The federal Labor government announced a moratorium on processing claims for asylum for people coming from Sri Lanka or Afghanistan on April 9.
This means refugees from Afghanistan will be detained for six months before they can even begin the application process. For refugees from Sri Lanka, the wait will be three months.
This is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's final abandonment of an election promise that refugees' claims would be processed quicker, and refugees detained for shorter periods, than under the notoriously anti-refugee Howard government.
Rudd's closure of the large mainland detention centres (such as Baxter), and the off-shore camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, was achieved by concentrating detained refugees on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
However in 2009, the worsening humanitarian crises caused by the US-led occupation of Afghanistan and the Sri Lankan army's brutal crushing of the Tamil independence movement in May has led to more boatloads of Tamil refugees arriving.
Despite overall numbers of refugees remaining small, the Christmas Island facility has become overcrowded.
The Liberal-National opposition saw an opportunity to replicate John Howard's trick of creating anti-refugee hysteria to win elections, particularly after Tony Abbott won opposition leadership.
But rather than challenge the Coalition's hysteria, Rudd has taken Howard's path, introducing measures that appear tough and seriously harm refugees.
One of these is Rudd's "Indonesian solution" — essentially paying Indonesia to detain refugees and prevent them from reaching Australia. On October 15, this policy had an apparent success when, at Rudd's behest, Indonesia seized an Australia-bound boat carrying 240 Tamil refugees in international waters and took it to the Indonesian port of Merak.
However, at Merak, the refugees refused to disembark. Most are still on board.
On April 8 at a forum organised by the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition (RAC), Tamil community activist Saradha Nathan explained why. Describing Indonesia as a "black hole" for refugee rights, she pointed out that in 2009 Australia took only 39 of the 4000 refugees in Indonesia recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Nathan said Australia normally takes about 50 refugees a year from Indonesia. In the almost impossible event of no new refugees arriving, this would mean it would take 80 years before all the UNHCR-recognised refugees in Indonesia were resettled.
Also addressing the forum was visiting Indonesian activist Ignatius Mahendra from the Working People's Association (PRP), who has been active in solidarity with the Merak boat people and other refugees or stranded in Indonesia.
As Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention, refugees there are not allowed to work and are subject to detention or deportation back to wherever they fled from.
Mahendra, a former political prisoner, visits detained refugees. He told the forum that the Indonesian immigration detention centres were as bad as any Indonesian jail.
On April 7, the Indonesian Navy and officials from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) attempted to coerce the refugees off the boat. Initially threatening forcible removal if the refugees did not disembark, and attempting to seize mobile phones, the authorities then gave the refugees five days to disembark.
Nathan told the April 8 forum, the refugees said they wouldn't disembark without guarantees they would be resettled quickly.
"People on the boat are really scared", she said. "They are scared of indefinite detention and of families being separated."
Rudd's announcement of the freeze on processing Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum claims came with the assertion that both countries were becoming safer. With respect to Sri Lanka, this has been justified by claims that the war is over.
However, Nathan told the RAC forum that many of the 300,000 Tamils who were imprisoned in concentration camps are still there. Those who have been released are often left destitute. Murder, rape and disappearances of Tamils occur within and outside the camps.
She related the story of a young man on the Merak boat who, after finding out his grandmother was sick, was convinced by IOM officials that they could guarantee his safety should he return.
They lied. Arriving back in Sri Lanka he didn't get to see his grandmother — instead he was taken from the airport and tortured for three weeks. He is currently in hiding in Sri Lanka.
A March 10 report on the website of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan suggested that 2010 was shaping up to be the most dangerous year yet for Afghan civilians.
Christmas Island is overcrowded. This has led to tensions between detainees, exacerbated, said Nathan, by the arbitrary way visas are handed out. Some detainees have protracted waits while others are processed relatively quickly.
Not even beginning to process refugees until after three or six months is going to make the overcrowding worse. The ABC reported on April 5 that extra police were being sent to Christmas Island in case the greater overcrowding and longer stays led to increased tensions.
The solution is to allow the refugees to live on the mainland and in the community, not a prison.