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Issue #1594      May 22, 2013

Tragic asylum seeker farce

Australia excises itself

Last week in a bizarre move the Gillard government excised the whole of the Australian mainland from its own immigration requirements, in order to deter asylum seekers from seeking refuge here.

That initiative went much further than the Howard government’s excision of Australian islands. Now anyone arriving unannounced by boat on the shores of any Australian territory can be incarcerated in an offshore detention centre while awaiting processing of their applications for asylum. In contrast, anyone arriving by plane will be subject to minimum processing delays before being released into the community.

An asylum seeker arriving by boat on the shores of Sydney’s Botany Bay would therefore be subject to the much harsher system, would be held for a much longer period, and would have a much higher chance of rejection than someone whose plane lands 100 metres inland at Mascot Airport.

This move is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of attempts by both Liberal/National and Labor Party governments to reap electoral advantage from the increasing flow of asylum seekers, while claiming that their real reason for treating them so harshly is to protect them from drowning at sea.

Financial and political costs

Since February the estimated cost of detaining asylum seekers and processing their applications between July last year and June 2016 has increased by some $3.2 billion, to $8.1 billion. The government has stripped almost a billion dollars from foreign aid budget allocations to help cover these costs.

It has also allocated another $16.6 million over the next two years to help the Immigration Department fight legal cases brought against it by asylum seekers who, not surprisingly, object to being indefinitely detained for arriving here seeking our help.

The government’s actions are inconsistent with its obligations under the UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory. Between July last year and March this year the government lost approximately three quarters of all cases brought against it by asylum seekers.

The federal government and opposition have both blamed the current huge cost for dealing with asylum seekers on the increasing number of people arriving by boat. However, the primary reason actually lies in the twin policies of mandatory detention and off-shore processing.

Offshore detention is proving to be a colossal failure in both economic and human terms. Nauru currently accommodates 420 men and Manus Island 270 men, women and children. However, they have proved inadequate to deal with the numbers involved, so some asylum seekers have been shipped back to mainland detention centres.

Those remaining offshore want to know why they must endure greatly reduced access to communications, legal and medical services, and accommodation in far more primitive facilities, compared with those enjoyed by mainland centre detainees. Manus Island is notorious for its incidence of malaria. Nauru inmates are even confined to the camp and cannot roam the island or mix with local residents, as they could under the Howard regime.

The government has a close relationship with the Sri Lankan government, which provides advice to ASIO and the Australian government as to which Sri Lankan asylum seekers they consider to be security risks. As a result 55 people are now effectively under a life sentence in Australian detention centres.

The Australian government also “screens out” Sri Lankan asylum seekers whom it deems to be “economic refugees”, and forcibly repatriates them. The government wants to have a similar relationship with other countries in our region, as well as similar arrangements for dealing with asylum seekers, and has allocated $65.8 million over four years to help other nations conform to our requirements.

Moreover, the government has allocated $205.8 million to help our border agencies cope with increasing asylum seeker inflows, $88.6 million for cooperation with neighbouring border agencies, and $84.8 million for maritime and aerial surveillance – in total, nearly $380 million.

And now the good news

There are small signs that a more humane approach is emerging in government ranks. Federal Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor has declared that the current rate of people arriving by boat is “not acceptable in terms of the risks to human life, or the impact of the budget.”

He has stated that some asylum seekers would be released on bridging visas into the community, albeit with no right to work and with little or no financial support, while their applications for asylum are heard.

In an amazing admission he added: “The alternative to putting asylum seekers in the community is to detain people while their claims for protection are assessed. This is not only expensive; it takes a toll on people’s mental health and well being.”

Exactly! O’Connor’s statement immediately brings into question the whole validity of the mandatory detention policy, which maximises the number of detainees and the length of their detention, and the offshore processing policy, which maximises the average cost of detaining them.

Senator Trish Crossin, recently dumped by the Prime Minister for preselection as a Northern Territory Senate candidate, has chaired a parliamentary inquiry that found there was no reasonable justification for excluding refugees from appealing adverse security assessments by ASIO, a right that citizens and permanent residents enjoy.

That finding will be welcomed by 55 asylum seekers who are currently under indefinite detention. Some have been detained for more than four years, with no prospect of ever being released, like the prisoners held in the notorious US Guantanamo Bay centre.

But perhaps the best news of all is that a team of four key lawyers led by human rights barrister Julian Burnside is to launch a legal challenge in the Nauru Supreme Court regarding the constitutional validity of detaining asylum seekers on Nauru.

A previous legal challenge narrowly prevented the government from detaining asylum seekers in Malaysia. If the current challenge is successful, the government will be prevented from sending detainees to Nauru and the off-shore detention policy will be thrown into doubt.

Let’s hope the case is dealt with speedily. The Liberal/National Coalition has expressed no compunction about forcibly repatriating asylum seekers, “turning the boats around”, or keeping children in detention.

Liberal shadow attorney-general George Brandis recently condoned the continued imprisonment of the ASIO-branded detainees, remarking with a vicious sneer that they “had no one to blame but themselves” for their plight.

Both the major parties have endorsed our participation in wars which have caused hundreds of thousands of people to seek refuge in other countries, including Australia. Regardless of who wins the September elections, it would be wonderful to have the odious and shameful policy of offshore detention laid to rest by a judicial review.   

Next article – Defence White Paper (PART 2)

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