AT THE end of July, the Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced changes to the administration of immigration detention. He described the changes as fundamentally overturning the current model of detention.

Much of the media, and sections of the refugee movement, hailed the changes as the end of mandatory detention. But they are not.

In fact, Chris Evans insists that mandatory detention remains a pillar of Labor’s policy. Asylum seekers will still be detained for health, identity and security checks.

The big change is that, “The department will have to justify a decision to detain—not presume detention.” This is a welcome shift that goes beyond existing Labor Party policy. But the changes do not go far enough. While Chris Evans says that the key question of whether a person is detained, in a detention centre, will be “whether a person is a risk to the community.” But “risk” is undefined. A lack of identity papers may be enough.

And an immigration officer will still make the decisions. A decision to detain will be reviewed every three months—by an immigration officer. There is no judicial review. The Ombudsman’s office will also review those decisions, but the Ombudsman’s recommendations have no teeth.

Christmas Island will remain as an excised off-shore processing detention centre. And naval patrols will still be empowered to turn back refugee boats and Indonesia will still be paid to intercept and warehouse asylum seekers.

Chris Evans is yet to indicate whether he is going to change the law. Until he does, indefinite non-reviewable detention is the law.

In the speech announcing the changes, Evans repeated the Howard-era mantra that border protection and deterrence underpin the government’s attitude to refugees. Only now he says that speedy deportation is the best deterrent.

We are still a long way from the humanitarian refugee policy the movement has fought for. The adversarial determination process of Refugee Review Tribunal must be replaced. The thousands of refugees damaged by mandatory detention require more help and compensation. Bridging visa holders are still denied work rights and asylum seekers are still being forcibly deported.

Evans seems to realise that there are fundamental problems with the present system but he is too afraid of the Immigration department and being seen to be “soft on refugees” to introduce the root and branch reform that is really needed.

By Ian Rintoul

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