Labor makes it worse for asylum seekers

August 1, 2001

On July 26 a young African man suicided in Villawood detention centre by hanging himself with a bedsheet. He had arrived at Sydney Airport a day and a half earlier, and had his visa cancelled by immigration officials — he was given no explanation for why he had been detained, even though he asked for one.

On July 20, Mohammad Saeed-Badraid, an Iranian political activist in Villawood, was given a 48-hour deportation order, despite the fact that his six-year-old son was in hospital with a stress-related illness and his mother was there looking after him. The deportation order, it now appears, won't take effect until Saeed-Badraid's son has recovered.

These are just two of the most recent examples of the appalling and dehumanising treatment asylum seekers suffer at the hands of Australia's mandatory detention system.

The legitimacy of the government's mandatory detention policy is under fire from all quarters, but there is still no agreement on a lasting solution.

Electronic tagging is the most recent "pearl of wisdom" that's been offered as an alternative to detention.

Archbishop Peter Carnley, in defending his suggestion, has described it as the lesser of two evils. It certainly is so, perhaps like having your finger cut off instead of your whole arm — but neither evil is necessary.

Cats and dogs often have electronic tags so their owners can find them. Convicted criminals on day-release have electronic bracelets which allow them to be tagged. But asylum seekers are neither animals nor criminals.

The only humane solution is for asylum seekers to be allowed to live in the community with access to jobs, health care and social support while their claims are processed. Anything short of this should be opposed.

But in the last 18 months, the federal government has gone in the exact opposite direction: it is deliberately seeking to make things worse for asylum seekers.

This is bad enough — but it's made worse by the fact that there is no opposition coming from the "Opposition". With each government attack on refugees, Labor's response has become more pathetic and muted.

Labor leader Kim Beazley has consistently condemned every riot and outbreak of anger in detention centres, calling them "un-Australian", and perpetuating the myth that asylum seekers are inherently violent people, instead of raising questions about what drives people to this behaviour.

Labor immigration spokesperson Con Sciacca's inevitable response to any development is a call for a judicial inquiry — which certainly helps Labor look like it's taking a stand. But he rarely condemns the government's approach, and rarely reveals a policy solution.

One of Sciacca's favourite non-solutions is to call for "troublemakers" in detention centres to be separated from "genuine" asylum seekers.

On June 18, Sciacca said "[It] just makes sense to me that you would separate them and that you would end up up-grading perhaps the security at one of the detention centres making it higher and putting the genuine ones or the ones that are likely to be genuine in another one."

The notion of identifying those who "might be" genuine from those who "might not" implies that it's possible to judge this from what someone looks like, or what country they come from.

Most statements by Sciacca and Beazley on detention of asylum seekers are empty of any content. They raise insignificant points of policy and criticism which reveal that Labor has very little to say.

Labor and the Coalition have rarely had any major policy disagreements on this issue. Labor is in fundamental agreement with the Coalition on immigration policy. Labor agrees with the policy of mandatory detention (in fact, Labor introduced it).

Sciacca said on June 24: "Mr Ruddock's worried about people wanting to dismantle the detention system. No one's on about that." No one in the Labor Party, anyway.

There is no more compelling a reason to be involved in building a real pole of opposition to the Coalition's vicious attacks on the rights of refugees, a pole of opposition that Labor will never be.

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