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Asylum seekers testing Labor's conviction


Detention centreAfter the Rudd Government came to power in 2007 we were promised that people arriving by boat would be held only as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time, for the purpose of health, identity and security checks before being released into the community. Labor has not kept its word.

Detention centres have re-emerged as the toxic environments of misery we saw during the Howard years, and long-term detention has again become normal practice. Self-harm attempts have, again, become measures of last resort for desperate people under pressure.

Both Rudd and Julia Gillard have talked about the need to treat asylum seekers and refugees with compassion and both have pointed to the cruelty of past Howard Government policies. But although Labor did remove some of the particularly nasty aspects of its predecessor's policies, it has continued to prioritise its own political fears above the needs of vulnerable people.

In spite of the Coalition's mantra that the Rudd Government recklessly unravelled the Howard Government's strong border protection measures — including the detention of asylum seekers in poor Pacific countries and temporary protection visas — Labor has in fact baulked at significant reform.

Back in 2007, with a new government in place, the talk within the refugee sector was that any attempt to bring about further substantial changes — like doing away with processing on Christmas Island or abolishing mandatory detention — would fail. The Rudd Government would go this far and no further. To take larger steps, it believed, would risk political damage and a surge in boat arrivals.

But the political damage has come anyway and, as with interest rates, asylum seeker arrivals are not easily controlled by domestic policy alone. Although it is rarely mentioned within the current, politically skewed debate, the boats were already on the move again under Howard in 2006/07.

And unless anyone wants to blame the Howard policies for the people smuggling trade starting up again, or try explaining why the boat arrivals increased after Howard came to power, the escalating conflicts in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan seem the most likely driving forces, not Australian policies.

In early 2008, Labor's then Immigration Minister Chris Evans said 'keeping people in immigration detention for long periods imposes high costs on Australian taxpayers and the individuals'. Evans went on to claim, with the best of intentions, that the Rudd Government would 'return integrity to the immigration system and ensure that immigration status is resolved efficiently'.

But as the number of arrivals increased, Labor buckled under the pressure and resorted to long-term, indefinite detention of boat arrivals as its default position.

In a statement last week, UNHCR regional representative Richard Towle referred to the current detention arrangements. 'Experience shows that people held in such conditions frequently experience high levels of personal stress, including self-harm.'

Towle called on the Australian Government to look for alternatives. 'UNHCR believes there are ways of managing the legitimate security concerns of States while ... providing more flexible, community based arrangements for people in Australia while their asylum claims are being processed.'

This is a difficult policy area for any government. But asylum seekers who are dealt with fairly, who are dispersed in the community with access to support and advice and, most of all, who are not held under lock and key in highly stressful situations, are much more easily managed than large groups of traumatised people who explode under pressure in highly publicised enclosed environments.

Yes, a more humane approach will always provoke the Shadow Immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison — who many view as a harsher version of ex Coalition Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock — to shout to the world that the Government welcomes boat arrivals. But he will do that anyway, and the political pain could hardly be any worse than it is now.

Labor's recent efforts towards finding regional solutions for refugees should be welcomed and it is work that was largely neglected by the Howard Government for more than a decade. But if Labor continues to refuse to honour the promises it has made on detaining vulnerable people within Australia, then it will remain wedged indefinitely in a mess of its own making.

Paul Keating said last week that 'Governments that wander along uncertain about where they are, looking over their shoulder, invariably get run over themselves.' Labor has been looking over its shoulder on asylum seekers since the appearance of Pauline Hanson and the Tampa incident in 2001. If they don't stop now, the train wreck will inevitably come, and another opportunity for Labor to stand up for what it says it believes in will be lost. 

Susan MetcalfeSusan Metcalfe is the author of The Pacific Solution.

Topic tags: Labor, refugees, asylum seekers, temporary protection visas, christmas island, mandatory detention



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Existing comments

Although Susan Metcalfe touches on the causes, almost all commentators on the influx of refugees fail to realise or mention the fact that a vicious war is going in Afghanistan and that Australia is a participant in that war. And yet we seem surprised and annoyed that people from that tortured country want to get out and - gasp- come here and get away from the horror.

Alan Slatyer | 08 April 2011  

The other thing often omitted from this "discussion" is that the numbers arriving are incredibly small compared to those that other countries have to deal with. Not to mention that it is only the boat arrivals that spark the protests. No-one seems to complain about those who arrive by plane or who overstay their visas. And, before someone on the other side brings up this claim, it is not illegal for asylum seekers to see refuge in Australia.

Erik H | 08 April 2011  

And while all these injustices are being perpetrated, and little children languish behind the razor wire, the scribes and pharisees are fiddling with the words of the Eucharist, as they struggle to render us back to the days before Vatican 2!

Peter Downie | 08 April 2011  

well said Peter Downie and Erik H you said what I and many others think

irena springfield | 08 April 2011  

Ah Peter Downie, well said.!!
There are approximately 3 million refugees in the world, 1 million of them children. They must be cared for and cared about. Rosemary Keenan WA

Rosemary Keenan | 08 April 2011  

I want Paul Keating to come back and be my Prime Minister.

Valery Valentine | 08 April 2011  

Bravo Peter Downie. Is the new translation just something we can squabble over so that we won't notice the silence of our bishops regarding asylum seekers, the homeless and the mentally ill?

