Mandatory detention: A history of bipartisan cruelty

One of the many rallies in 2016 demanding that asylum seekers who had been bought to Australia for medical treatment to be allowed to stay. Photo: Peter Boyle

How did Australia go from a place where its migrant hostels fostered some of the world’s most famous bands to one where the detentions centres it presides over are described as “hell on Earth”?

Prior to May 1992, there was no mandatory detention in Australia.

At most, a couple of hundred people came via boat to seek asylum each year. They were housed in places such as the Villawood Migrant Hostel.

Some of the migrants who first met and jammed at these hostels went on to form iconic bands such as the Easybeats and AC/DC. It was the post-war era, when immigration from Europe was encouraged.

In the 1970s, people started arriving on boat from Asia, particularly from Vietnam and Cambodia.

In response, a section was constructed in the Villawood centre to house people awaiting deportation in 1976. In 1984, the entire hostel was converted into the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.

At the time, people who had their application for asylum rejected by the government were able to appeal to the High Court, which granted permanent residency to the vast majority of applicants on “strong compassionate or humanitarian grounds”.

However, in 1989, parliament abolished the means for people to obtain residency through the court system.

‘Boat people’

These move was accompanied by a racist hysteria whipped up towards Asian “boat people”. The political rhetoric then — like today — was about the need to deter “boat people”.

On June 6, 1990, then-Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, speaking about Cambodian asylum seekers, said on A Current Affair: “We’re not going to allow people just to jump that queue by saying we’ll jump into a boat, here we are, bugger the people who’ve been around the world”.

The Bob Hawke government was on a mission to send Cambodians “back to where they came from” and deter others from coming.

As a result, asylum seekers began to be detained indefinitely while their claims were assessed.

Activist lawyers and community legal centres responded and, in 1991, the Federal Court ruled that it could order interlocutory release of people seen as unlawfully detained under the Migration Act.

The following year, the courts ruled that a person could only be held in detention without a court order if it was to assist with their claim or if they were in the process of being deported. In no way could detention be used as a punishment or deterrent.

In 1992, the government moved to pass — with bipartisan support — Labor immigration minister Gerry Hand’s bill to introduce mandatory detention. Introducing the bill, Hand said: “The most important aspect of this legislation is that it provides that a court cannot interfere with the period of custody.”

Security at detention centres was immediately increased, as more guards were hired and barbed wire fences went up.

Within days of Hand’s speech, refugee rights activists travelled to Villawood detention centre. Despite being told not to engage with activists, refugees came out and spoke to those on the other side of two large fences erected around the centre.

The protest was considered the start of the anti-racist movement against mandatory detention.

Despite the rhetoric, only 438 people came to Australia via boat to seek asylum between 1989-91: They represented 0.0025% of Australia’s population in 1991.

The numbers began to rise slightly in the late ’90s, as people from the Middle East began to seek asylum in Australia.

Under then-Coalition prime minister John Howard, these asylum seekers were locked up for years in some of the most remote and harshest detention centres: Port Hedland, Woomera and Curtin.

The people in detention resisted. Riots, hunger strikes and mass breakouts took place in all three detention centres in the late ’90s and early 2000s.  

Some asylum seekers sewed their lips together, while others dug graves in the scorching hot earth and lay in them, refusing to climb out until they were granted freedom.

In one incident, 300 refugees broke out of a detention centre and held a peaceful protest in a nearby local town.

The media began picking up on these stories, reporting not just on the protests but the conditions people were forced to endure. This led to rising concern about the treatment of asylum seekers.

Driven by the protests in the detention centres, activists began to regularly converge on them as a way of expressing solidarity with those inside. They brought back stories of human rights abuses and brave resistance.

All of this was contributing to a loss in support for Howard, who was facing defeat in the 2001 elections. Then the Tampa affair happened.  

In August 2001, a Norwegian freighter, MV Tampa, rescued a group of Hazara asylum seekers in international waters between Indonesia and Australia. The vessel then set course for the nearest port, Christmas Island.

Within hours they were contacted by the Australian immigration minister and told they were not allowed to enter Australian waters. The captain was threatened with imprisonment.

While Australia normally rescued boats at sea and detained refugees on the mainland while their claims were assessed, the 438 men, women and children on the Tampa were sent to the Pacific Island of Nauru.

Remote detention

This was the start of offshore detention.

