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Issue #1496      6 April 2011

Asylum seeker treatment descending into cruel farce

Last week at the Bali Process conference, the Gillard government again tried to persuade East Timor – or any of the other nations represented – to accept a regional processing centre for asylum seekers on its soil. And once again the proposal was rejected.

East Timor’s deputy Foreign Minister, Alberto Carlos, stated that his country did not want to have a processing centre where the detainees would be better housed than the local citizens. But that is not the only reason.

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has stated that it would not object to an off-shore processing centre as long as the host country signed the UN Convention on Refugees. Apart from Australia, East Timor was the only signatory nation at the conference.

Desperately poor, East Timor could have opted to take the Australian government’s money to host the centre. Instead, it took the principled position that offshore processing is an unfair way to treat asylum seekers. The implicit message from the Bali conference is that Australia should process applications for asylum on the mainland.

But that’s not what conservative Australian governments want. In cynical political manoeuvres, over several decades various governments have depicted their policies as preventing the “invasion” of northern Australia by desperate and hostile “illegal immigrants”, or “queue jumpers”, which former Prime Minister John Howard demonstrated in the Tampa “crisis”, which he largely created and which won his government a third period in office.

A deepening crisis

Last week an asylum seeker committed suicide, the fifth in seven months. Detention centres are becoming more overcrowded. Periods in detention are lengthening because of delays in the processing of claims, which in turn are partly caused by staff inadequacies, and partly by the requirement for ASIO to complete security checks before those granted visas can be released into the community. Asylum seeker advocate Abdul Karim Hekmat, who was detained for five months at Curtin in 2001, commented: “In my experience 10 years ago refugee status was not granted before the security clearance, but came with the clearance.”

Conditions in many detention centres are grossly inadequate. The Scherger centre in remote Cape York is said to have run short of food last week, although the management claimed that some detainees just chose not to eat! The notorious Curtin centre in Western Australia is still in operation, despite widespread criticism as to its mind-numbing isolation and enforced inactivity.

The suicide of a 20-year-old Afghan man last week confirmed earlier criticism of the Curtin Centre. Abdul Hekmat remembers “The centre was so remote that we felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere. Incidents of self-harm, attempted suicides and hunger strikes were too common ... there was … no entertainment, no newspapers, and no television … I could only see red dirt, barbed wire and fences.” A security guard told him “I am not allowed to give the newspapers to detainees.”

Detention centre riots have been a long, recurrent feature of detention. For example, detainees rioted at Curtin in 2001 after the Department of Immigration decided to suspend considerations of visas applications for five months.

As Abdul Hekmat observed:” Most asylum seekers protest out of desperation and despair. ... the most difficult thing about detention is the waiting and being in a kind of limbo. … Imagine waiting for a bus or train and it’s late. After a few hours you would become uncomfortable and protest about the inconvenience, or rant about those responsible for the delay. People inside detention centres wait for months and years. They don’t know exactly how much more time they will spend there and become fearful that the outcome will be devastating.”

Callous strategies

Whenever riots have taken place the government of the day has expressed self-righteous outrage, even though their own policies have created the situation. Former chairman of the government’s detention health advisory group, Professor Harry Minas, declared:

“We just don’t seem to be able to learn from the terrible mistakes we’ve made in the past on the way detention is thought or managed. … There has been no shortage of people who have been expressing concern for a long time now … that we can expect significant unrest, that people’s health – and particularly their mental health – will be damaged, and that some people will be in great danger of self-harm and suicide.”

The government has ordered a review of the provision of mental health services within detention centres, as though it thinks that extra psychological counselling will solve the problem, rather than reducing overcrowding and detention periods.

The review will be conducted by Professor Louise Newman, who has very pointedly called for overcrowding in remote detention centres to be reduced by placing detainees in community housing. That is just one of a number of good ideas which the government has either rejected or is dithering over accepting.

Meanwhile, official policy is taking nasty turns. After the government decided to take all new arrivals to the mainland instead of Christmas Island, the Australian Navy took the passengers of one intercepted boat to Ashmore Reef, where they were transferred to two other Navy vessels which took them to Broome.

The government claims this was intended to provide them with a more comfortable ride. However, by stepping onto Ashmore Reef, which is part of the Australian territory excised from immigration laws by the Howard regime, the passengers were deprived of certain legal rights, including the right to legal counsel if they appeal against a rejection of their appeals for asylum.

And finally, allegations have been made that 150 men who have been held in the Christmas Island detention centre gymnasium since the riots have been brutally beaten by federal police.

The Gillard government should be breaking free of the redneck, xenophobic policies it retained from the Howard era. But it isn’t. It has run out of options for off-shore processing, other than adopting the Liberals’ disastrous “Pacific solution”. If it chooses to follow that course even more Australian citizens will favour progressive and left-wing parties.   

Next article – “Battle for Glebe” – State Elections: Greens win Balmain

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