End the cruelty: Labor must support asylum seekers

July 12, 2023
Cruel government policies lead to suicides and other misery within detention centres
Cruel government policies lead to suicides and other misery within detention centres. Photo: Canva

An African immigration detainee was found dead in his cell in Hotham Compound, Villawood Detention Centre, on June 30. This is the latest indictment of the bipartisan cruelty towards refugees in Australia.

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) said the man was believed to be a humanitarian refugee, who had a partner and family in Sydney. His permanent visa had been cancelled because he had allegedly breached COVID-19 restrictions.

The man was among the 163 immigration detainees who were released at the end of last year, after a Federal Court decision. But he was re-detained early in the year after Labor changed the law to override the court decision. That change, which applied retrospectively, meant that the people who had been released last December had to be re-detained as their visas were cancelled.

The Human Rights Law Centre, Human Rights for All, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) and Visa Cancellation Working Group all expressed their serious concern at the re-detention of people “without regard to their personal circumstances, including whether they are refugees and owed protection”.

Up to 18 people were rounded up by Border Force and New South Wales Police and taken to Villawood detention centre: four were taken to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre.

Detainees at Villawood told Rintoul that the death by overdose was an “accident waiting to happen”. One said drugs were easy to find inside — a compliant detention population is more easily managed.

Rintoul said responsibility for the man’s death lies with Andrew Giles, Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs.

The International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), deployed by the Department of Home Affairs, is already facing legal action over the suicide death of another Villawood detainee in 2019. Documents submitted to court allege the government and IHMS had neglected the mental health of that detainee, who took his own life in 2019, by failing to provide on-call psychiatric consultation and sufficient staffing levels on weekends.

Giles said Labor is committed to “risk-based immigration detention policies” and that it is being “proactive”. He has repeatedly said people should be living in the community if they do not pose a risk.

But the people who had been rearrested and placed into detention had been allowed to live with their families in the community for weeks.

That meant they had been assessed by the minister’s office as not posing any particular risk to the community. ASRC said if there had been safety concerns, each could have “faced a separate cancellation with procedural fairness”.

But this is not happening; instead cruel policies that both Labor and Coalition governments persist with are the context for the suicides and other misery inside detention centres.

RAC and other refugee rights groups want Section 501 of the Migration Act repealed. This is the section that allows the government to hold people, potentially indefinitely, even for minor crimes, just because they are non-citizens.

The case of the man who was placed back into Villawood because he allegedly breached COVID-19 restrictions is even sadder given the NSW Supreme Court in April questioned the legality of the NSW government’s COVID-19 fines and forced it to withdraw 33,000 fines worth $30 million.

It will be 10 years on July 19 since Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ruled that asylum seekers arriving by boat would be sent to offshore detention on Manus and Nauru and banned from ever settling in Australia. 

Protests will be held around the country from July 19–23 to demand that Labor end their torture and let them stay. About 1200 refugees who spent time in offshore detention are in Australia, but are being denied a permanent visa. Another 10,000 people who arrived by boat are being refused permanent visas due to the previous government’s unfair Fast Track system. They are all living in limbo — another form of torture.

Green Left will continue to speak out against Australia’s flouting of the United Nations Refugee Convention. Labor must commit to support people who have been forced to flee their countries and travel here by boat. If you agree, become a supporter.

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