Jim Jones | 08 April 2011  

Since they insist the refugee numbers are so small, how about the soapbox pontificators offer to *billet* them in their own homes. Ohhh, yikes! Don't like them that much? You can also pay a $5000 bond to the Immigration Department, which you will *only* receive back if your billeted "friend" doesn't 'disappear' before his application is finalised. Ooh, my home? My money? Hmmmmm.

Shockadelic | 08 April 2011  


Many Australians do take refugees into their own home, and offer a great deal of financial and other support. Who do you ever take into your own home? Anyone? Australians in need? Or do you expect the government to take care of them?

Ferry Maine | 08 April 2011  

Valery, Paul Keating was Prime Minister when the policy of mandatory detention was introduced ...

MBG | 08 April 2011  

Yes, Labor should be ashamed of itself. They have performed abominably since coming to power.

Peter Flood | 08 April 2011  

Susan, it is not a people smuggling trade, it is a legal right to come here.

We shouldn't use ridiculous language and pander to the ignorant morons who think we have to punish people because they paid for their transport.

We both know that without that transport they would have died and the people smuggling protocol excludes the movement of refugees entirely.

How and who people pay for transport out of other places is simply nothing to do with us.

As for the ALP - their hidden policy that I blew the whistle on in February 2008 was to try and make sure not one asylum seeker ever got to Australia by any method at all no matter how many laws were broken in the process

I was informed by an ALP insider so the info. was accurate and has been proved to be so.

1,000 people in jail have refugee status,they should not be in jail.

Rudd said on Monday night that hardly any asylum seekers come here and that we never talk about the "plane people".

I blame the media as much as anyone.

Marilyn Shepherd | 09 April 2011  

Peter Downie is not aware of the outstanding work being done by various priests, Bishops in the areas he criticises them for. Much of the community is aware of their efforts. They are not the government. I'd like to know what he and his supporters are doing to change the situation!

Dale Moore | 09 April 2011  

I have no recollection of ever having met Dale Moore, so I am at a loss to understand how Dale is so sure of what I do or do not know. I can reassure Dale, however, that I am inspired by heroic and prophetic Christians,including priests and bishops like our own Pat Power, and the liberation theologian Joseph Comblin who died recently in Brazil, after a lifetime spent struggling for justice for the poor and marginalised.

Peter Downie | 09 April 2011  

The Federal government has decided to construct a new detention centre in Darwin at Whickam Point, a location in the rural area south of Palmerston the Port of Darwin, NT. This is the site of the proposed Impex Gas processing plant. The site is privately owned and was mooted as a site for the construction of a workers camp during the construction of the gas plant. It was assessed as being mosquito infested and rejected.

The NT Government entymologist reports that mosquitoes can never be eradicated from the area. These mosquitoes carry Murray Valley encephalitis and Kunjin disease. Apparently it is a good site for 1500 asylum seekers!

Michael Bowden | 09 April 2011  

One of the problems associated with the assessment of refugees is the delay with ASIO in their assessments. With refugees from Shi Lanka one wonders what criteria they are using. The government of Shi Lanka is known to be corrupt and to them all Tamis are regarded as suspect. One would suppose Tamils might be subject to be a security risk in Shi Lanka but hardly in Australia where there is no conflict as far as Tamils are concerned.

john Ozanne | 10 April 2011  

The article is just another nice free propaganda ramble for the people smuggling industry. Poor refugees unable to pay bribes and people smugglers will remain longer in camps around the world. Would be migrants with funds to pay people smugglers, remain in danger of drowning on the dangerous sea route.

Beat Odermatt | 11 April 2011  

Beat's gold heart beats again.

There are no people smugglers, there is no people smuggling industry.

There are people escaping death, torture and abuse.

The rest is drivel.

Marilyn Shepherd | 11 April 2011  

To Marilyn Shepherd: I understand why you defend the people smuggling industry. The organisers are not in the business of “helping” but in the business of making money. Would-be migrants (and some of them may even be genuine refugees) are just a source of money and nothing more. People who defend the present system are actually helping these criminals in their trade of misery and death and are helping genuine refugees in camps all over the world to remain there for many more years.

Beat Odermatt | 12 April 2011  

Beat, who cares if those who give refugees a ride make a few bucks? It is not illegal and not a crime. Asylum seekers are not people smugglers as Ruddock made them out to be. They are people seeking protection who cannot get shiney passport. Why on earth shouldn't I support those who give refugees a ride away from the Taliban and the like.

Marilyn Shepherd | 14 April 2011  

To Marilyn Shepherd: It is so simple to beat the chest and declare to be in “support of refugees “. The reality still remains that Millions of people live in refugee camps all over the world and Billions of people live in acute poverty in countries across the world. Australia needs to protect its borders and it requires massive resources to try to protect our natural resources, agriculture and public health from the danger of exotic pests and disease. Our security also requires that we need to know the background of people entering Australia.

I believe that monies are far better spent in countries where these poor people live. For example I have seen in Papua New Guinea where $200.00 spent on plastic pipes saved woman walking 4 hours a day to catch water. The same $200.00 is only a small portion in what it costs to support a single people smuggling client for a single day. If you are really interested in helping you may entertain the thought about going to some of these countries and help directly.

Beat Odermatt | 14 April 2011  

That's nice Beat, but what does being poor have to do with being a refugee in fear of persecution?

Marilyn Shepherd | 16 April 2011  

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