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Issue #1708      October 28, 2015

Immigration detention

Take action!

Anyone who arrived in Australia seeking asylum prior to 1992 was allowed to live in the community whilst waiting for decisions on their claims for refugee status. There was no difference in the treatment of those who arrived by plane or by boat without a visa. From 1976 to 1981, 2,059 people arrived by boat from Vietnam. The Fraser government worked with the UNHCR in camps in Thailand and Malaysia and approximately 70,000 Vietnamese refugees were brought here up to the mid 1980s. So that’s key to the whole situation, to have people’s claims assessed before they even think about getting on a boat to come here. On arrival, most lived in the various migrant hostels in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, SA and WA. On arrival here they were provided with health and welfare support, as well as English language teaching, housing and employment services.

Medical staff at Lady Cilento Children's Hospital call on the Federal Government to release children from detention. (Photo: Leonie Mellor)

In 1992 the Keating Labor government introduced mandatory detention for people arriving in Australia by boat without a valid visa. They were coming here to seek asylum, to seek our protection. This policy change was in response to an increase in the number of people arriving from Vietnam and Cambodia. It was meant to be a temporary measure to discourage people arriving by boat without a visa. In reality it began the system that has continued for the past 23 years and has become increasingly harsher. The notion of it being “unlawful” or “illegal” to arrive without a visa began at this time. Why do we lock people up? Because according to the myth – they must have done something wrong.

Various beliefs have increasingly taken hold, such as “illegals”, “queue jumpers”, “country shopping”. We hear the phrase “boat arrivals are not genuine refugees, they are economic migrants” and we also hear often quoted: “we are generous”.

Governments over the past 23 years and in particular since 2001 have done nothing to dispel these myths and to educate people, and I am talking about Labor and Coalition governments.

I am focusing on detention as that is the cruellest centrepiece of our policies. Three areas of detention: on the mainland, on Manus Island and on Nauru.

On the mainland, according to the Immigration Department numbers on June 30, there were 127 children, 250 women and 1,636 men in detention.

Eight hundred and forty-two people have been in detention for more than one year and 348 of these have been in detention for more than two years.

Despite the then Minister Morrison making an agreement in December last year with Senator Ricky Muir that children would be released from detention, this has still not happened. One hundred and twenty-seven children remain in detention on the mainland.

The Australian Human Rights Commission published The Forgotten Children report last year detailing the damage which detention does to children:

“There were no positive responses to detention – the most common impact on the emotional health of children and their parents were feelings of sadness and ‘constant crying’. Almost all children and their parents spoke about their worry, restlessness, anxiety and difficulties eating and sleeping in detention.”

On Manus Island, 945 men are in detention. There are also 41 men who have been found to be refugees but it is not safe for them to be released into the community.

The office of the UNHCR visited Manus Island from October 23 to 25, 2013 and raised a number of concerns in their report which states: “UNHCR was deeply troubled to observe that the current policies, operational approaches and harsh physical conditions at the RPC do not comply with international standards”.

After the death of Reza Berati in February 2014, the report of the Senate inquiry into the incident at the Manus Island Detention Centre found:

“At least 51 asylum seekers sustained injuries, some of them serious, between February 16 and 18, 2014. Mr Berati sustained the most grievous injury and died a few hours after he was attacked. Other serious injuries included one asylum seeker who lost an eye and another who had a gunshot wound in the buttocks.”

On the September 20, 2014 Sarah Whyte reported in The Age on the allegation that Hamid Kehazaie spent a week on Manus Island waiting for approval for his medical evacuation to Port Moresby. He had developed severe septicaemia after cutting his foot and subsequently died at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane. Her article drew attention to the lack of medical care available on Manus Island.

On Nauru, there are 88 children, 114 women and 453 men in detention.

The UNHCR visited the detention centre on Nauru from October 7 to 9, 2013. Their report commented:

“In light of the overall shortcomings in the arrangements, highlighted in this and earlier reports, UNHCR is of the view that no child, whether an unaccompanied child or within a family group, should be transferred from Australia to Nauru.”

In October 2014 the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection announced a review by Philip Moss into allegations relating to conditions and circumstances at the Centre in Nauru. The Moss Review found that “there were both reported and unreported allegations of sexual and other physical assault” in relation to children.

The Moss Review also found that between October 2013 and October 2014, “17 children engaged in self-harm (including lip stitching by 16 and 17-year-olds, and one attempted hanging). The youngest child involved in self-harm was an 11-year-old.”

What can we do?

I want to touch on six things:

1. The first thing to do is to stay informed. The media, in particular the ABC, the Fairfax press, the UK Guardian and The Saturday Age constantly monitor and report on the range of issues regarding people seeking asylum. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the Refugee Council of Australia and the Red Cross websites publish fact sheets and FAQs. TV programs such as the SBS series Go back to where you came from are also valuable.

2. Talk about the issues to friends, family, neighbours and others in the community.

3. Write to newspapers and call talk back programs.

4. Join community groups such as Grandmothers Against Children in Detention.

5. Become involved in campaigns such as those organised through GetUp and On Thursday this week a 23-year-old Iranian woman was brought from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment after allegedly being raped in May. She had subsequently been on a hunger strike and had attempted to take her life twice. Fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty-eight people had signed a petition to Minister Dutton to bring her to Australia. He has been on the record a number of times saying that people will not be brought from Nauru to Australia. So we can never underestimate the power of what we do.

6. Write to your Members of Parliament. In particular, the independent senators are influential and Ricky Muir and John Madigan are on the record and both have shown a strong interest in this area of refugees and asylum seekers.

The Beacon

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