BY SARAH STEPHEN
"We were taken on a bus to Midway Hostel, in Maribyrnong [in Melbourne's west], and for Vietnamese like us, who had suffered so much from the ravages of war and change, the welcome and care shown by the hostel staff moved us so that our life seemed full of happiness.
"Everybody seemed to be too kind, from the interpreter to the manager of the hostel, from the religious sister to the charitable organisations that were represented there. All worked together to help us settle quickly into our new life."
This was the recollection of Ngoc-Dien, a Vietnamese refugee who was resettled in Australia during the 1970s, after living in a Malaysian refugee camp.
Thanh-Nam and his family, arriving in 1977, told a similar story. They lived in a two-bedroom flat in a Melbourne migrant hostel. The Adult Migrant Education Department taught them English. The Housing Commission helped them find a flat and others helped to furnish it. Hostels also had employment officers who helped newly arrived refugees to find work.
Imagine the Coalition government giving the hundreds of Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers presently stranded in Indonesia this kind of compassionate treatment!
Australia is the only country in the developed world which detains all asylum seekers who arrive without a valid visa, until their claim is determined. But while many people condemn mandatory detention as cruel and unnecessary punishment, there has not been much public discussion about alternatives.
On February 11, Labor Party leader Simon Crean foreshadowed a possible change in the party's policy on mandatory detention, which Labor introduced in 1992. A statement adopted by ALP caucus read: "Labor believes that there is not just one form of mandatory detention. Labor has already given its support to getting children out of detention. Labor will, in its policy review process, consider other variations to the current detention model (i.e. secure hostels, community release models, locating detainees in less remote areas and streaming), including the nature and duration of detention.
"Labor believes that mandatory detention is required to enable identity, security and health checking of asylum seekers. It is also required to ensure that asylum seekers who have failed the test of being a refugee and are at a high risk of absconding, do not abscond."
Different Labor parliamentarians have interpreted this document in different ways, depending on their understanding of what "mandatory detention" means.
Green Left Weekly spoke to several activists in the refugees' rights movement about what alternatives to mandatory detention they would support.
Most alternative detention models being put forward support detention for health, identity and character checks.
Pamela Curr, Victorian Greens spokesperson on refugees, explained that the Greens call for the closure of detention centres in their current form, especially those in remote locations. The centres should be replaced, Curr argued, with "reception centres" in areas where refugees will have community support.
"We're still fine-tuning what reception centres would mean. The way it's envisaged by some is that it would not be mandatory to remain in detention for initial checks. My view is that it should take a matter of a week to do health and identity checks. There might be a curfew, with people free to move around during the day."
After initial checks, people should have choices while their claims are being processed, Curr explained."They should be free to stay with family, live in community housing or remain in the reception centre where some might feel safer, having access to facilities, support and help".
"We're not reinventing the wheel", Curr pointed out. "We've done it before when Vietnamese refugees arrived. I lived in Brisbane and there was a migrant hostel nearby. People lived there until they felt comfortable to leave. Those Vietnamese are now our neighbours, friends and work-mates. We're not proposing anything dramatic, new or different."
Susan Varga, a convenor of Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR), explained that RAR supports the closure of detention centres in their present form, and a speed-up of the screening process. "Mandatory detention should only last as long as it takes to complete health and criminal checks, which should be less than a month", Varga said.
RAR is also proposing "Welcome towns", and has been making submissions to government and local council to get support for the idea. Armidale council, among others, is starting to show some interest, and RAR is pushing for a pilot scheme in three or four towns.
"The proposal is that towns with more than 5000 people, that are not too far — say a couple of hours — from bigger regional centres with services, would take in at least a couple of refugee families. They would provide housing, English lessons, emotional and social support while the government would provide medical and income support. It would be a partnership between government and the local community.
"We're proposing it as an alternative to mandatory detention, to take asylum seekers while they're being assessed, rather than after their assessment and release", Varga explained. RAR's proposal would be an extension of the government's Community Refugee Settlement Scheme (CRSS), which places many refugees in country towns.
"Country towns face declining population. People are interested in getting people and labour into their towns. Refugees currently on temporary protection visas are fitting into the country towns, adding to the economies", Varga said.
Leigh Hubbard, Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary, believes that detention centres such as Woomera and Port Hedland should be closed in favour of "reception centres" located in major cities.
"There should be some sort of compulsory screening process — say a maximum of six to eight weeks — where newly arrived refugees undergo health and security checks", Hubbard told GLW. "Refugees in reception centres should have access to basic English language skills training, cultural and familiarisation workshops and be provided with life skills support — speakers
from Centrelink, for example.
"At the end of the compulsory period refugees should be released into the community. For those who are unsuccessful in their application, there should be a proper judicial, not an administrative, process of appeal", he argued.
"If reception centres were friendlier places, with leisure and education facilities — pools and open spaces for example — then perhaps the question of children being released earlier would not be necessary."
