15 Feb

The phone rings. A quiet, pacifying pitch. An undertone to the clacking of keyboards and softly spoken voices. I pick it up. It’s the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship’s office hoping to speak to Paul Powers, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia. In a rare moment Paul is at his desk. I transfer the call through. But will the urgency of his message ever get through?

The plight of refugees in Australia has churned, rocked and sunk over the past 20 years. From the sewing of lips, suicides from building roofs, messages written in blood to endless years of waiting, as a country Australia does not seem to have come very far from where we started.

But where did we start?

Mandatory detention came into effect in 1992 under a Labor government, with further provisions added in 1994. ‘Australia is the only western nation with mandatory detention policies which see all asylum seekers locked up for the duration of their processing,’ says Powers. All arrivals without documentation were put in immediate and automatic detention while their claims were processed. The application procedure stretched over an indefinite period, from months to years in high security detention facilities.

The Afghan War saw numbers of asylum seekers increase drastically worldwide in 2001, with 44 boats arriving with 5516 people seeking asylum in Australia. The surge in numbers prepared John Howard’s Coalition Government to implement drastic policy changes. The Pacific Solution introduced in 2001 forcibly prevented unauthorised asylum seekers from reaching Australian territory. Howard was credited with stopping the boats which had arrived in waves since 1999. Tough visa conditions, punitive detention and an embargo on legitimate and illegitimate arrivals were the highlights to asylum seeker policy in the Howard era. Wider political changes including tougher border control, the political unrest, and greater regional cooperation have been promoted as opposing reasons for the decline of boats under Howard. The shift in policy turned the focus from Australia’s humanitarian and legal responsibilities to border protection and control.

The Last Five Years

By 2005 outcry from advocates joined with dissent in the Coalition ranks. Recognition of the mental and physical damage resulting from long-term detainment led to policy changes. Legislation introduced new discretionary powers, enabling the immigration minister to release minors into community-based care. Detaining children was listed as a last resort but the implementation of these changes has since been conveniently overlooked.

In 2007 Kevin Rudd’s Labor Government introduced New Directions in Detention. Changes included the closure of the Nauru Detention Centre, the abolition of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and a review of long term detention cases. Mandatory detention was still regarded as necessary for border control. But few of the changes were implemented before Rudd’s term ended.

Kate Gauthier, President of ‘A Just Australia’, says the not much has changed in the last five years on refugee policy. ‘In 2005 we saw major policy changes brought about by the Howard Government in response to various scandals and community concern.’ Gauthier sees Australia’s policies once again returning to a border control focus, rejecting humanitarian and legal aspects to the asylum seeker debate.

The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service annual report for 2009-2010 reveal 8749 people were taken into detention, with 3977 the previous year. Of the 2009-2010 arrivals 7116 were unauthorised arrivals, with 1489 arriving by air and 5627 by boat.

Australian’s attitudes towards boat and air arrival of asylum seekers continue to diverge. Powers says the media and political parties drive these often racist attitudes for ‘sensationalism and political gain’ and fail to correct the misunderstandings they enable. Powers says the media perpetuate ‘a lot of misunderstanding about asylum seeking’. ‘People think the numbers are huge and that entering by boat is illegal…There is the misperception that boat arrivals are somehow breaking the law, whereas plane arrivals must be the right kind of people, as they have a visa to get here.’

 Australia’s political parties continue to conflate population debate and refugee policy. ‘For people who simply dislike the idea of boat arrival refugees, talking about it in terms of sustainable population growth gives politicians and voters a chance to argue against asylum seeking on grounds other than we simply don’t like those kinds of people’ says Gauthier.

Australia’s current detention network is ‘quite clearly on the verge of collapse’ in its provision of ‘adequate services’ because of the facilities remote locations making services much more difficult to deliver, says Gauthier. In April 2010 the Rudd Government sought to deal with the increasing numbers of people arriving by expanding centres and suspending processing of applications for asylum from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.  The opposition and Tony Abbott increased its banter of ‘turning back the boats’, which Rudd failed to deflate. In numerical terms the detention network was being expanded before the change in Labor leadership and the 2010 Election suspended proceedings.

Where are we?

Australia went into the 2010 federal election with Labor, the Coalition and the Greens refusing to defend the current immigration program.

On July 6 Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the Government would adopt a policy of offshore processing in East Timor. The proposal met with opposition from the East Timorese Government. Dr. Jake Lynch, President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at Sydney University, says ‘there are abuses which are implicit in the practise of detention centres, but the move to community housing, while not great, is at least a modest step forward.’ East Timor is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, unlike other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. ‘We aren’t looking to send asylum seekers to Indonesia or India where they would be stripped of their rights. It’s a belated realisation of the complexity of the issue.’ At least ‘some provision is being made to get these people out of the detention centres, let’s hope there’s more of that,’ says Dr. Lynch. ‘There seems to be a recognition that it’s not as simple as just holding the line anymore, that there needs to be a more creative approach.’

