Labor opens Christmas Island refugee detention prison

By Kerry Vernon

On January 20, a boat carrying 20 asylum seekers was intercepted by Australian navy patrol boat HMAS Maryborough, 39 kilometres from Ashmore Island in Australia’s far north-west. The asylum seekers were taken nearly 2000 km to the immigration detention prison on Christmas Island.

In retaining 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 Rudd Labor government, despite some significant reforms to refugee policies, has simply changed the location of the Howard government’s “Pacific solution” to “Indian Ocean solution”. Labor claims it has undone the “worst excesses” of the Coalition’s racist anti-refugee policy, but it has continued the previous government’s deterrence-and-punishment policies for those who attempt to arrive “unauthorised” on Australia’s islands.

The Rudd government has since increased its surveillance of excised areas with an extra navy ship and airforce aircraft deployed. The Australian Navy has intercepted eight boats in the past four months, with 164 people arriving unauthorised in 2008 compared with 148 in 2007.

Under Labor’s policy, these asylum seekers will be brought to and processed on the remote Christmas Island detention prison in the Indian Ocean 2600km north-west of Perth, even if it means transporting people, including children, possibly sick and traumatised, thousands of kilometres from where they were found and far away from the Australian mainland. In mid-December, for example, a boat carrying 37 people was intercepted 200km off the the coastal town of Broome in north-west Australia. They were transported to the 800-bed Christmas Island detention prison.

In the 2008-09 financial year, the Rudd Labor government will spend $120 million (down from $142 million in 2007-08) on detention operations, including $85.8 million for new detention contracts. On December 1, the federal parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Migration issued a report, Immigration detention in Australia: A new beginning, that made 18 recommendations to the government for reforms to Australia’s immigration detention policies. The terms of reference did not include mandatory detention. The new Christmas Island detention prison was not in use during the committee’s review of Australia’s immigration detention policies.

The report recommended a 12-month limit on detention of “unauthorised” asylum seekers, except for those posing an “unacceptable risk to the community”. It proposed that those detained for longer than 12 months be given access to judicial review and detainees no longer being billed by the government for their detention. The report recommended that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) make public what its criteria are for deciding that a detainee poses an “unacceptable risk to the community”. It also proposed that detainees should have health checks completed within five days of detention and that after 90 days in detention, if their identity or security assessment is incomplete, they should be released into the general community with reporting requirements. The committee also called for refugee policy changes announced by the government in July to be included in the Migration Act.

However, three dissenting committee members — Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Liberal MPs Petro Georgiou and Alan Eggleston — argued that 12 months without the ability to challenge the reasons for detention before an independent court remains a “grossly excessive period”. Reviews of detention cases are currently required every 28 days by the detention review manager and a case manager. However, in 2007-08 around one quarter of detention cases were not reviewed within that period, according to the three dissenting MPs.

According to the dissenting report, DIAC “will continue to have power to decide whether it is necessary and reasonable to detain people for 6 months without any external scrutiny of their decision whatsoever”. After six months, the federal ombudsman can only review and give non-binding advice on the detention decision.

The majority of submissions to the joint committee’s review called for mandatory detention to be ended and for detention debts to be waived.

In a December 2 media release, Dr Graham Thom, Amnesty International Australia’s refugee coordinator, said that not having the legal right to challenge being detained for 12 months “breaches Australia’s international obligations”. Thom said: “Currently Australian law does not provide asylum seekers with protection from arbitrary detention, as is required under international law and conventions.”

Another December 2008 immigration detention report, issued by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), called for mandatory detention to be scrapped and for asylum seekers not to be held in immigration detention on Christmas Island. It called on the government to repeal the provisions of the Migration Act relating to the policy of continuing to excise islands, with all unauthorised arrivals making asylum claims to be assessed on the Australian mainland. The AHRC report called for amending the Migration Act to make detention an exception reviewed by a court based on international law.

Despite Labor’s claim to stand for a more humane refugee policy, children are still being held in immigration detention. According to the DIAC’s January 2 Immigration Detention Statistics Summary, 42 children are being held in “community and alternative temporary” immigration detention. According to the report, 435 people are being held in some form of immigration detention. Of these, 26 are classified as illegal foreign fishers. People fleeing war-torn Afghanistan make up the highest number of detainees — 118, including 26 children. The next largest groups of detainees are from China (65), Indonesia (47) and Iraq (24, including 12 children). There are 19 detainees from Sri Lanka, 18 from Iran, 15 from New Zealand, 16 from Vietnam, 10 from South Korea, and 10 from India. Of the 435 detainees, 122 are being held in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre and 107 were being held on Christmas Island and 80 in the Darwin, Perth and Maribrynong detention centres.

Thirty-nine percent of the detainees arrived in Australia lawfully but were detained for overstaying or breaching their visa conditions. Fifty-three percent of the detainees arrived “unlawfully” by air or boat. While 281 people have been detained for less than three months, there are 80 people who have been held in immigration detention for 12 months or more, with 38 people having been in detention for more than two years.

According the Refugee Council, Australia’s offshore refugee and humanitarian intake is set to increase by 500 to 13,500 in 2008-09. These 500 extra places will be allocated to refugees and humanitarian migrants from Iraq. The Labor government has allocated another $42 million over four years for the immigration of 600 Iraqis who have assisted the Australian occupation forces in Iraq. In 2009-10 there will be a modest increase of 250 in humanitarian places.

Many refugee rights activists have called for hostel and community accommodation to be provided, instead of detention, for refugees making asylum claims — instead of the $40 million that has been budgeted for the redevelopment and upgrading of the Villawood detention centre.

Rudd Labor’s continuation of the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers who arrive “unauthorised” on Australian territory — a policy first introduced by the Keating Labor government in 1992 in direct contravention to its obligations under the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees — is aimed at criminalising those seeking refuge from repressive regimes in the Third World that the Australian imperialist government supports. It is thus no coincidence that the largest single group of asylum seeks held in Australia’s immigration detention prisons are from Afghanistan, where Canberra is a firm ally and active participant of a brutal US-led occupation and counter-insurgency war.