This thesis is based on in-depth interviews with volunteers who support asylum seekers in Australia. It compares the experiences of volunteers who visit asylum seekers in immigration detention facilities with those of volunteers who support asylum seekers in the community. This comparison foregrounds the impact of institutional technologies not only on detained asylum seekers, but also on their supporters.

While Australia’s detention regime has received considerable academic attention in recent years, few scholars have examined the experiences of volunteers. The testimonies presented here provide a valuable window onto the operation of power within Australia’s detention system. They show that the Kafkaesque mechanisms through which detention centres produce powerlessness, disruption and emotional distress in asylum seekers also extend to negatively impact volunteers.

The traumatising dimensions of Australia’s detention network, this thesis argues, should be understood not as evidence of the system’s dysfunction but as indicators of its key purposes. In the context of Australia’s deterrence policy, the production of anguish is politically expedient as it damages networks of resistance and support. In making this argument, this thesis dialogues with broader scholarship regarding carceral institutions and the deprivations and frustrations of imprisonment.

In addition to contributing to the literature regarding the negative impacts of immigration detention, this thesis challenges two prominent critiques of care-based volunteer work. It provides evidence to contest the charge that friendship programs are not ‘political’ because they lack universality and do not entail a structural critique. It also disputes the claim that this form of volunteering reduces to an exercise in privilege and emotional gratification.

Supervisors: Dr Susan Banki and Prof Stephen Castles

Department: School of Social and Political Sciences, the University of Sydney

PhD Awarded: 2018


A follow-up study will be conducted in the second half of 2019, examining how conditions in detention have changed since this research was conducted. To find out more or get involved, please contact Michelle or visit the study’s recruitment page.


Copies available upon request. Please contact Michelle.

PETERIE, Michelle (2018) Refugee Survey Quarterly

The relationship between immigration detention and trauma is well established, and scholars have often employed Agamben’s notion of the camp to explain the psychological deterioration that asylum-seekers experience in detention. Using Australia as a case study, this article argues that while the camp model is highly instructive in some contexts (such as Australia’s offshore processing facilities), it is less useful in understanding facilities that are ostensibly bound by social and legal constraints (such as Australia’s onshore detention facilities). Detention centres such as those on the Australian mainland, this article demonstrates, are best understood not as camps but as prisons. In making this claim, this article opens up a rich body of empirical and theoretical research regarding the operation of power – and, in particular, the infliction of psychological pain – in carceral institutions. In doing so, it provides a theoretical scaffolding for understanding how immigration detention facilities can and do inflict harm in situations where governments must maintain an appearance of civility and respect for the law. Furthermore, it provides a grounding and vocabulary for understanding outcomes such as trauma and mental illness not as failures of immigration detention systems, but as some of their core functions.

PETERIE, Michelle (2018) Journal of Sociology

This article documents the experiences of volunteer visitors to Australia’s onshore immigration detention facilities, and considers what they reveal about the operation of power within this detention network. While immigration detention systems (including Australia’s) have received considerable academic attention in recent years, few scholars have examined the experiences of volunteers. Further, while the existing scholarship points to the negative impacts of immigration detention on detainees, the question of how these outcomes are produced at the level of daily institutional life has gone largely unanswered. The testimonies presented here provide a valuable window onto daily life in Australia’s onshore immigration detention centres, highlighting the opaque and capricious mechanisms through which they produce emotional distress in both asylum seekers and their supporters. In documenting these mechanisms and their effects, this article shows how ‘deterrence’ is enacted through the small and seemingly innocuous details of institutional life.

NEIL, David and Michelle PETERIE (2018) Asia Pacific Viewpoint

The notion of dark networks has recently received attention in the literature on policy network analysis. Dark networks are defined as illegal and covert, in contrast to bright networks which are legal and overt. In this article, we suggest a third category – grey networks – which are characterised by their use of secrecy and concealment despite their ostensibly legal status. These networks are subject to contradictory imperatives. They employ methods that cannot be openly acknowledged within the larger legal and social framework in which they function. In this article, we illustrate this concept through an interview‐based study of Australia's immigration detention network. This network enacts a deterrence policy which has been widely condemned as breaching Australia's obligations under international law. At the same time, it is required to maintain a façade of lawfulness and respect for human rights.

PETERIE, Michelle (2018) Australian Journal of Social Issues

Care‐based interventions in situations of injustice are often characterised as separate from political activism. Critics argue that care‐based activities fail to address the causes of suffering, allowing structural issues to go unchallenged. Through an empirical analysis of “irregular maritime arrival” friendship programmes in Australia, this article challenges the binary opposition that has been constructed between the “personal” domain of care work and volunteering, and the “political” realm of activism. It shows that friendship programme volunteers understand their actions as a response to and intervention in a political situation that they find morally reprehensible. It also demonstrates that volunteers see their personal acts of friendship (and not only the recognisably “activist” activities that they sometimes inspire) as politically significant. By claiming irregular maritime arrivals as friends, volunteers seek to challenge representations that see “boat people” as enemies and Others. Furthermore, they provide opportunities for members of their communities to do the same.

PETERIE, Michelle (2019) Emotions in Late Modernity

As a motivation for social justice-oriented action, compassion has been criticised for presupposing an unequal power relationship between a privileged giver of compassion and a disadvantaged subject. Critics argue that ‘compassionate’ relationships reinforce and reproduce inequalities; they also imply that care givers derive emotional gratification from their privileged roles. In making these arguments, scholars in this tradition charge volunteers with a failure of reflexivity. This chapter interrogates these ideas through an empirical study of volunteer reflexivity in asylum seeker friendship programmes. It draws on in-depth interviews with 30 volunteers who support asylum seekers in Australia’s onshore immigration detention facilities, and foregrounds the role of reflexivity in this work. This chapter provides evidence (a) that reflexively managed moral emotions concerning Australia’s ‘politics of fear’ inspire volunteers to begin visiting detention; (b) that reflexively managed guilt regarding the structural injustices that they encounter in detention inform their volunteer relationships; and (c) that mutual exercises in emotion work – where asylum seekers and volunteers work together to create small pockets of normality – are common in these affective institutional settings. In presenting these findings, this chapter contests the previously described understanding of care-based volunteer work. It also provides evidence of the role of reflexivity in late modernity.


A full list of Michelle’s publications - including other articles concerning refugees and asylum seekers - is available HERE.