A regional processing framework would provide ‘a multilateral reappraisal,’ says Dr. Lynch. ‘There needs to be a more honest and open debate about refugee numbers and how to deal with them. Every country concerned seems to be doing the bare minimum…These countries are supposed to be the upholders of refugee rights, of international conventions which they’ve signed, [instead] they are creating roadblocks around the edges.’

Gauthier says ‘regional processing, as part of a broader regional framework, would be a positive step forward.’ If completed in compliance with relevant human rights considerations ‘it would enable refugees to access a system of processing and accommodation and potential resettlement from a central location,’ says Gauthier. However, she notes that done poorly it could ‘actually result in narrowing the protection available to asylum seekers rather than broaden it’.

Gillard’s Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has slowly brought in changes to adjust to the implementation of a regional framework and to deal with the high numbers of detainees. On the October 24, Bowen announced the majority of family groups held in detention would be released into community care over the next eight months. The move has been heralded the biggest change since the introduction of mandatory detention in 1992.

The expansion of current facilities to house more families is considered an emergency by DIAC yet it will take months before the process is complete, with the government saying it will take until mid-2011. Gauthier says, ‘the recent announcement by the Gillard Government is merely a return to the Howard policy circa 2005’. ‘The centres are quite clearly overcrowded…leading to conditions that could best be described as a pressure cooker environment.’

The Labor Party sees this as the long game, to provide a meaningful way of moving forward but advocates say it’s taking too long. Bowen continues to emphasize the 50 per cent chance asylum seekers have of their claim being accepted. A message he argues is to provide a deterrent to the international community but works domestically for Australian’s who fear being overrun by refugees.

Where are we going?

Dr. Lynch says the asylum seeker debate is one Australia just keeps coming back to. ‘I went to an asylum welcome conference…one of the protestors was holding up a sign… “Why am I still protesting about this crap?”’. Dr. Lynch says this attitude resonates with both sides of the debate, which has been political dynamite for ‘every Prime Minister going back 20 to 30 years’. ‘Bob Hawke was at it about refugees from the Vietnam War, with “Bob’s not your uncle”’ then it moved to Lynton Crosby advising John Howard, whose plans failed to have any impact, ‘everything [Crosby] advised fell flat’, and now? ‘Labor has lost its majority and the Greens hold the swing…’

‘There is something about our political system which makes it more obvious’ says Dr. Lynch. ‘Officialdom have been prime sources for news…we have this obsessive Canberra focus…it must be because that’s all Canberra is…there’s no one in Canberra except for politicians.’          

Australia has emerged from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) relatively unscathed. Yet there are ‘profound and widening inequalities’. ‘High levels of inequality [result] in anti-social attitudes…inequality breeds anxiety and resentment,’ says Dr. Lynch. Days before the 2010 Election the major broadsheets ran the clichéd western suburb Aussie battler ‘I hate boat people’ story. Dr. Lynch says this is the result of the ‘widening inequality we are seeing in Australia, those people who are on “struggle street”…society is reflecting these ideals of Australia’s prosperity, of outlandish wealth and they are asking where theirs is.’

The media is voicing the opinions of the Australian population but politician’s rhetoric is drowning out the real plight of refugees. ‘Journalists need to stop getting sucked into the political bidding war,’ says Dr. Lynch. ‘You have a story about asylum seekers, you never hear from them. They are almost invisible…we need the media to put a face to these statistics; a face would go a long way to diffusing the issue.’

Politicians are driving this debate based on the fear they can create around population growth, immigration and border protection. ‘Australia does not have a problem. Its irresponsible politicians who create a problem,’ says Dr. Lynch. Ramped up rhetoric about being swamped by boat loads of foreigners and losing control of Australia’s borders has become common slather. And boy do they spread it on thick. ‘MP’s are given parliamentary books with the correct figures…they are fully aware of these facts but they choose to make mischief out of it, they present them…out of context [and] we need to find ways to put pressure on them [to be accountable].’

Powers says, ‘there needs to be a large public awareness campaign, coupled with political leaders who are more willing to confront these myths’. In order to see Australian refugee policy provide a humane framework to support refugees Powers says the 2007 New Directions in Detention policy needs to be implemented effectively. ‘This would protect the Australian public from any health or security issues, while ensuring that asylum seekers are not unnecessarily detained.’ It would also reconcile the differences between boat and air arrivals. ‘Asylum seekers are not a border security issue. They present themselves to the authorities and have a vested interest in doing so. They believe they will be granted settlement at the end of the process.’


Alicia Alford is a volunteer at the Refugee Council of Australia.


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