The federal government’s decision to release small numbers of refugees from detention to live in the community while their claims are assessed will be welcome news to many refugees that have suffered under its mandatory detention policy.
In the lead up to the ALP national conference over December 3-4, Labor’s refugee policy has been in the spotlight.
Immigration minister Chris Bowen said on November 25 he had “now approved the first bridging visas for 27 asylum seekers who arrived by boat”. Bridging visas allow asylum seekers to live in the community while their refugee claims are assessed.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the change of policy shortly after the “Malaysia solution” was killed off by a High Court case.
She blamed opposition leader Tony Abbott for any further boat arrivals because he refused to vote on amendments to the Migration Act that would strip refugee protections and legalise the Malaysia-Australia people swap.
Under the new plan, refugees arriving by boat would still be detained for “health, security and identity checks” before the minister needed to personally approve a bridging visa.
Bridging visa holders would have the right to work and access basic health care. However, access to income support would be “means tested” on a case-by-case basis.
Bowen also said: “People released into the community on bridging visas will have reporting conditions and anyone found breaching these conditions risk having their visas cancelled and being returned to immigration detention.”
Bowen said the first 27 released were long-time single male detainees, mostly Tamils and Afghans from different detention centres, who had been in detention for 15 months or more.
But immigration department figures show 1346 people have been held in detention for between 12 and 18 months — one quarter of refugees in detention. A further 678 refugees have been in detention for 18 months to two years.
At a rate of 100 bridging visas a month, as is the department’s plan, it would take more than a year to release these refugees. And while boats continue to arrive, thousands more will suffer the damaging effects of long-term detention.
Fearmongering has also begun. When two boats carrying about 140 refugees arrived in Australian waters on November 24, Bowen said: “This is exactly what we warned would happen.”
The mainstream media have run stories of the “deluge”, “flood” and “invasion” of refugees into the community.
The Daily Telegraph said on November 26 the NSW Coalition government had warned in a “confidential internal briefing note” that “education, housing and child-welfare agencies may not have the necessary resources to accommodate” refugees that would be “congregating in Sydney’s suburbs”.
It ignored the fact the state government has slashed funding to all these services.
Furthermore, refugees have been moved into various forms of “community detention” in recent months with little of the effect Abbott and the mainstream media screech about.
Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has said 1500 people have been moved from detention centres into the community over the past seven months. Between June and July, she said 500 people since received a full visa.
She said “they regained their mental health, started to sleep again, their children started to laugh and play again and the teenagers went to school, learnt to catch trams and trains, ride bikes, shop and cook and clean their houses.”
A joint parliamentary inquiry showed it cost $137,000 to keep a person for a year in detention. For a person living in community detention, the cost was $10,400.
A refugee rights rally outside the ALP national conference in Sydney on December 4 demanded a complete end to mandatory detention and attempts to reintroduce offshore processing.
The refugee rights movement says that Labor Left proposals to “speed up” detention processing is not enough and no refugee should be locked up when they are in need of protection.