The Guardian 1 June, 2005

Unlawful detentions now number over 200!

Peter Mac

The latest figure for people apparently unlawfully detained by Australian immigration authorities is now 201. Another 928 cases are pending. Former Police Commissioner Mick Palmer said that his official (but secret) inquiry into immigration detention should be handed over to a judicial power.

Last week an Immigration Department official publicly took the blame for this catastrophe. As in the “children overboard” case, and the “weapons of mass destruction” Iraq invasion excuse, the department involved is now carrying the can for the government’s policies.

More revelations

Visiting Baxter Detention Centre requires giving 72 hours notice, and the filling out a three-page form, and the visit can be rejected arbitrarily by the Centre’s management. Overcoming these hurdles, Christine Rau recently visited Baxter to thank inmates for revealing the incarceration of her sister, Cornelia. Christine was deeply moved by the tragic stories she heard there. In one case an inmate had escaped to New Zealand, but had been forced to leave behind his wife and son, who are now unable to join him, and have now been detained for 19 months.

Christine also pointed out the innate cruelty of the Centre’s design, which enables inmates to see inwards and upwards to the sky, but not to the majestic landscape or horizon. She also noted the hideous waste involved in building the Centre at a cost of $42 million, and running it at a cost of $300 million until 2007. She commented bitterly: “It was the sheer, bloody waste of keeping these people locked up, at great financial and human cost. They could have been farming, boiler-­making, doing IT work or raising children in our community, all of which they are qualified to do.”

She said one unnamed guard told her: “I’d release them all tomorrow if I could. You see them getting ill and getting berserk because of the length of time they are in there. It’s appalling the way the Immigration Department just lets them rot in there.”

Government policy cracking

The government may change its detention policy, because of embarrassment over the revelations, and to forestall some Liberal parliamentarians moving a private member’s bill to change the policy. The bill would provide for judicial decision-making on detention cases, would grant permanent residency to temporary protection visa holders, and would release women and children and detainees held for more than 12 months.

The Prime Minister (who still inaccurately refers to asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants”) was enraged at this move, which could completely undercut the coalition’s ruthless position on asylum seekers.

The Howard cabinet’s behaviour is now very contradictory. Last week, despite previous decisions, Virginia Leong and her three-year-old Australian-born officially stateless daughter, were released from Sydney’s Villawood Centre.

The Prime Minister also contradicted Immigration Minister Vanstone by decreeing that a detainee mother, Ms Hoai Nguyen, and her new baby, will not be required to return to Christmas Island detention. During her 48-hour labour, Ms Nguyen was twice required to return to a Perth detention house, and was kept under guard afterwards! However, just to confuse matters further, Howard has backtracked, stating that the family’s options included “a return to Christmas Island”.

The government is also under pressure from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, which found that the government breached an international human rights covenant by keeping a group of Iranian and Iraqi asylum seekers in isolation for eight months. Their cases could have been processed in less than four weeks, and their detention breached their right to human dignity.

Where to from here?

Because the new rebel Liberal immigration legislation is less draconian than the current ultra-reactionary version, you might think it would have an excellent chance of getting parliamentary support.

But no! ALP leader Kim Beazley has said that he actually favours “competent and humane” mandatory detention, even claiming proudly that it was conceived by a previous ALP government, of which he was a leading member. And, just like the Prime Minister, he has refused to allow his members a conscience vote on the legislation. Of course, respect for universally recognised human rights should have seen the ALP take up a party position rejecting mandatory detention.

So alas, it is seems unlikely that the current disastrous policies towards asylum seekers will change with Labor rejecting the Liberal rebels’ bills.

MP Judi Moylan said: “Today we preside over a policy and an administration that has seen an incapacitated citizen deported, a mentally-­­ill Australian incarcerated as an illegal for more than a year, and the indefinite detention of men, women and children without any charges being laid against them. Self-harm, suicide and mental health problems are well documented.”

MP Petro Georgiou commented: “Asylum seekers continue to be detained for periods longer than prison sentences imposed on violent criminals, and may be detained indefinitely. More than 300 people have been in immigration detention for more than a year, and about 80 of them have been held for more than four years… Many Australians have told me that … they now believe that reform is necessary and can be achieved without compromising the security of our borders and our community… One of the enduring strengths of this nation is our commitment to justice, tolerance and compassion for others. Our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers who have arrived uninvited must surely uphold these values.”

Back to index page