BY MEGAN PALIN
Under Federal Government reforms announced in July, children will no longer be placed in detention and asylum seekers will be permitted to live in the community while their immigration status is being resolved.
In what Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans described as a ‘modern risk management approach’, mandatory detention will still exist for asylum seekers deemed to pose a risk to the community.
Senator Evans said Labor rejected the notion that dehumanising and punishing unauthorised arrivals with long-term detention was an effective, or civilised, response. ‘Desperate people are not deterred by the threat of harsh detention as they are often fleeing much worse circumstances,’ he said.
The policy is designed to develop a very different detention model. One of its seven values is to not detain children and, whenever possible, their families.
‘The values commit us to detention as a last resort; to detention for the shortest practicable period; to the rejection of indefinite or otherwise arbitrary detention. In other words, the current model of immigration detention is fundamentally overturned,’ Senator Evans said.
Shadow Minister for Immigration, Senator Chris Ellison, said the Rudd Government announcement had the potential to result in hundreds of unlawful non citizens disappearing into the community.
‘It is inherently difficult to keep track of, locate and detain a person when they are residing in the wider community,’ Senator Ellison said.
But Senator Evans said strong border security and humane, risk-based detention policies were not incompatible.
Australian Psychological Society president Amanda Gordon said the government’s change in policy was a response to solid psychological research that shows mandatory detention policies have led to long-term mental health problems in innocent people.
‘International evidence is that few asylum seekers pose risk of any sort to the communities in which they seek to live, and the process of investigation of cases to determine eligibility for residence can be made just as easily when people live in safety within the community,’ Gordon said.
Unlawful non-citizens who repeatedly refuse to comply with visa conditions, unlawful non-citizens who present unacceptable risks to the community, and all unauthorised arrivals remain subject to mandatory detention.
‘We will continue to expect that people who come to our country enter and leave in accordance with their visa conditions; we will continue to pursue the prompt return of those found not to be owed protection,’ Senator Evans said.
Human rights groups welcomed the reforms but many expressed concern there was no plan to enshrine the changes in law. The reforms are not protected by legislation unless the Migration Act is amended.
Refugee Action Coalition’s Ian Rintoul said if the Minister was serious about reversing the horrors of the Howard years, he would change the law.
‘Mandatory detention still remains in place. Detention decisions will still be made by the Immigration Department and not be subject to judicial review,’ Rintoul said.
Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power said he was disappointed the Government was retaining mandatory detention and the excision of offshore islands from the migration zone, but he welcomed the practical changes aimed at reducing the human cost of these policies.
Of the 385 people in immigration detention as of July 18, 309 were detained for overstaying or breaching their visa conditions. Power said the announcement that detention would be used only as a last resort and for the shortest possible time would see this number drop further.
The Immigration Department has already started work on a plan to give effect to the new policy. This plan will be developed in consultation with community groups and agencies such as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the Ombudsman.