Thirteen Montagnards who have fled from the central highlands of Vietnam, anxiously wait in hiding in the northern highlands of Ratanakiri province in Cambodia. Cambodian officials are on the search for them and have suggested they are likely to follow through with Vietnam’s request to extradite them back to Vietnam. The two countries have an old bilateral reciprocal agreement that stipulates that upon request they will extradite any individual or group back to the other country. As the UNHCR desperately tries to make contact with the Montagnards, and Human Rights Watch tries to drum up attention to the issue, the Australian Embassy and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) remain silent.

Perhaps DFAT would rather ignore this clear insight into how the Australia-Cambodia refugee deal will likely play out. Or more likely, they hope that the two countries can quietly deal with the issue and prevent yet more Vietnamese from making their way into the Australian asylum seeking system. After all there were significant enough numbers of Vietnamese asylum seekers coming to Australia, for the Department of Immigration to translate its ‘you won’t be settled here’ propaganda campaign into Vietnamese.

In Myanmar, just five days ago, The Department of Immigration announced it was giving an unspecified amount to the country over a five year period to strengthen ‘capacity for stronger border management’. Indeed Scott Morrison, at the beginning of the year, strangely referred to borders as ‘Australia’s greatest asset’ and since that time has channeled millions in aid and Department of Immigration and border security funding to export border technologies throughout the region under the rhetoric of ‘anti-people smuggling’, including in Cambodia. In the Myanmar case, it is clear that this is a blatant attempt to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya asylum seekers trying to make their way to Australia. There are currently 140,000 Rohingya in displacement camps and an unknown number who have already tried to make the perilous trip southwards.

Yet the striking thing about the Department of Immigration’s package earmarked for Myanmar is that it will also ‘facilitate increasing numbers of travelers’ visiting Myanmar. Indeed the introduction of e-visas in Australia for those traveling to Myanmar (which was part of the package) has made it that much easier for Australians to visit Myanmar.

Here lies the central logic of both border security and international aid – both of which are now largely indistinguishable from one another. Both attempt to maximise the flows of ‘goods’ (tourists, investors, experts, investment, NGOs, volunteers) while minimising the flows of ‘bads’ (‘human trafficking’, drugs, asylum seekers, terrorists). This explains the seeming paradox of Australia’s relationship with Cambodia over the last twenty years. On the one hand Australia legitimised Cambodia as a ‘post conflict’, democracy-on-its way, and in the process helped to create it as one of the most aid dependent countries in the world. It has also helped to recreate it as a site of charity where Australians from Gina Rhinehart to Scott Neason have been involved in charitable causes there. So too has it become ever easier to travel to Cambodia – 48,000 Australians went there in 2013. On the other hand it has become ever harder for Cambodians to come to Australia. It was against Cambodians arriving by boat in 1992 that the Australian High Court instituted mandatory detention. Across the same time period it has also become ever difficult for Cambodians to get simple visas for Australia – having to go through endless health check-ups and police checks. Australia fixates on trafficked women in Cambodia, desperately trying to reduce the flows of ‘bads’, while quietly increasing the flows of ‘goods’; $80 million of imports from Cambodia in 2013 – most of which were garments produced in Cambodia’s factories of underpaid workers.

In Myanmar the same thing occurs. As Australian money is used to facilitate the flows of tourists, and Australia increases its bilateral agreements with Myanmar (including now sending Australian volunteers), it also tightens up on ‘irregular movements’. The Myanmar government recently earmarked US$38 million additional funds for ‘Rakhine security’ which involves completing its 77km fence in Arakan state (where most Rohingya live) which, along with its new citizenship laws, will help to separate between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ Myanmarese. It is difficult to see how Australian ‘border security’ money will not directly or indirectly subsidise this project, in the same way that the US and UK in their efforts to court the new regime, now subsidise its war making efforts.

When Labour last year controversially took $375 out of the aid budget for implementing ‘asylum seeker policy’, the seeds had been sown for the complete disintegration between aid and security. Bob Carr, by earmarking aid money for ‘voluntary resettlement’ paved the way for the liberals to start the Cambodia deal; containing flows of asylum seekers has bipartisan support. The integration of AusAID into DFAT was the final nail on the coffin. Following cues from Canada, which also integrated its aid agency into its department of foreign affairs, our aid programme now under Julie Bishop is ‘trade dependent’ with a focus on ‘regional security’ and ‘aid for trade’. The Middle East and Africa have now almost been written out of the aid program (with 40 percent less allocated compared to 2012), with a renewed focus on the Asia pacific region where the dual aim of dumping asylum seekers and tightening trade can be most aggressively pursued.

There has always arguably been a relation, that is poorly understood, between development/aid/charity, on the one hand, and border protection/militaristic defence/sovereignty, on the other. The former is orientated towards pre-emptively containing a ‘surplus population’ in their place of origin (see Cooper, 2008; Cowen & Shenton, 1996; Duffield, 2007). The military, border security and customs however are orientated towards reactive defence at the border (see Cooper, 2004; Nyers, 2006). Yet both worked in tandem. Where one would teach a man how to fish, the other would detain him at the border if he came searching for fish.

After decades of the aid machinery slowly creeping away, and gaining some autonomy from this securitised logic, it has now been fully collapsed back into it. Now that aid is much more directly given ‘to pursue Australia’s national interests’ and ‘supporting security’, it is very difficult to distinguish between what is meant to improve the condition of life and what is merely aimed at containing it. When Australia pre-emptively gave $6.6 million of aid for Nauru to ‘develop its police force’ before the recent extension of offshore processing there[11], it was clear that the pendulum had swung irrevocably towards the security/containment pole. So too was this blatantly obvious when DFAT promised Cambodia’s Hun Sen Regime an additional $35 million in development assistance in order to pass the Australia –Refugee Cambodia deal (not to mention a similar deal with PNG). But customs and border security has also been collapsed into this securitised logic; no longer merely defending against threats when they reach Australia, the department of immigration and border security now aggressively pre-emptively attempts to contain flows of asylum seekers in countries outside of Australia. It has in a sense outgrown sovereignty where the Asia Pacific is used as a network of states to deal with Australia’s domestic political problems – from preventing Rohingya from coming to Australia to securing pacific labour for Australia’s rural economy.

The primary function of Australian aid has become to support an assemblage of NGOs, companies, contractors, security forces and foreign governments who will pursue this logic of security on behalf of Australians. This is not about humanitarianism, nor about improvement, but a pragmatic concern over securing the ‘good flows’ while slowing down, and violently containing, where necessary, the ‘bad’ flows (see Foucault, 2009). From Save the Children (which received $190 million in Department of Immigration contracts over the last two years)[13] to Transfield corporation, the Australian aid industry has fallen intractably into the logic of security.

Tim Frewer is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.


Cooper, M. (2004). On the brink: from mutual deterrence to uncontrollable war. Contretemps, 4, 2-18.

Cooper, M. (2008). Life as surplus: Biotechnology and capitalism in the neoliberal era. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Cowen, M. P., & Shenton, R. W. (1996). Doctrines of development. New York: Routledge.

Duffield, M. (2007). Development, Security and Unending War. London: Polity.

Foucault, M. (2009). Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977–1978 (Vol. 4): Picador.

Nyers, P. (2006). Rethinking refugees: Beyond states of emergency: Routledge New York.