Labor retains mandatory detention of refugees

By Kerry Vernon

In a July 29 speech, Labor immigration minister Chris Evans announced an end to the previous Howard Coalition government’s costly “Pacific Solution” to “illegal” asylum seekers — closing the offshore processing centres on Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island. However, the Rudd Labor government has retained the $400 million prison-like facility on Christmas Island, 2600 km north-west of Perth, in the Indian Ocean.

As part of the federal parliament’s inquiry into immigration detention, the immigration department invited a number of refugee rights organisations to inspect the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre on August 13. It was designed in 2001 as a “maximum security environment”. Construction began in 2005, despite the recommendations of the 2005 Palmer inquiry into immigration detention.

Even with no detainees, the centre costs $22 million a year, Pamela Curr, campaign coordinator for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, was quoted as saying by Crikey online on August 19. The Christmas Island detention centre is meant to house up to 800 “unauthorised arrivals”. It is surrounded by two high fences, the second one electric. The high level of surveillance makes it really a prison.

After their visit, eight of the organisations involved wrote a joint letter to Evans on August 15. They stated: “The immigration facilities including the vastly expensive centre are a product of the policy of excision. Our visit underscored for us how unfair and potentially harmful the policy is, despite some ameliorative measures announced by you as part of the new detention policy … it is an extremely harsh and stark environment to detain people seeking asylum while their applications for protection are determined.

“Access to specialist services and casework support, including torture trauma counselling and expert legal advice will be restricted if not impossible. We strongly affirm our view that all asylum seekers should be entitled to have their applications for protection determined under the procedures that apply on the mainland. There should be no discrimination on the basis of the way asylum seekers reach Australian territory. In this way Australia will be best placed to ensure that those in need of protection are not returned to countries where they would face torture or death.”

The Rudd government has abolished the temporary protection visa and replaced it with a permanent visa called a “resolution of status” visa, which confers the same entitlements as a permanent protection visa. This is a welcome move for many who were uncertain and fearful about what would happen to them at the end of their temporary protection visa review. Asylum seekers granted refugee status will be given permanent protection.

Tackling Howard’s ‘worst excesses’

The Labor government, according to Evans, is tackling “the worst excesses” of the Howard government’s policy and will “introduce a new set of values to immigration detention — values that seek to emphasise a risk-based approach to detention and prompt resolution of cases rather than punishment. The best deterrent is to ensure that people who have no right to remain in Australia are removed expeditiously.”

However, the new arrangements include a system of mandatory detention. Those subject to mandatory detention include: all unauthorised arrivals, for management of health, identity and security “risks”; unlawful non-citizens who present unacceptable risks to the community; and unlawful non-citizens who have repeatedly refused to comply with their visa conditions.

Children (and families) will no longer be detained in immigration detention centres, and the government has done away with indefinite detention by making it subject to six-monthly reviews. On July 29, 72 people were in long-term detention. In Evans’ view, 24 of them should be deported after a departmental review. According to Evans, detention in immigration detention centres for “the shortest practicable time” is a last resort, and those detained will have reasonable legal access and will be treated with dignity. In detention, health, identity and security checks will be completed, and detainees will be released once their immigration status is resolved.

It’s clear Labor intends to speed up deportations. It is not clear how the funded legal access is to happen on remote Christmas Island, which is to be used to process all unauthorised arrivals to offshore islands. There has been no decision on the boundaries of the excised area. Labor proposes that people “will be detained only if the need is established”. There is an assumption that many asylum seekers will remain in the community while their immigration status is resolved. The government says the onus of proof is now on the Department of Immigration to justify detention.

According to Evans, the number of unauthorised boat arrivals has declined significantly. On July 29, 357 refugees were in detention, the lowest number since March 1997. Only six were unauthorised boat arrivals. The vast majority in detention are people who have overstayed or breached visa conditions.

Ending the Pacific Solution is in large part about money. According to Evans, in 2006-07, it cost $220 million to operate the immigration detention system. A 2007 report by Oxfam Australia and A Just Australia estimated that offshore processing has cost a staggering $1 billion.

The government will renovate the Villawood detention centre in Sydney, which the federal human rights and equal opportunity commissioner, Graeme Innes, called a disgrace after his last annual inspection. On June 9, Innes also called for Villawood to be demolished and for mandatory detention to be repealed.

Labor’s complicity

While Evans has pointed to the dehumanising and punitive character of long-term detention of refugees, he has been silent about the Labor Party’s complicity in the Howard government’s polices. In fact, it was the previous Keating Labor government that initiated mandatory detention. The Coalition achieved a majority in the Senate only after the 2004 election. Before that, it had to rely on Labor support to pass its anti-refugee legislation, including temporary protection visas and the Tampa legislation, which set up the Pacific Solution.

In a deliberate racist campaign to avoid Australia’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Howard government developed a system of cruel and vindictive punishment for thousands of people, including children, incarcerated in terrible conditions for long periods, treated as less than human and driven to illness and despair. Yet the vast majority were found to be refugees. For 10 years, Labor refused to counter, but instead gave support to, the Howard government’s refugee policies. Right up to the 2007 federal election, Labor supported then immigration minister Kevin Andrews’ cap on African refugees.

The Labor government’s changes come on the back of a refugee rights campaign lasting more than 10 years that involved public protest actions and lobbying by a diverse range of refugee rights supporters, human rights activists, church groups, unions, socialists and others, including detainees themselves. Frustrated by Labor’s failure to oppose the Howard government’s anti-refugee policies, some ALP members formed Labor for Refugees in 2001. Eventually even some Coalition MPs, deluged with letters, petitions, emails and messages of protest from their electorates and confronted by public protest actions, began to criticise some of the more brutal aspects of Howard’s stance. However, most parliamentary opposition came from the Australian Democrats and the Greens.

Public pressure led Howard to soften some aspects of his refugee policy in 2005. Labor made a slight shift in 2006 by voting against the “Pacific Solution Mark II” legislation introduced in the wake of the arrival of West Papuan refugees. If it had passed, the bill would have meant that all arrivals by boat would have been processed offshore and resettled in third countries. However, the basis of Labor’s policy is still the core of the Howard government policies ― mandatory detention, “border protection”, offshore processing and excision from Australia’s immigration zone of its northern islands.

A global survey by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2008 found a two-year increase in global refugee numbers after a decline between 2001 and 2005. There are 11.4 million refugees and another 26 million internally displaced people. Pakistan, Syria and Iran host the largest numbers of refugees. Among the world’s refugees, the greatest numbers are Afghans (3 million) and Iraqis (2 million). Those fleeing war and persecution, not to mention future environmental refugees, don’t have much choice about where they go.

The Australian imperialist rulers have sent troops to assist the US wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, but its politicians refuse to take any responsibility to grant asylum to those fleeing from these wars and economic devastation they have inflicted on Iraq and Afghanistan. They demonise Third World asylum seekers in order to destroy any sense of solidarity between the working people of Australia and the working people of the Third World countries whose resources the imperialist rulers plunder. Labor’s removal of the “worst excesses” of the Howard anti-refugee policy should not blind us to fact that it aims to perpetuate this fundamentally racist, predatory policy.