The Guardian 8 June, 2005

Asylum seekers' rights to be axed

Peter Mac

Federal treasurer Peter Costello has proposed speeding up the processing of asylum seekers' visa appeals by cutting out some of their legal rights. The proposals are in response to mounting public pressure over the government's mistreatment of asylum seekers and to a revolt within its own ranks.

Last week the slippery MP argued that the current law allows an appellant to go to the Migration Tribunal, the Refugee Review Tribunal and through various courts up to the High Court if necessary — a very long process. Asylum seekers would not spend so long in detention if they lost their appeal rights! And it would also minimise the chance of an appeal being successful and speed-up the process of deportation.

The Treasurer also suggested that most of the children in detention were from families with over- extended working or tourist visas, implying that the parents were responsible for the children's situation, not the government.

His "solution" avoids the real issue, that is the government's racist and callous treatment of people who have fled their own country and are seeking refuge in Australia.

If the government abolished its policy of mandatory detention and complied with its obligations under international law, there would not be a problem of children and adults being locked up for years under horrendous conditions.

Costello also condemned the move by some Liberal rebels to introduce legislation for more humane treatment of asylum seekers, and argued that the best thing for detained children and their parents was to lose their appeal rights.

Some 20 conservative federal parliamentarians have expressed dissatisfaction with current detention policy. Moreover, under pressure from left-wing ALP MPs, opposition leader Kim Beazley has at last said he would support the legislation, albeit with amendments.

To deal with these threats, Prime Minister John Howard has persuaded the rebel ring-leaders to defer introducing their legislation pending further discussions. This means, in effect, leaving 61 children stuck in detention until the August parliamentary sitting.

During this period government leaders will bully or attempt to buy-off the rebels so that the appeal rights of asylum seekers can be cut.

Jails used

Three months is a very long time in politics, and every day brings more shocking asylum seeker revelations. For example, it has now been revealed that under the Migration Act hundreds of detainees have been actually been detained in state government jails around the country over at least the last five years.

One jailed detainee has said that some detainees had been imprisoned for more than two years, with detainees frequently locked in their cells for three days at a time. The Department of Immigration has admitted that there are currently 14 detainees in prison, but one detainee said that it has been common for 30 to be jailed at one time.

Detainees are placed at considerable risk by this practice, and in 2001 a Commonwealth Ombudsman's report recommended that it be abandoned. However, nothing was done until the revelations about Cornelia Rau. The government has since placed a 28-day limit on the period of incarceration in state correctional institutions.

End mandatory detention

Meantime, the pressure against mandatory detention mounts. The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney and his bishops have stated that detention policies should be more compassionate, and have called for government transparency and accountability. The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils said the current immigration shows Australia as uncaring, and the Catholic Sisters of St Joseph said we should not be "inflicting suffering on children, the mentally ill, and those who have a legal right as refugees to seek asylum."

And finally there are the tragic cases of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez. Last week it was revealed that the Department of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Immigration Department, knew by August 2003 that the illegally-deported Ms Alvarez was an Australian citizen, but no effective action was taken to find and return her to Australia by the Howard government.

Last November official correspondence revealed that Baxter Centre staff had said the illegally- detained Ms Rau "…may be an Australian citizen, and they recommend that missing persons be checked…". However, once again no effective action was taken, and she was finally identified in February by detention support groups and her fellow inmates.

Ms Rau's family have indicated that her mental condition deteriorated while she was detained, and that she may have been sexually assaulted in detention. They have demanded that her case be investigated by a full and open official inquiry.

This dovetails with the request by the current investigator, Mick Palmer, that another 200 potential cases of illegal detention be handled by such an inquiry. And, as we have reported previously, hundreds more cases need to be checked to see whether they should be investigated.

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