It doesn’t matter whether you’re a child, it doesn’t matter whether you’re pregnant, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a woman, it doesn’t matter whether you’re an unaccompanied minor, it doesn’t matter if you have a health condition, if you’re fit enough to get on a boat then you can expect you’re fit enough to end up in offshore processing.1

—Scott Morrison, Australian minister of immigration

Situated 800 kilometers from the capital of Papua New Guinea, the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre is a remote outpost far from the political dispatches of the Australian government in Canberra. Manus Island became an active base for US soldiers during World War II. Littered throughout the area are dilapidated Quonset huts first erected on the site by the Americans; some of these structures are still being salvaged to house new detainees and offices. Along the island’s first paved road connecting the airport to the detention center, building contractors ensured that the footprint of the former military base was reused. Located on state land, the current detention facility on Manus is a collection of enclosed compounds in which canvas tents, shipping containers, and other prefabricated units have been erected on flood-prone terrain (Figure 1). Two prominent entry points guarded by men with machine guns are located behind at least three additional layers of chain-link fencing. Between each of the compounds is a narrow corridor that reduces interactions among detainees. At the heart of the center stand two long elevated prefabricated buildings whose windows have been obscured by plastic tarpaulin; a small sign indicates that the shower, toilet, and entertainment area are nearby.

Figure 1

Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, October 2013. After taking this photograph, both authors were interrogated by the detention center director and local armed guards (authors’ photo).

Figure 1

Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, October 2013. After taking this photograph, both authors were interrogated by the detention center director and local armed guards (authors’ photo).

More striking, however, is the initial sitework under way for a purported 10,000-person detention facility at the heart of Manus Island cut from the jungle near the village of Lorengau (Figure 2); this administrative center has been described as the future “first stop” for asylum seekers. After landing by boat on Christmas Island, they will be flown directly to Manus to be held indefinitely, bypassing any customary wait for filing asylum and refugee applications. While plans for this site have not been publicly announced, upon completion it will become the largest of Australia’s immigration detention centers, surpassing the 3,000-person facility at Christmas Island and the sixteen garrisons on the continent. This tremendous growth of detention infrastructure is changing the face of Manus Island and, as a consequence, the greater landscape of Australia. Lorengau will no longer remain a sequestered village but will materialize as an epicenter of a Pacific network of detention centers stretching from Perth to Sydney.

Figure 2

View of construction site, Lorengau, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, October 2013. This site marks the primary entrance to the new 10,000-person facility on the island with administrative offices in the foreground (authors’ photo).

Figure 2

View of construction site, Lorengau, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, October 2013. This site marks the primary entrance to the new 10,000-person facility on the island with administrative offices in the foreground (authors’ photo).

Landscapes of Detention

At Manus, the death of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati on 17 February 2014 is a reminder of Australian aggression toward foreigners who seek respite from oppressive regimes. According to initial journalists’ reports from inside the encampment, Barati was thrown from his bed, possibly beaten with a blunt object, and kicked by guards and local Papuan men who had forcibly entered the compound.2

Newly released documents imply that 130 extra guards were flown in by the security company G4S “to man the fence line” prior to the riots that resulted in Barati’s death, after nearly nine months of warnings about the inadequate state of infrastructure at the Manus center.3 Five separate inquiries have subsequently been launched into the circumstances surrounding Barati’s death and the ensuing riots.4 These incidents, which left sixty-two detainees injured over a period of three days, not only demonstrate the inhumane conditions of Australian detention centers but also elucidate how violence is reinforced by the spatial conditions of the contemporary built environment.

Australia is the only Western country to employ mandatory detention for asylum seekers, reinforcing its reputation for neocolonial acts of hostility.5 Under the brutal logic of excision enforced by former prime minister John Howard, individuals who attempt to enter the country by boat never set foot in Australia in the first place. Over an indeterminate period of time, an asylum seeker is processed, given an identification number, and delivered to one of three facilities on Christmas Island or flown directly to Manus Island or Nauru. This policy, known as the “Pacific Solution,” initiated a trajectory of human capital away from domestic territories such as Christmas Island and toward Manus Island, the Pacific island nation of Nauru, Indonesia, and potentially other nations, such as Cambodia, as proxies for Australian stewardship.

The circulation of human capital across continental geographies in Australasia fuels these immigration and fiscal policies that have radicalized carceral suppression for 20,857 “illegal maritime arrivals,” 18,119 of whom submitted asylum applications from 2012 to 2013.6 Many of these persons are now being held in Australian immigration processing and detention centers, including 3,738 men, women, and children in three offshore facilities.7 The global industrialization of detention for asylum seekers such as Barati has quietly emerged as a corporate endeavor in which the construction of facilities such as those on Manus Island is being relegated to private multinational contractors. Establishing elements of shelter is a secondary concern for governments and security companies alike. Techniques of incarceration have blatantly negated the primacy of shelter and are symptomatic of the growing “security-industrial complex” that devalues human existence and evades international scrutiny.8 From boats to buildings, survival strategies amid the tenements of detention centers on Christmas Island, Manus, and Nauru speak of the Australian government’s increased reliance on a system committed to suspending the political rights of asylum seekers.

