Will children be let out of detention?

October 29, 2010

An Essential Research poll released October 25, asked the question, “Do you approve or disapprove of the federal government’s decision to move children and their families out of immigration detention centres and allow them to live in the community while their cases are being processed?”

Alarmingly, only 33% approved while 53% disapproved and 13% said they didn't know. Furthermore, 29% strongly disapproved, while only 11% strongly approved.

An October 26 Crikey.com article on the poll said, “Clearly the public need to be educated on this one. Because mounting an effective argument for keeping kids locked up is pretty much impossible.”

Two days later, the Greens introduced a bill to the Senate that would amend the Migration Act to take children out of detention.

Ian Rintoul, from Sydney's Refugee Action Coalition, spoke to the Greens. He said the main aim of the Greens’ bill was to prohibit the detention of minors in “alternative places of detention” (APODs).

By limiting the bill's intention, the Greens hope to gain support from the Labor or Liberal parties, if not both. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said: "This is the government’s policy, this is the opposition’s policy, this bill would simply make them law. Let’s work together to make this happen.”

The Greens’ bill would mean that the immigration minister must make a decision to place children or minors in the community within 12 days. While the bill does not actually end mandatory detention of children, it does limit it.

However, there is a chance that families would be separated. Under Hanson-Young’s proposal, the determination of the status of parents and guardians would happen within 30 days, and their referral to a residence would be "as soon as practicable". Whether other family members are housed with the children would be left to the immigration minister's discretion.

Rintoul said: “The Greens are proposing another two or three future bills to deal with asylum seeker issues — one of which will abolish mandatory detention.

"I think we can cautiously welcome the bill as a small step, particularly if it doesn't preclude APODS, but say that there still seems to be too much scope for the Minister to find ways of detaining minors and families, and it still doesn't actually abolish mandatory detention."

Meanwhile, immigration minister Chris Bowen told the October 22 Australian that his message for Afghan asylum seekers was: "If you're thinking of coming to Australia there's a 50% chance that you'll be accepted and a 50% chance you'll be rejected at the moment."

New criticisms have been made about the government's planned East Timor regional processing centre.

The first problem concerns the actual geographical area denoted as "regional". The government is yet to concretely define which countries would be encompassed by the regional detention centre.

In a Senate estimates hearing on October 19, Andrew Metcalfe, head of the immigration department, said that the countries incorporated into the regional processing centre would be based on the Bali Process, which includes 44 countries.

He said: "We have largely been thinking about people who come from beyond the region and who move through the region … This is very much around the people who have been seeking to come to Australia."

This seems to suggest that the "regional processing centre" won't be a "regional" processing centre at all. It would ignore any asylum seekers in the region who are awaiting assessment, and only take in those on their way to Australia.

What is the difference between the proposed East Timor centre and Christmas Island? The difference is it's based in another country, and Australia can wipe its hands of responsibility.

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