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Long-term immigration detention has again become a pointless exercise in cruelty

By Peter Hughes

The Howard government released long-term detainees into the community, but the current Coalition government refuses to do so for political reasons.

Novak Djokovic’s few days at the Park Hotel in Carlton briefly shone light on the ongoing horrific plight of long-term immigration detainees.

The most publicised case at the Park Hotel was that of Mehdi, a 24-year-old refugee who had been in one form of immigration detention or another for nine years since the age of 15. However, he, and the luckless people who have spent years locked up in the now notorious Carlton hotel, were quickly forgotten by the media as soon as Djokovic was out of the country.

It is interesting to reflect that the full Federal Court was specially convened on a Sunday to allow a wealthy tennis player who had spent just a few days in immigration detention to pursue his case to remain in Australia. But no such action has occurred for the refugees, stateless persons, asylum seekers and others who have spent years in immigration detention.

There is a strong sense of déjà vu about the current situation. The Howard government allowed a situation to develop where there was a caseload of long-term immigration detainees. These were mostly, but not always, asylum seekers who had arrived by sea. The most notable was Peter Qasim, who had been detained for seven years. A rigid policy enshrined in the Migration Act meant that people without a right to remain in Australia either left the country or stayed in detention indefinitely, even though it might be quite impracticable for them to return to their home country.

Under pressure from Liberal moderates, led by Petro Georgio, Howard in 2005 accepted the need to do something about the folly and cruelty of keeping people in immigration detention for year after year when their cases could not be effectively progressed.

The Department of Immigration came up with a new visa tool – a specialised bridging visa – and a new ministerial power (both of which were legislated) to give the government more legal flexibility to get people out of detention. The Howard government was then able to progressively use these tools to get long-term detainees into the community. This didn’t necessarily mean that the individuals were permitted to stay permanently in Australia or given access to a wide range of benefits. It was simply that the outstanding matters they had with the Australian government could be resolved while they were living in the community.

Around that time there was also the scandal of Cornelia Rau, an Australian permanent resident who was wrongly held in immigration detention for months. Several external reviews, including one by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer, reflected on the damage to the mental health of detainees and how desensitised the system had become to the use of extraordinary powers to detain people.

Following the election of the Rudd Labor government in 2007, immigration minister Chris Evans introduced reforms to allow the department to continue to pursue its legitimate immigration compliance role, but with much less use of detention. The scope for different forms of detention, including community detention outside of formal institutions, was expanded.

So how is it that we are back in a similar situation of overuse of immigration detention and a caseload of long-term detainees? With the return of a Coalition government under Tony Abbott in 2013, a much harsher approach to the use of detention was progressively reintroduced under the new Department of Immigration and Border Protection and, subsequently, the Department of Home Affairs. The lessons of the Howard years were forgotten.

According to Department of Home Affairs statistics, in September 2021 there were 1459 people in closed immigration detention – 510 of them had spent more than two years in detention and 117 had spent more than five years. Reputedly, a small number have been in detention for over 10 years. The detainees are a mixed bunch ranging from maritime refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons and visa overstayers through to people whose visas were cancelled on character grounds.

Why are they in detention at all? The actual policy purpose of immigration detention has always been to briefly hold people, such as asylum seekers arriving by sea, for identification, health checks and application processing. It is also used to assist in the removal of people unlawfully in Australia who may be at risk of absconding from the immigration authorities.

None of this is a justification for incarcerating people for years simply because the legal power exists and their cases have not been resolved. It just becomes a pointless exercise in cruelty. No purpose whatsoever is advanced by holding people in detention for such a long time if their case is not being effectively progressed either towards the granting of a visa or removal from Australia. If a person’s case has not been resolved in three, four or up to 10 years, it is unlikely that keeping them in detention any longer will help. And for the budget minded, immigration detention is expensive for the taxpayer.

The Morrison government should urgently review the situation of long-term detainees. It should start with those who have been detained for over two years with a view to releasing them into the community. The tools that were created under the Howard government still exist. The priority should be to get the longest-term detainees, people found to be refugees, stateless persons and other vulnerable cases out into the community as soon as possible. Other types of cases in long-term detention should be reviewed progressively. Some of them will be more difficult, such as those whose visas have been cancelled on character grounds or who have a qualified/adverse security assessment. There is nearly always a non-detention solution if you want there to be one. Release into the community may or may not come with a longer-term visa, depending on the individual situation.

Sadly, based on practice to date, it is hard to see any of this happening. The Morrison government appears to be locked into the position of showing how tough it can be on asylum seekers who arrived by sea and those migrants whose visas have been cancelled. Tired mantras are used about deterrence and the imminent risks of further boat arrivals if the slightest sensible compassion is shown towards long-term asylum seeker detainees. So we are led to believe that if asylum seekers in detention in Australia (or in offshore processing centres) are facilitated in being resettled in the United States, there will be no pull factor for further maritime asylum seekers, but the same logic does not apply to releasing someone into the Australian community, even on a very restricted visa. It doesn’t add up.