Carceral Networks

Architects who have been engaged to design and build detention centers make up only a small minority of global specialists responsible for the erection of secure facilities in isolated locales such as Manus and Nauru. G4S and Transfield Holdings/Wilson Security, in fact, are two corporations that specialize in the high-risk management of prisons and detention centers.9 As the “world’s policeman,” G4S began in the nineteenth century as a twenty-man nightwatch company and continues to sustain varied operations around the world.10 Transfield likewise possesses a scattershot history of global enterprises that stretch from the on-site management of the Christmas Island and Nauru offshore processing centers—and, as of April 2014, Manus Island—to cultural endeavors such as the longtime sponsorship of the Sydney Art Biennale, which was recently criticized by local and international artists. Due to Transfield’s controversial involvement in the detention industry, CEO Luca Belgiorno-Nettis quietly stepped down from his post amid threats from several artists to boycott the festival. Belgiorno-Nettis stated of his own company, “[Transfield Holdings] is doing facilities management. They are basically doing catering, engineering services, plumbing, electrical. Yes, security as well, but basic services. And they’re looking to improve those services.”11 In light of this comment, the demand for security services only reinforces the political leverage behind the industrialization of mandatory detention.

Incarceration is governed by corporal acts of immobilization. The Christmas Island Reception and Immigration Processing Centre and its overflow facilities for women and children embody a high-security penitentiary, with closed-circuit television, listening posts for audio surveillance, electrified fences, and armed guards (Figure 3). By comparison, the Manus Island offshore processing center is an explicitly temporary facility where detainees are contained in static, flimsy tents on land next to crocodile-infested water. Our contact on Manus confirmed that Australian security measures such as carrying a Hoffman knife at all times (to cut down detainees who attempt to hang themselves) are often paralleled by informal agreements among Papuan men who work as local guards. This inherent distrust of Australian staff led to Papuan security teams creating their own strategies for containing disorderly detainees, including forming human chains with their bodies to keep men apart.

Figure 3

Christmas Island Immigration and Detention Centre, Christmas Island, Australia, March 2013 (authors’ photo).

Figure 3

Christmas Island Immigration and Detention Centre, Christmas Island, Australia, March 2013 (authors’ photo).

The chronic uncertainty about the status of refugee applications fashioned an aggressive environment within the center’s confines. Detainees have described that following their processing, they remain anonymous individuals within the heavily secured facilities on the islands, in violation of key rulings of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Australia is a signatory. After a perilous journey on open seas, asylum seekers are given the option of going back to where they came from, a choice that constitutes illegal refoulement. Yet, most choose to stay at these centers in the dim hope that their waiting will outlast the legal machinations of the Australian government. Entrenched monotony thus begets the violence that led to the Manus riots. Conversely, well-behaved detainees are offered “cultural tours” of Lorengau conducted in locked white buses in an effort to demonstrate the desolate nature of Manus Island (Figure 4).

Figure 4

A “cultural tour” of Lorengau, Manus, in a locked bus, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, October 2013 (authors’ photo).

Figure 4

A “cultural tour” of Lorengau, Manus, in a locked bus, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, October 2013 (authors’ photo).

In contrast to the conditions in which detainees are forced to live, moored offshore, approximately 150 meters from the present facility on Manus, a seven-story British vessel named the Bibby Progress is used to house Australian and G4S workers. The Bibby Progress is outfitted with individual rooms, a modern cafeteria, gym, movie room, and other creature comforts (Figure 5). From a population of approximately 60,000, 437 Manus Islanders were initially hired after the local government demanded more representation among employees at the site. A report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reveals, however, that many of these staff members often do not show up for work, thus creating an imbalance between Australians and local employees, who are paid far less.

Figure 5

View of the Bibby Progress, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, October 2013 (authors’ photo).

Figure 5

View of the Bibby Progress, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, October 2013 (authors’ photo).

Sovereign Borders

Oceania is no longer Australia’s sole property “to cultivate, beautify, and protect” as described by the language of the Pacific Solution. Current Australian immigration policy falls under a 2013 dictate known as “Operation Sovereign Borders,” whereby boats are intercepted by military warships and turned back toward Indonesia.12 Regardless, uninformed asylum seekers continue to navigate treacherous waters for a better life abroad. Financial compensation flowing into security corporations such as G4S, Transfield, and Serco serving at the behest of governments intensifies how the architecture of detention is defined by the fraught alliances between Australia and its neighbors. Forms of incarceration acting as shelter, from the boat to the detention center, reveal the negotiable character of mandatory detention structured as militarized zones of control and excess.

