Refugees: Rudd replaces 'Pacific' with 'Indian Ocean solution'

By Kerry Vernon

In a media release on November 20, Edmund Rice Centre director Phil Glendenning said the response to a November 19 SBS broadcast of the new documentary A Well-Founded Fear had been overwhelming. The documentary, by Anne Delaney, highlighted the centre’s research into the fate of more than 400 asylum seekers deported from Australia. Centre staff tracked down more than 250 returnees in 22 countries whose claims for asylum were rejected by the Howard government. The film, shot in Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Canada, documents the deaths of nine refugees following their return to Afghanistan, although Glendenning believes there could be close to 20 such deaths.

Over the past six years, the Edmund Rice Centre has conducted a systematic study into Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and has presented two reports: Deported to Danger (September 2004) and Deported to Danger II (September 2006). Since 2000, reports of death, disappearance, imprisonment and torture of some deported asylum seekers has filtered back to Australia. These concerns were brought to a Senate committee by Australian human rights agencies such as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Amnesty International, the Australian Refugee Council and various legal aid and trauma treatment organisations.

Since then, according to the Edmund Rice Centre, there have been many reports, submissions and testimony given to federal parliamentary enquiries, public meetings and investigations by federal police into allegations of illegal activity. In 2005, the centre reported that the immigration department had issued false documents to deport some asylum seekers.

Labor’s small change

But this has not deterred the Rudd Labor government from maintaining the core of the Howard government’s policies — mandatory detention, “border protection”, offshore processing and excision of islands and reefs from Australia’s immigration zone (the “Pacific solution”). While claiming that it has undone the “worst excesses” of the Coalition’s racist anti-refugee policy, Labor has continued the previous government’s deterrence and punishment for those who attempt to arrive “unauthorised” on Australian offshore islands. They will be brought to and processed on remote Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean 2600 km north-west of Perth.

The federal immigration minister, Senator Chris Evans, told a November 17 Refugee Council of Australia meeting at Parramatta Town Hall that “abolishing the Pacific solution” was “one [of] the first things the Rudd Labor government did on taking office”. Under Howard, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship had spent “$309.8 million between September 2001 and 29 February 2008 running the Nauru and Manus Islands offshore processing centres”, said Evans. The “Howard government sought to outsource our international protection obligations to less developed countries when we should have been shouldering them ourselves”.

Ending the “Pacific solution” was largely about its costs and a result of 6 years of public protest by refugee supporters. On February 8, the remaining 89 detainees on Nauru and Manus were removed to Australia. But the Labor government has retained the newly built $400 million Christmas Island Detention Centre, which is temporarily closed. The government intends to use this new 800-bed prison-like facility to process future arrivals. The facility costs $25 million a year even when closed.

Three boatloads of people this year have been brought to Christmas Island for immigration processing. The November 20 Sydney Morning Herald reported that a boat carrying 14 possible asylum seekers was found sinking 150km from Ashmore Reef. A navy patrol boat took the group to Christmas Island to be processed. Another group of Iraqi asylum seekers was found stranded on a remote Indonesian island with nine children, according to a November 15 ABC report. They were heading to Australia and, according to Indonesian police, intend to seek asylum.

According to the October 13 Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s 2007-08 annual report, as of June 30, a total of 20 people from two boats had been processed on Christmas Island, 16 of them being returned to their country of origin and four remaining on Christmas Island. According to the department’s November 7 summary, 14 people are currently being held in the older detention facilities at Phosphate Hill and four are in community detention. Eight of these are children.

Evans told the November 17 Parramatta Refugee Council meeting that he reviewed 72 detention cases in March. Of these, 32 were granted visas, while seven were undergoing checks and had been moved to lower security accommodation or granted bridging visas. He said 22 people were on a “removal pathway”, with 13 already deported. A further eight had ongoing legal cases.

Continued detention

Evans said: “In the area of refugee policy the key themes running through the Labor platform are humanity, fairness, integrity and public confidence”. The policy included “seven key immigration detention values to guide detention policy and detention practices into the future. The values commit us to detention as a last resort; to detention for the shortest practicable period; and to the rejection of indefinite or otherwise arbitrary detention.” He added: “It’s a risk-based approach to the management of immigration clients, but it will not solve all of the complex and protracted issues that delay resolution of immigration status. There will still be people in detention, but we should see fewer people in detention for much shorter periods.”