Howard initially tried to pass legislation to legalise boat turnbacks and refoulement at sea. But Labor opposed the bill and it failed in the Senate.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, racism and Islamophobia went into overdrive. Being tough on border protection was seen as a vote winner.   

With only weeks to go until the election, Howard used his “children overboard” lie to win more votes. He claimed asylum seekers were throwing children into the ocean as part of a plan to be granted asylum in Australia.

It was later revealed that the government knew this was false and that it had manipulated photos and withheld video footage to push its lie.

Nevertheless, Howard won the election. Polls were showing strong support for the Coalition government's cruel policies.

This, however, did not stop the refugee rights movement from mounting a fightback.

A Festivals for Freedom was held in Woomera over the 2002 Easter weekend. More than 1500 activists converged on the detention centre and broke through the first perimeter fence.

Activists then descended on one of the main compounds and shook hands with refugees through the barbed wire fence.

A few people managed to escape through a gap in the fence. Some told their story to the media and returned to detention, while others were smuggled out and given sanctuary in an underground network run by refugee activists.

As the movement grew, the polls began to shift and, by the 2007 election, most people were opposed to offshore detention.

Labor in power

The newly-elected Kevin Rudd Labor government closed the Nauru detention centre in 2008 and resettled the majority of asylum seekers there in Australia. This was celebrated as a hard fought victory.

However mandatory detention remained enshrined in law and detention centres continued to operate in Australia.

Within a few years, “boat people” once again became a national “crisis”.

In 2010, 6555 people came via boat seeking asylum in Australia — representing 0.029% of Australia’s population at the time. But this did not stop the Coalition’s fear machine kicking into overdrive.

Labor’s initial response was to attempt to prove it was strong on borders while distancing itself from the worst abuses of the Howard era.  

However, rather than stand up for human rights and the truth, Labor went on to implement some of the worst aspects of Howard’s policy — and in some cases go even further.

In 2012, Labor PM Julia Gillard re-opened detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

In July of the following year, Rudd introduced offshore resettlement in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and announced that no asylum seeker whose claim was accepted would be resettled in Australia.

Labor’s lurch to the right went so far that even the Coalition struggled to find aspects to criticise. But it was met with anger within the party, along with some of the largest refugee rights mobilisations in years.

The incoming Coalition government, however, remained unmoved in its support for the detention system.

It introduced Operation Sovereign Borders within a month of returning to power in 2014 and reintroduced the policy of boat turnbacks — this time with Labor’s support.  

As information of the horrors people faced in offshore detention began to seep out, legal and medical professionals got more active.

In 2016, human rights lawyers challenged the deportation of 267 people back to Nauru who had been brought to Australia for medical treatment. The High Court ultimately ruled in the government's favour but the decision sparked the broad #LetThemStay movement.

Across Australia, thousands of people from trade unions, mothers’ groups, churches, bands, high school and university groups, sporting groups, artists and health professionals got involved.

Medical professionals continued to go public in defiance of the Border Force Act 2015, which criminalised people speaking out about abuse in detention. After much protest, the act was amended so that doctors would not face criminal charges for reporting abuse.

That same year, asylum seekers in Nauru detention centre held protests for 240 days straight.

Evacuate Manus

In 2016, year that the PNG Supreme Court ruled Manus Island detention centre as illegal.

This led to the Australian government shutting down the centre in late 2017 and forcing several hundred men to stay on the island without adequate medical treatment, accommodation and protection.

Refugees resisted being moved from the centre. Sympathetic locals smuggled food and medical supplies in and people inside had a sense of agency for the first time in years.

In Australia, activists occupied immigration departments, held mass rallies and did a banner drop from the Sydney Opera House as part of the Evacuate Manus campaign.

The PNG police, at the behest of the Australian government, violently shut down the centre and forced people to live in compounds without running water and little food.

To this day there are still hundreds of people in offshore detention, and in detention centres in Australia, such as Villawood. The number of forced deportations has also risen in recent years.

The recent passing of the Medical Evacuation Bill, and the fact that there are no more children in offshore detention, offer some positive signs. So too that fact that public opinion is shifting, with some polls indicating that a majority of people oppose offshore detention.   

Yet Labor continues to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Coalition on refugee policy.

The challenge now, with another election looming, is to make it too politically costly for Labor to continue with its anti-refugee position.

As with previous victories, this will require building the refugee rights movement much stronger.

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