ON 12 March, Labor’s immigration minister Chris Evans announced he would personally review the cases of 61 detainees who’ve been incarcerated for two or more years: “Long-term detainees who pose no risk to the community should be considered for other forms of management by the department. Keeping people in immigration detention for long periods imposes high costs on Australian taxpayers and the individuals themselves.”

Due late in April, the review has generally been welcomed. However it falls well short of signifying a fundamental break from the Howard years of demonisation, detention, and fortress Australia. Evans has said that the 61 will either be released into the community or deported. Already, a number of detainees have received departmental letters foreshadowing their deportation. This move seems to stem from the Minster’s request to departmental officials to find him people whose applications he could reject “with a clear conscience”, so that he’d appear as tough as his Liberal predecessors.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman has reported that the cost of detention last financial year was $28 million, and has criticised the policy of charging former detainees for the time they spent locked up under the Migration Act.

Labor says it’s committed to minimising time spent in detention. Yet Villawood’s numbers have increased since Rudd came to power: from 245 on 30 November 2007 to 263 on 21 March, with a total of 472 people still in some form of detention.

Evans has already refused to release a Chinese woman, detained in Villawood for four years, despite an Ombudsman recommendation. Former detention escapees who were eventually issued TPVs are being denied permanency on the grounds of “bad character”.

The level of despair inside detention hasn’t abated since the federal election. GSL guards have been taunting detainees, saying Labor’s policies are no different and that they won’t be released. Suicide attempts continue, such as on March 23 in Villawood by Tang Ying, a 26 year old Chinese woman detained after her student visa was cancelled when ill health prevented her from attending classes at Brisbane’s Southbank Institute of Technology.

To give Labor some credit, the Pacific Solution is gone, Cornelia Rau has been compensated, Robert Jokovic has residency, and one of the Afghan families stranded on Lombok since 2001 is coming to Australia.

Yet Labor has been reluctant to implement even what were key election commitments: to grant all refugees on Temporary Protection Visa holders permanency; to give working rights to asylum seekers on bridging visas; and to put the management of detention centres back in public hands.

On February 23, 91 days after Rudd Labor was swept into office, the NSW Refugee Action Coalition held a small demonstration at Villawood Detention Centre (see photo). We demanded the repeal of mandatory detention (as recommended in January by HREOC), a Royal Commission into the department’s detention and boat disruption programs, and an end to all offshore processing, including the soon-to-be-opened 800 bed ‘facility’ on Christmas Island.

Labor policy keeps Xmas Island, the Cocos Islands and Ashmore Reef excised, and in February they backflipped on plans to bring thousands of other islands back within Australia’s migration zone.

Evans visited the new Xmas Island camp en route to Indonesia earlier this year. Ignoring Xmas Island residents’ opposition to the facility, he described it as having “a potential major contribution to the economy of Xmas Island.” He’s approving of its “very big electric fence”, the fact that “it looks like Alcatraz”, and, incredibly, believes it “will stop any capacity for self harm”.

After 11 years of Ruddock, Vanstone and Andrews, Labor’s immigration minister must do better. Without real changes to refugee policy, the discontent can only grow. The demonstration at Villawood may well be a sign of things to come.

By Mark Goudkamp

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