Ending mandatory detention has long been a demand of the refugee movement. The recent Refugee Day rallies all had “End Mandatory Detention” as their central slogan. But the question of what should replace mandatory detention is more contentious.
In the seven months to May, there were 3431 self harm incidents recorded in Australian detention centres—850 of them regarded as critical. Christmas Island detention guards now carry Hoffman knives so they can cut down asylum seekers attempting to hang themselves.
Earlier this year, workers there held a union meeting to discuss their concerns at the lack of training and adequate safety—and the increased work associated with the growing incidence of “biological cleans”—cleaning up the blood from self harm incidents.
Although all countries are tightening up their ability to detain asylum seekers, in New Zealand, asylum seekers arriving with identification are housed in an open facility. In Canada, asylum seekers can only be held for 48 hours before a court order is needed to permit further detention, which must then be reviewed at seven days and every 30 days after that, although this can be indefinitely extended.
The Australian Greens’ bill introduced into the Senate in March is a version of minimal detention. The Bill would allow asylum seekers to be detained for only 30 days unless the government obtains a court order, although there is no absolute limit on the duration of detention. The 2005 “People’s Inquiry into Detention” recommended that detention for longer than 48 hours should have to be judicially reviewed.
Most people, even refugee advocates, accept that some form of detention is required for health, identity and security checks. Of course, minimal detention would be better than the mandatory, indefinite detention presently enshrined in law.
But there is no justification for any detention of asylum seekers. Indeed detention itself is inherently discriminatory and is part of the government’s attempt to criminalise asylum seekers, although they have committed no crime. Mandatory detention is racist—it is mostly directed at people from the Middle East, particularly Muslims.
Before 1989, no asylum seeker was held in detention in Australia. Like other migrants, they lived in the community in open hostels while their claims were processed.
It was only in 1992 that the then Labor government introduced mandatory detention. Those laws limited detention to 273 days but that was extended to indefinite detention in 1994.
Health and security checks
Some people see it as common sense that detention is needed for health, identity and security checks. But the arguments don’t stand up.
Detention is not needed for health checks. Medical treatment can be provided to asylum seekers in clinics and medical centres just as it is for anyone else in the community. There are no communicable diseases that require asylum seekers to be treated in detention before they can safely live in the community. But the idea that asylum seekers require health checks helps create the idea that they might be a risk.
Likewise, identity checks are a routine part of refugee processing. It is a myth that asylum seekers attempt to hide their identity. Many do carry identity documents, but they are all keen to establish their identity to help substantiate their claims of persecution and be speedily processed.
Neither do security checks require detention of boat people. Given the scrutiny of boat arrivals, no terrorist would use a boat to get into the country.
All the evidence shows that terrorists have no problem traveling by plane. And there is no security check on plane arrivals.
The attempt to link asylum seekers with concerns of border security, again, is an attempt to portray them as a potential threat.
Extensive ASIO security investigations of the thousands of arrivals has resulted in only 30 odd adverse security findings.
And ASIO has not been willing to justify any of them, hiding behind national security laws that prevent any scrutiny by the courts.
Most of the 30 are Tamils, and the ASIO findings against them are dubious. The Tamil struggle for national self-determination has been limited to Sri Lanka itself. Even if the refugees were part of the armed struggle of the Tamil Tigers, the Tigers were not involved in armed activities outside of Sri Lanka.
In the meantime hundreds of people found to be refugees are subject to further abuse, being held in detention waiting for ASIO clearances.
With more revelations about the horror of detention, there is a renewed debate about alternatives.
But a little bit of detention is not ok. The danger is that it will leave in place the rationale for the fear-mongering policies that underpin the government’s anti-refugee policy—that asylum seekers are aliens and a threat to society.
Arguing for no detention is the only way to ensure an end to the abusive detention regime once and for all.
By Ian Rintoul