Refugee rights victory, but work remains

Refugee activists have welcomed the July 29 announcement by federal immigration minister Chris Evans to significantly dismantle Australia's policy of mandatorily detaining refugees. They noted, however, that while the changes represent an important victory for the movement for refugee rights, the struggle is not yet over.

Senator Evans said that the changes commit the government to "detention as a last resort; to detention for the shortest practicable period; [and] to the rejection of indefinite or otherwise arbitrary detention". He argued that "the current model of immigration detention is fundamentally overturned".

But activists have criticised the government for not dismantling the whole mandatory detention policy. They also want PM Kevin Rudd's Labor government to enshrine the changes in law.

The Paul Keating Labor government in 1992 began the draconian mandatory detention policy. The Howard Coalition government introduced the so-called "Pacific Solution" after the 2001 Tampa debacle during which 433 asylum seekers were detained and then imprisoned after having been rescued from drowning by a Norwegian captain and his crew.

Senator Evans admits that mandatory detention has not been abandoned completely, saying, "Persons will be detained only if the need is established". Activists say this still affords the government wide powers of detention. Those deemed to pose no risk to the community, and to be compliant with immigration processes, will be able to live in the community. Asylum seekers who are detained will now have their cases reviewed every three months.

Other changes announced include the redevelopment of Villawood Detention Centre in south-western Sydney, and six monthly, rather than two yearly, reviews of cases by the ombudsman. The expensive and controversial Christmas Island Detention Centre will be retained to respond to "any major increase in unauthorised arrivals", according to Evans.

When questioned on the ABC's 7.30 Report on July 29, Senator Evans confirmed that Labor would not be returning to the pre-1994 policy when refugees had access within 48 hours to an independent judicial review by a magistrate and then ongoing reviews until the case was determined. He also agreed with O'Brien that the proposed changes would leave a system that "substantially and practically denies access to the judicial system" fundamentally intact.

Socialist Alliance refugee rights activist Rachel Evans told Green Left Weekly that while there is work still to be done, and activists would not rest until the whole mandatory detention system was "in the dustbin of history", nonetheless the reforms proposed reveal the power of the refugee rights movement. "For more than 10 years, rural and city based groups and individuals took action against the bipartisan inhumane approach to refugees. This type of people power, over many years, was critical to forcing Labor's hand."

But, she added, serious issues remain. Without access to the judicial system, and given that the ombudsman's recommendations do not carry formal authority, the government changes still leave the detention of refugees up to the discretion of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC).

Rachel Evans said it wasn't clear which asylum seekers would be released into the community and when. "The government has said that mandatory detention will remain for people in three categories: those deemed 'terrorists'; those without proper documentation; and those deemed 'suspect'. Most refugees do not have 'proper documentation', because they have fled their home country.

"This means that Labor's new policy still contravenes the 1951 United Nations' refugee convention, which stipulates that no asylum seeker should be discriminated against if they have the wrong papers, or no papers", Evans said.

Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) spokesperson Ian Rintoul told GLW that, "The deep-seated cultural problems in the immigration department identified by the Palmer Inquiry were still obvious in the lead-up to World Youth Day when immigration officers turned away potential asylum seekers, and incarcerated two other African asylum seekers in Villawood".

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre in Melbourne, Rachel Evans and Rintoul condemned the government's decision to retain Christmas Island for off-shore processing of asylum seekers. "Replacing the 'Pacific Solution' with an 'Indian Ocean Solution' is no solution", Evans said. "Christmas Island should close permanently and all excised Australian territory returned to the jurisdiction of the Migration Act", said Rintoul.

The activists agreed that there was "much unfinished business" before Australia had a humanitarian refugee policy.

"The adversarial determination process of the Refugee Review Tribunal needs to be replaced. There are thousands of refugees who, like Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon, have been damaged by mandatory detention and require more help and compensation", said Rintoul.

He said that the detention bills presented to refugees should be scrapped and those on bridging visas must be allowed to work. He also pointed to the unresolved cases of the Tampa asylum seekers who were taken back to Indonesia, and the Afghans and others wrongfully deported from Nauru.

Hanson-Young said that the government also had to take responsibility for the "long-term effects and scarring caused by treatment in detention, particularly of children".

Curr asked why the government couldn't return to a policy similar to what was in place in the 1970s-'80s. "Between 1977 and 1981, more than 2000 Vietnamese refugees arrived by boat to Australia. Most had neither passports nor documents. They were not locked up. They were housed in migrant hostels where they had English classes and were assisted to find housing and jobs … The community hostel model worked well in assisting refugees in the past — we can do it again."

She also said that there was no justifiable reason to detain people while health checks were being carried out. "We could accommodate asylum seekers in a community-based reception centre model until health, character and security checks are done. They could then either be accommodated in the community or the hostel while their cases are being processed."

Rintoul argued that "the immigration minister should convene a summit of all the refugee advocacy groups, and refugees themselves, so the unfinished business can be properly dealt with".

Meanwhile, the suffering inside Villawood detention centre continues. On the same day the changes were announced, a refugee attempted suicide in detention. Hongfei Wen, 35 years old, tried to commit suicide around noon on July 28. According to Jamal Daoud of the Social Justice Network, the asylum seeker threatened to kill himself if an attempt was made to deport him by force. "The security guards did not care and tried to catch him to remove him from the detention centre. He immediately stabbed himself in the stomach."

On July 30, the 7.30 Report reported that refugees in Villawood had alleged that detention centre security guards regularly sell heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy and marijuana to detainees. Refugees with no previous history of heroin usage have become addicted while in detention.