Evans said he was “pleased” to report that “as at November 7, the total number of people in immigration detention was 279, including 44 in community detention. This figure compares with 449 people in immigration detention when we came to office in November 2007 and over 1100 people in immigration detention five years ago.” He said fewer than half of current detainees are asylum seekers.

The November 7 immigration department summary shows unlawful arrivals as 29% of those in immigration detention. The rest had arrived lawfully but had been taken into detention for overstaying or breaching their visas. Of the 279 people in immigration detention, 162 had been held more than three months.

However, there were 23 children in immigration detention: 13 in community detention and nine in alternative temporary detention in the community — eight on Christmas Island — and one in Brisbane’s immigration transit accommodation. This is despite years of public outrage about government abuse of children in detention, which forced the Howard government to amend the Migration Act in June 2005 to release children from immigration detention.

While Labor says it rejects “dehumanising and punishing unauthorised arrivals with long-term detention” and recognises that “desperate people are not deterred by the threat of harsh detention — they are often fleeing much worse circumstances”, it has retained mandatory detention for unauthorised arrivals while health, character and identity checks are undertaken and “maintained the architecture of excised places and offshore processing”, which Evans said was an election promise.

On July 29, Labor announced an end to the temporary protection visa, replacing it with a permanent “resolution of status” visa for more than 1000 refugees. The government has also written off refugee detention debts. Asylum seekers granted refugee status will be given permanent protection. Evans said Labor has “introduced access to legal advice, independent review, oversight by the immigration ombudsman and procedural fairness for people who arrive unauthorised at offshore excised places”.

But the new policy has no time limit on the period of detention and no independent review of people who are detained. The independent immigration ombudsman can only recommend, not order, that a person be released from detention. The government says that a senior immigration officer will review a person’s continued detention every three months. Although Evans has said that the “department will have to justify a decision to detain, not presume detention”, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne has concerns over the independence, powers and accountability of the monitoring and the criteria for continued detention. It is calling for an end to mandatory detention.

Out of sight, out of mind

In an effort to enlist the support of refugee organisations, the government toured them around the Christmas Island detention facility on August 13. Labor’s “Indian Ocean solution” continues ALP support for mandatory detention, which was initiated by the Keating Labor government in 1992. Keeping the cornerstone of refugee policy 2600km offshore makes it more difficult for refugee rights supporters to continue building a movement against the bipartisan racist ideology behind the Coalition’s “Pacific solution”.

The federal government earlier this year announced that it would accept 13,500 people through its humanitarian program, with 6500 people in its “offshore” refugee program. Evans has also said that “Australia is taking our fair share of those in need of protection”, yet he acknowledges the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimate that the number of refugees and migrants from Africa crossing the Mediterranean is more than 60,000 this year. Iraq was the leading country of origin of asylum applicants during the first six months of 2008, and Afghanistan is now the sixth most important source of asylum seekers, according to the UNHCR’s report Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries, First Half 2008. In the first half of 2008, Australia had a total of 1964 asylum claims.

Australia’s imperialist rulers have sent troops to assist the US with its wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, yet its politicians have refused the responsibility to grant asylum to people fleeing those wars and the economic devastation of the capitalist crisis. Demonising Third World asylum seekers seeks to destroy solidarity between working people in Australia and Third World countries whose resources imperialism plunder.

Labor has retained mandatory detention and offshore processing on Christmas Island in the hope that a mid-ocean detention facility will reduce the number of people attempting to reach Australian territory. Detaining people on Christmas Island deprives them of access to the rights of other asylum seekers and perpetuates a racist and demonising policy.

The government is in breach of the refugee convention, which prohibits returning refugees to possible persecution and requires protection without discrimination for all refugees, regardless of how they enter a country. The convention also gives the same human rights to refugees that are afforded to a state’s citizens, including rights to work, education, housing, welfare, freedom of movement and freedom of opinion.

It is extremely difficult for refugee advocates, lawyers and community members concerned for the health and well-being of “unauthorised arrivals” and incarcerated on remote Christmas Island to get access and information and assist with asylum claims. Flying to Christmas Island is expensive and will discourage media scrutiny. By retaining the hugely expensive Christmas Island Detention Centre, Labor has reneged on its stated commitment not to use detention as a form of punishment.

The Labor Party has maintained that the Pacific solution “was not about maintaining integrity or public confidence in Australia’s arrangements. It was about the cynical politics of punishing refugees for domestic political purposes.” Continuing mandatory detention as a cornerstone of refugee policy means not much more than a change of location for the government’s refugee prison.