Proposals that seek the release of asylum seekers into the general population of Papua New Guinea have also been met with criticism. The UNHCR noted in 2010 that “non-Melanesian” refugees and asylum seekers are subject to further cruelty by “Melanesian” criminals and gangs; the burden of responsibility for Manus Island detainees both inside and outside the center remains unclear.13 Given the racial and cultural violence being perpetrated on Manus, the mounting friction between detainees, governments, and security corporations will no doubt become more severe. As the UNHCR stated in 2010, “Harassment [in Papua New Guinea] is experienced by the majority of asylum seekers and refugees, including non-Asian refugees. The involvement of the police and the very poor record they have with regard to human rights also represents a risk of escalation to urban warfare.”14

Our discipline of architecture—the history and forms we study—points to a certain degree of complicity in the maintenance of these operations. The built environment has become an instrument by which governments are foreshortening the fundamental needs of human beings. In its multifarious iterations, the Australian immigration detention center has become what historian Peter Gatrell terms a “modern site of enumeration, categorization, and assessment by officials and relief workers.”15 Under Australia’s current Liberal–National Coalition, the directive “More Jakarta, Less Geneva,” a colloquial reference to asylum seeker policy meetings held among eleven nations in October 2013, signals what may become the “illegalization” of individual struggles for a place to call home. Policies that define the humane treatment of asylum seekers are simply not applicable to Australia, and as a result, the regulations that reinforce attitudes of insularity will ultimately govern the territories of the Pacific. It is critical that architectural historians identify the sociopolitical significance of these centers and encampments in order to recognize their positioning in the extensive history of carceral and border landscapes.



Scott Morrison, Operation Sovereign Borders media briefing, 15 Nov. 2013. Currently Morrison is the minister for immigration and border protection and served as minister of tourism for Australia (2002–4).


Some media outlets have used an alternative spelling for the victim’s surname: Berati. See Liam Fox, “Manus Island: Damage from Riots Visible During Media’s Tour of Detention Centre,” Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC), 23 Mar. 2014, /media-tour-of-manus-island-detention-centre/5337660 (accessed 26 May 2014).


David Wroe, “Revealed: Manus Island Security Fears in Run-Up to Fatal Riot,” Sydney Morning Herald, 12 May 2014.


Robert Cornall, Report to the Secretary, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, “Review into the Events of 16–18 February 2014 at the Manus Regional Processing Centre,” (accessed 23 May 2014). Cornall’s report puts forward thirteen recommendations to address the residual anger and frustration among asylum seekers; these steps include improvements in transferee welfare and living conditions and more comprehensive staff training. Removing locks from internal compound gates as a symbolic gesture of trust and removing shade cloth from chain-link fences for better visibility will be permitted. Small groups from the Delta compound will be allowed to walk on the adjacent beach and paddle in the water.


Budgetary measures released in May 2014 suggest that six of these centers, including Manus Island, will be closed and the detainees transferred elsewhere. Foreseen closures affect the Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin, Darwin’s Airport Lodge, the Aqua/Lilac facilities for women and children on Christmas Island, and the Curtin Facility in Western Australia.


Statistics are available from 1976 until 2013 for arrivals by boat; see (accessed 17 May 2014).


Operation Sovereign Borders, Operational Update—16 May 2014, (accessed 17 May 2014).


The term “military-industry complex” was coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address to the American nation on 17 January 1961. Akin to the “academic-military-industrial” complex in the twentieth century as foreseen by historians of science Peter Galison and Stuart Leslie, the “security-industrial complex” can be viewed in relation to the “prison-industrial complex,” prevalent in US immigration and privatization of prisons. See Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans, The Prison-Industrial Complex and the Global Economy (Oakland, Calif.: PM Press, 2009).


A third corporation, Reston,Va.–based Serco, which specializes in warfare and technological systems, is the primary manager of immigration detention centers throughout Australia, including those on Christmas Island.


William Langewiesche, “The Chaos Company,” Vanity Fair, Apr. 2014, 98–103, 145–51.


See (accessed 11 May 2014). Compare Belgiorno-Nettis’s statement with Serco’s motto, “Bringing Service to Life.”


Operation Sovereign Borders commenced on 18 September 2013 and is a “command structure” managed by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.


The UNHCR’s 2010 submission on Papua New Guinea’s Universal Periodic Review, as quoted in the Submission by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Inquiry into the Incident at the Manus Island Detention Centre from 16 February to 18 February 2014, Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee (2014), n.p.




Peter Gatrell, The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 9.