Indefinite mandatory detention for asylum seekers harmful

A vignette of a short film started the night.

Two women, both who fled their home countries to avoid political persecution, were on the screen: a Chilean, Maria Fernanda Gonzales, who flew to Sydney in 1985, and an Iraqi, Zahoor Askari, who flew to the country a little over a decade later.

Maria stayed in the Villawood hostel in Sydney for refugees with her three boys and a baby on its way for seven months. The staff treated her kindly and she and her family were able to walk around outside the compound.

In Zahoor’s time, the place had turned into a detention center with two big wire fences surrounding the complex. “I woke up in the morning and thought to myself  ‘Where am I? I am in jail!’ I left Iraq because it was like a jail, only to be put in prison,” Zahoor said in the film.

The film started a public talk on Tuesday on Australia’s policy in the treatment of asylum seekers. Speaking at the talk, human rights advocate and lawyer Julian Burnside said Australia’s policy of indefinite mandatory detention was inhumane and unnecessary. Burnside also added that Australia’s tough measures on people smugglers was cutting the last chance of refugees
to seek escape.

Organized by State MP from the Greens Party Jamie Parker, the talk also featured a Hazara Afghan refugee and Francis Milne from the Uniting Balmain Church.

“Indefinite mandatory detention is completely unacceptable and it must end. This is an opportunity to begin a practical debate about the genuine alternatives,” Parker said.

In Australia, more than 4,000 asylum seekers are kept in detention centers. Since 1992 under the John Howard administration these incarcerations were mandatory and indefinite for people who came to Australia by boat without papers.

The detentions could last from six months to two years before the asylum seekers found out whether they would be granted protection visas or not.

Indefinite periods of detention have caused serious mental problems for detainees. The ABC Four Corners recent report showed that detainees harm themselves by cutting and many have attempted suicide. The frustration among asylum seekers being locked up for months have caused riots in detention centers on Christmas Island, with detainees setting ablaze the compound in March of this year. A month later, asylum seekers set fire to the Villawood detention center.

Burnside said that health and security checks should be limited to 30 days. Asylum seekers should be allowed in the community while immigration assessed their eligibility for protection visas.

Burnside said that asylum seekers who arrive by plane using tourist or student visas are allowed in the community through bridging visas. The percentage of people coming in by plane to be granted protection visas were a mere 20 percent, compared to 82 percent of the boat people who eventually receive asylum after spending time in detention. Hence, he questioned the need for indefinite periods of incarceration for people who are potentially granted refugee status as many end up having mental health problems after detention.

Burnside retold the story of Abdul Hamidi, an Iranian man who was detained at the Curtin detention center. He was granted asylum four years ago, but is now unable to work due to mental health problems. He was imprisoned in a small room and tortured in Iran. In Curtin, he tried to harm himself and attempted suicide. During times when Abdul has his bouts of frustration, detention center security guards place him in solitary confinement.

When the Labor government took power in 2008, the Immigration Department released seven new directives on detention centers. Among them were “detention in immigration detention centers is only to be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time” and “conditions of detention will ensure the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Burnside said if these directives were followed and more asylum seekers were allowed in the community awaiting their visas, the government would decrease their spending on detention centers and solve the problem of overcrowding in detention centers.

Burnside also commented on the government’s tough policies on people smuggling. Both leaders of the Liberal and Labor Parties have vilified people smugglers as evil people who make profits over the misfortune of others. In 2009 after a boat explosion that killed three asylum seekers, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was quoted by ABC lambasting people smugglers as the “absolute scum of the Earth”. Burnside said that while Rudd lashed out at people smugglers, his own hero, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a people smuggler who evacuated German Jews to Switzerland. “Oscar Schindler is a people smuggler,” Burnside added, saying that he too did it as a business. And to make his point clear, Burnside said that the nuns in The Sound of Music, who helped evacuate the Von Trap family, were also people smugglers.

A recent report from ABC Radio National shows that the problem of fishermen-turn-people smugglers in Indonesia has a connection to Australia’s tough maritime border security. The Australian government burned some of the fishermen’s boats considered to be trespassing Australian waters. Having no means of livelihood, the fishermen who knew the way to Australia become people smugglers instead. Some are only teenagers.

For asylum seekers who ended up in Indonesia, their refugee granting process through the UNHCR might take 10 to 30 years. Burnside said he was sure that Australian leaders, if they were in the same position as the refugees, they would choose to go on a boat rather than languish for decades in uncertainty. Yet these leaders are cutting the refugees last chance to freedom by punishing people smugglers, he concluded.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Sydney | Features | Thu, November 24 2011

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