Hubbard cited Sweden's asylum seeker detention system as a possible alternative. There, children under 18 are held for only three days, the average length of detention is 47 days and there are open visiting hours between 9am and 4pm each day.
Lisa Macdonald, the Sydney district secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party and an activist in Free the Refugees Campaign, believes that housing asylum seekers in well-resourced, open hostels while their claims are processed offers the most logical and humane alternative to the current detention system.
"The government's argument that people will disappear in their hundreds is groundless", Macdonald explained. "It's only a risk if the government defines and treats them as "illegals" before they even arrive. Why would people escape and go underground, which makes it very hard to survive, if they seriously want make a life for themselves in Australia?
"A 1992 experiment conducted by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) involved 640 detainees released into the community. Ninety-five percent of these complied with requirements. When questioned in parliament in September 1997, immigration minister Philip Ruddock admitted that no unauthorised asylum seeker released on a bridging visa in Australia from 1996 to 1998 failed to meet their reporting obligations."
Those who don't fit the Australian government's interpretation of the UN definition of a refugee are currently deported. The immigration minister can issue humanitarian visas to those who fail the determination process but have reason to fear being returned to their country of origin. This discretionary power is rarely exercised.
"There are people in Australia whose cases are so clear-cut, yet they remain in detention", Curr noted. "At moment, their fate lies totally in the hands of the minister. The process is totally flawed. Other countries have a humanitarian visa which is given to people whose lives are at risk if they return."
Curr condemned the reliance on ministerial discretion in deciding who can stay in Australia. "It is not appropriate to have someone's life in the hands of one person, as it is at the moment.
Macdonald goes further. "The definition of a refugee should be widened" she argued. "Refugees don't just flee the risk of imprisonment, torture and execution. They are often escaping ill health or death as a result of poverty. By denying asylum to these people, the Australian government is abrogating itself from taking any responsibility for the conditions of poverty in the Third World which it, as a home to many exploitative companies, is responsible for."
"More people in the world die of lack of food, clean drinking water and medicines than die in wars — that's the humanitarian crisis", she added.
Since September 2001, Australian law states that the absence of identity papers should raise suspicions that an asylum seeker is deliberately concealing information. Macdonald also condemned this policy. "This is a totally bureaucratic and anti-humanitarian approach", she said. "Many young Afghans have never been issued a birth certificate because of the breakdown of Afghan social structures."
Macdonald also pointed out that under the Pol Pot regime, it was commonplace for Cambodian people to falsify documents. For example, many changed their recorded age in order to avoid military service. "A whole generation of Cambodians would probably have forged identity papers", she said.
"Identity papers are only as reliable as the states which issue them. Refugees are fleeing states that are corrupt dictatorships or economically and socially backward. If the Swedish government can accept a statutory declaration in place of valid official identification, then why can't the Australian?"
Curr agreed: "Afghanistan has no postal service, so it's not possible to send off in the post for a passport. In Iraq, to line up outside an embassy seeking a visa is like signing a death warrant. Some asylum seekers have [documents] taken from them by people smugglers at departure. Some people destroy them, some because they know they're false, others because they are worried they'll be returned [to their country] and know they'll be subject to immediate danger."
According to Varga, there is unnecessary discrimination against people arriving by boat. "The risk is so minimal that they're terrorists and murderers that it's clearly an obfuscation tactic by the government", she told GLW. "Getting people into the community without knowing precisely who they are is a small risk, certainly not a big enough issue to slow the whole process down."
"We have millions of people pouring into Australia every year. We don't know their backgrounds, but we have a criminal justice system which picks them up if they break the law", Curr pointed out. "We don't lock up whole suburbs because there happen to be criminals living there. Similarly, we shouldn't lock people up wholesale just because there might be a criminal among them."
One problem with character checks, Macdonald explained, is that they rely on the persecuting state's definition of a crime. "[A criminal conviction] can be politically motivated, or based on sexist or racist laws such as many political Islamic regimes which deem adultery a crime", she said. "Australia should not accept a repressive state's definition of who is a criminal. So long as people who come into this country are subject to Australian criminal law as soon as they arrive, their past is somewhat irrelevant."
Unlike most others GLW spoke to, Macdonald also rejects mandatory detention for health checks. "The government does a lot of scaremongering about the health risks of those arriving by boat", she said. "This implies that asylum seekers would rush out into a crowded city if they had tuberculosis. The truth is that people would welcome the opportunity to be treated in hospital, something which is an unaffordable luxury for the vast majority of the world's people.
"The main health risks can be assessed extremely rapidly. A tuberculosis test takes five minutes.
"Perhaps the government would like to have the discretion of rejecting or deporting those with 'expensive' health problems. But a truly humanitarian approach would be to cure people. With the exception of AIDS, Australia can cure almost every disease. Even AIDS can be contained."
From Green Left Weekly, March 13, 2002.
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