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Issue #1599      June 26, 2013

Mandatory detention

Australia’s shame

After more than six months in denial regarding the appalling, subhuman conditions at its “offshore processing centre” on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, the government last week began removing families and children from the Island. Following a visit to the facilities in January this year, the UNHCR’s Regional Representative Richard Towle said, “The current policy and practice of detaining children should be terminated as a matter of priority.”

Manus Island. (Photo: ABC News)

It has taken considerable public and international pressure for the government to even begin removing children from the Island. There are 1,852 children in closed detention facilities, denied their freedom and another 1,383 in community detention. The government, however, is still refusing to end the practice of detaining children as demanded by the UNHCR representative and required under international law.

The UNHCR, the United Nation’s refugee agency, described the living conditions on Manus Island as “harsh, hot humid, damp and cramped”.

“If the sole purpose of transfer from Australia to Papua New Guinea was to process people, one would expect there’d be some kind of process in place for people when they get there.

“These 221 people are being held in mandatory closed and indefinite detention, which is a very serious violation of international law.”

“Serious violation of international law”

Towle pointed to a number of serious breaches of human rights and international law on Manus Island. “These 221 people are being held in mandatory closed and indefinite detention, which is a very serious violation of international law.”

“The key recommendation is to put in place proper processing arrangements as soon as possible and start looking at people’s claims,” Towle said.

The UNHCR also called on Australian and PNG authorities to improve conditions, and ensure an early start to the refugee assessments process in order to prevent increased levels of psycho-social and physical harm amongst asylum-seekers in the detention centre.

As Richard Towle, pointed out, “Asylum-seekers are distressed and confused about their situation. They are in closed detention, without a process in sight. They feel they have been forgotten.”

Former Immigration Minister Chris Bowen ignored the UNHRC’s requests. So too did the new Minister Brendan O’Connor who is steadfastly sticking by Labor’s “no advantage principle”.

As recently as April, Minister O’Connor was still attempting to defend the incarceration of children: “I haven’t been contemplating a change to the composition of those on the Manus Province because we made a decision, a difficult decision to ensure that we deter people getting on very unseaworthy vessels.”

The “no advantage principle”, as the Labor government calls it, is designed to ensure asylum seekers who make it to Australia by boat do not get assessed earlier than those languishing for years in centres in Indonesia or Malaysia.

“While some families may be released into the community on bridging visas, they will remain subject to regional processing arrangements. They will be not be processed any faster than had they waited in a refugee camp overseas,” O’Connor said.

In other words, they will be left languishing for years in centres such as Manus Island, Nauru and Christmas Island with no indication of when they will be released.

It is widely recognised that children who have fled their homeland and survived the precarious land and boat travel to Australia’s shores are likely to have experienced considerable trauma. Many also have health problems.

Instead of welcoming them with open arms, treating them humanely and ensuring their wellbeing, the Australian government seeks to callously use them as pawns to deter other would-be asylum seekers.

These desperate children are incarcerated indefinitely in inappropriate facilities without the most basic of resources or staffing to meet their needs. Many are living in fear, witnessing violence and self-harm by other prisoners and uncertain about their future.

These so-called “detention centres” or “offshore processing centres” are prisons where desperate people who need our compassion and support, are arbitrarily subjected to indefinite sentences in remote locations beyond public scrutiny. Convicted criminals have more rights.

The UNHCR team also made strong recommendations regarding the unsatisfactory conditions as well the policy of mandatory detention which the government continues to ignore.

Only a morally bankrupt government lacking any humanity could subject fellow humans, especially children – the world’s most vulnerable people – to such treatment. In the former Soviet Union, children were known as the “privileged class”, and were treated accordingly. Not under capitalism, where they are expendable.

It took a Liberal MP to expose Australia’s shame in Parliament, Judi Moylan in valedictory speech to Parliament. “I remain stridently opposed to indefinite mandatory detention and the continued detention of children, 2,000 of whom are currently in detention under our management,” she said.

“These practices have gone on in our name and will stand as a matter of great shame.”

The only other voices of sanity in the Australian Parliament are the Greens and several independents.

The Opposition attacked Labor for policy failure when two more boats arrived last week. The Coalition would have the boats turned back regardless of risk to human life.

The policy failure is not the arrival of boats but the illegal, mandatory, indefinite detention of asylum seekers and their inhumane treatment.

International situation

The number of displaced persons continues to rise at an alarming rate. According to figures recently published by the UNHCR, during 2012, there were 7.6 million newly displaced refugees. Currently 35.8 million refugees are under UNHCR protection.

These are human beings – men, women and children – forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, and human rights violations and seeking safe sanctuary.

The major recipients of refugees are Pakistan (1.6 m), Germany (589,700), Kenya (564,900) and Syria (476,500).

“… the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia remains relatively small by global standards,” Towle noted.

So far this year, 12,194 asylum seekers have reached Australia on 180 boats. This is a drop in the ocean. At the end of 2012, the number of refugees hosted by Australia was estimated to be around 30,000 and the number of asylum seekers 20,010.

Compare these figures with an estimated 15.4 million refugees globally, and just under one million asylum seekers in 2012. Australia ranks 49th for the number of refugees, while poor Pakistan with all of its problems took in 1.6 million.

Australia has a problem. It is not too many asylum seekers or refugees. It is that we are not pulling our weight. We are not shouldering our international responsibilities. Australia’s barbaric treatment of asylum seekers adds to our shame.

International responsibility

There are a number of ways in which Australia can make a positive contribution.

First is to treat asylum seekers in a humane and caring manner, in line with our obligations under international law and support family reunions in Australia. Mandatory detention should be abolished. Children and their families should be living in the community, leading as normal lives as possible and receiving appropriate health and other care.

Asylum seekers are not “illegals” or a threat to Australia’s security. Almost all of them are genuine refugees who have a great deal to contribute to Australia.

The second is to substantially increase our intake, which would also serve to reduce the number of people risking their lives on perilous boat trips. We have an additional responsibility because of Australia’s role in the US’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and its support for Western interference in Syria and elsewhere.

The third area is to address the cause of such large numbers of refugees. Of course Australia cannot do this single-handedly but it can play a role at the United Nations Security Council and elsewhere in preventing wars and other conflicts. More than half the refugees last year came from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan.

As a start the government should oppose the arming and training of the so-called “Free Syrian Army”, oppose the blockade of Iran and support the struggle of the Palestinian people, including the call for implementation of previous UN resolutions. Australia has a responsibility to assist the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.   

Next article – Editorial – Holden heads the wage-cutting charge

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