Still fighting for refugees' rights

December 6, 2006

The old adage "one step forward, two steps back" encapsulates the experience of the refugee movement in 2006. Despite some positive changes to refugee policy, the result of consistent campaigning by refugee rights activists and organisations over a number of years, the Howard government has pushed on with its regressive immigration agenda, especially the treatment of refugees.

The good news for refugees and their supporters is the commitment from the renamed Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (the dropping of Indigenous issues from its mandate creating an acronym which beggs to be pronounced "dimmer") to improve the refugee status determination process.

This came in response to the damning revelations of a series of public inquiries into the more high-profile DIMA stuff-ups. Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon have become household names, and illustrate systemic failures within the immigration detention system.

While mandatory detention remains, as does the use of private contractors to run detention services, DIMA now, officially at least, recognises the damaging effects that indefinite detention in maximum security prisons has on people. One of DIMA's new "key performance indicator" is to reduce the numbers of people and length of time spent in detention, as well as to improve detainees' "experiences". DIMA is also taking a more pro-active role in recognising and exercising its duty of care towards detainees, as well as keeping better records on those who pass through its doors.

These are welcome reforms: they acknowledge concerns by countless medical professionals, mental health workers, lawyers, researchers and social workers, that mandatory detention is central to refugees' inability to rebuild their lives again outside the prison walls.

Playstations and internet access behind the razor wire will not be the panacea. A performance target to dramatically reduce the numbers of people being detained will not be proof that the problem is being solved if such a target is achieved by preventing refugees from coming to Australia in the first place. Nor will it be achieved by limiting avenues of review for refugees whose cases are wrongly determined, or shoving people into the community with no health care, right to work or income support.

DIMA has also finally recognised that unaccompanied children suffer greatly from detention and life as refugees in Australia, and has committed to working with service provider organisations. It is also improving its approach towards dealing with the special vulnerabilities of child refugees.

DIMA has continued to push ahead with its "community care" pilot — an important alternative to detention. The program, which is administered by the Red Cross, is based on pre-mandatory detention models of refugee resettlement, allowing a select number of asylum seekers to live within the community.

The spectacular rejection of Howard and immigration minster Senator Amanda Vanstone's push to expand the "Pacific solution" demonstrated Australians' unwillingness to repudiate the spirit of the UN refugee convention. The idea of removing the entire Australian mainland from the migration zone to justify dumping all boat arrivals on Nauru would have been amusing if it hadn't been pursued with such vehemence by Canberra. Disquiet ran too deep, forcing Howard to back down after some very public dissent from within his own backbench.

This was also the year Labor decided to withdraw its support for the "Pacific solution". It is now committed to dumping temporary protection visas for refugees in favour of permanent visas. Shadow immigration minister Tony Burke will propose to Labor's National Conference in 2007 that the party support work rights for asylum seekers living in the community awaiting the outcome of their applications.

This cracks in the bipartisanship on immigration policy provides hope that the Howard government's reactionary racist policies will be pushed back over the coming year.

Canberra has released a 30-page discussion paper, auspiced by Andrew Robb, parliamentary secretary to Vanstone, which it describes as a plan for a cohesive community. Strangely, the plan does not call for the restoration of funding to migrant services and English language courses. Instead, it proposes to make it more difficult for people to become citizens by resurrecting long-discredited language tests, quizzing people on the "Australian way of life" and requiring them to pledge allegiance to "Australian values". In addition, the government wants to extend the permanent residence requirement such that it would take nine years before some refugees could be eligible for citizenship.

Canberra also plans to make it more difficult for refugees to access family reunion programs by tightening the requirements to access the special humanitarian program. Leaked plans suggest the it wants to construct a new 800-bed detention centre on Christmas Island. Electric fences, microwave censors, thousands of surveillance cameras and remote monitoring are just some of the "humane" ways DIMA is looking to treat asylum seekers in its offshore centres. Sub-machine guns will greet those picked up at sea.

The government has refused to acknowledge revelations by the Edmund Rice Centre that it knowingly returned (and continues to return) refugees to countries where they will not receive protection, and are likely to be persecuted if not killed. Canberra has pursued court cases to obtain judicial legitimacy for its scandalous treatment of Australian residents not fortunate enough to be citizens.

Recently, DIMA received High Court backing for its decision to send a Hazara man back to Afghanistan because the country is now apparently safe. This decision was made more than five years after it agreed he was a refugee who required protection. The High Court has also supported DIMA's decision to deport people on "character grounds" who, while not Australian citizens, have lived here for decades and have no links whatsoever to their supposed home countries.

The government has been pushed back this year, but its approach remains jingoistic, uncompassionate and often racist. Howard is a master dog-whistler and an expert at wedge politics. This means that refugee rights supporters must continue community action and awareness raising.

[Anna Samson is the acting national coordinator for A Just Australia. These are her personal views.]

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