international policy and public opinion, governments routinely neglect the most basic of human rights in their treatment of ‘legitimate’ refugee asylum seekers. And architecture is continually misappropriated and subverted for these violent ends.

When form is “designed in a particular way to achieve strategic and national goals… the architect is engaged in negative planning, a reversal of his professional practice – like a medical doctor involved in torture. This approach establishes architecture, just like the tank, the gun and the bulldozer, as a weapon with which human rights could be and are violated.”[21]

Jason Anthony Dibbs, 2012

[1] Amis, M. The Second Plane. London: Jonathan Cape, 2008.


[3] p.17. Stephen, S. Refugees & the rich-world fortress. Chippendale: Resistance Books, 2005.

[4] ibid.p.25.


[6] p.35. Stephen, S. Refugees & the rich-world fortress. Chippendale: Resistance Books, 2005.

[7] ibid. p.34.


[9] p.4. Stephen, S. Refugees & the rich-world fortress. Chippendale: Resistance Books, 2005.

[10] p.3. Anderson, B. Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso, 2006.

[11] p.13. Amis, M. The Second Plane. London: Jonathan Cape, 2008.

[12] p.6. Anderson, B. Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso, 2006.

[13] ibid.p.36.

[14] p.37. Deleuze, G. Difference and Repetition. London: Continuum, 2004.

[15] p.240. Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: The Barrier Archipelago and the Impossible Politics of Separation in Ed. Michael Sorkin. Against the Wall: Israel’s barrier to peace. New York: New Press, 2005

[16] p.89. Mike Davis, The Great Wall of Capital in Ed. Michael Sorkin. Against the Wall: Israel’s barrier to peace. New York: New Press, 2005

[17] pp.9-10. Weizman, E. Hollow land: Israel’s architecture of occupation. London: Verso, 2007.

[18] ibid. pp.1-2.

[19] pp.1-2. Weizman, E. Hollow land: Israel’s architecture of occupation. London: Verso, 2007.

[20] ibid.p.237.