It is likely that in the run-up to the election the government will be happy to leave the current cruel status quo in place in order to show its toughness. Resolving the problem in a humane way will be a job for a potential Labor government.

Peter Hughes is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He had a long career in the Commonwealth Department of Immigration and Citizenship, retiring as Deputy Secretary in 2011. He was awarded the Public Service Medal in 2005 for outstanding public service in the development of policies and programs to increase citizenship, multicultural harmony and the settlement of refugees.

This article was originally published on Pearls and Irritations.

 

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22 comments

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  1. Kathryn

    Hmmmm, is ANYONE surprised about the depraved indifference the bible-thumping hypocrite and psuedo-christian, Scott Morrison, has for ANYONE other than himself? The ONLY priorities this depraved sociopath has relate to himself, other lunatic members of the CULT of Hillsong and/or the rest of the callously inhumane, totally corrupt members of the LNP, truly the worst regime in our history?

  2. New England Cocky

    Thank you Peter Hughes for a clear & concise explanation of the failure of the unlimited detention policy.

    However, are the corporate mates of Scummo now rolling in revenue from the Commonwealth government going to support closing down these prison camps? It seems unlikely because it is a stand-still financial milch cow in tough corporate times.

    I am reminded that post-WWII Australia and earlier migrants associations organised and operated government funded temporary housing facilities for use while new immigrant families got themselves established financially. This scheme MUST BE BETTER VALUE THAN POURING TAXPAYER MONEYS INTO FOREIGN OWNED CORPORATE POCKETS WHILE INFLICTING HIDEOUS DAMAGE TO THE MENTAL HEALTH OF DETAINEES.

    Oops!! Silly me!! Scummo & the Hell$inger$ Cabinet Choru$ believe that poverty is the fault of the poor … so inflicting further harm on legal refugees is OK because they are among the poorest of the poor. Interesting Christian concept ….. whatever happened to ”The Good Samaritan”?

  3. Phil Pryor

    Superstitious depraved egotistical idiots are a curse on life, progress, humanity. They so often believe in supremacy, righteousness, triumphal social class. William the Murdering, Thieving, Conquering Anus is the source of most British legendary story telling here. Good people, hard working, honest, responsible, found out after 1066 that they were nothing, possessions, objects of foul criminality. William, a disreputable bastard, supercharged with religious superstition and murderous ambition, said he owned it ALL, and he and his henchmen applied systematic control to extract obedience and wealth. The maggotty family ties go on, oppressing us. Had Harold won, William might have been consigned to a local version of a Nauru, to rot into decayed minced putridity. We might hope that a new millennium could bring about fairer and more enlightened views, some balances, some better social, political, economic justice. BUT NO. Corporate capitalist crony coercive controls allow little petty horribles to act as tiny Williams, Attilas, Adolfs and Josefs, to murder, thieve, control, coerce, ever onwards, as if the destiny of humans was to be permanent agony.

  4. Keitha Granville

    An immediate release of all those poor souls into areas that need workers seems bleeding obvious. The govt is currently looking to bring in new workers from OS to fill gaps. No need, these guys are lreyd here, already Cpvid free. What’s the problem ????

  5. GL

    The LNP will keep playing the fear of the other card because when you’re on a good thing, so to speak, stick to it and milk it for all it’s worth. The main sleaze media will help keep it simmering.

  6. Kate Ahearne

    Thanks, Peter. ‘

    When I was a kid growing up in the ’50s and 60s, Australia seemed such a wonderful place to be. We ‘knew’ how lucky we were to be Australians.

    These days, there is so much to be ashamed of. Our treatment of asylum seekers is probably the most shameful of all the shameful things that are going on under our noses, and with our consent.

    VOTE THEM OUT, BIG TIME!

  7. Andrew J. Smith

    If Germany can soak up all those mostly Syrian/Iraqi migrants allowed to stay by Merkel, now backgrounded by an ageing workforce that still has significant shortfalls, why can’t Australia?

    Sorry, forgot, it’s an ideology masquerading as political tactics to wedge Labor on proxy white Australia policy issues appealing to above median age vote; based on US eugenics and WASP (Anglo Irish) exceptionalism, as we quickly transition to a more Eurasian nation.

    Seems to make Anglosphere spruikers nervous…..

  8. wam

    I remember Cornelia Rau, ruddick and vanstone. What a lying nasty pair!
    Although the latter did confess there were others illegally detained to whom she later apologised, her excuse in support of detention, was that cornelia spoke german.
    Such silly comments gained Ms Rau $2.6m in compensation.
    What should the current refugees’ compensation be worth?
    If the kiwis are still offering why don’t scummo et al save a quid and let the humanitarians across the ditch look after them???

  9. Caz

    Kate I grew up in the forties and fifties when hoards of refugees came following WW2. I went to school with their children. We knew of their backgrounds vaguely but it wasn’t until later life that their parents told their horrific stories in the press.
    If it happened today, the likes of Dutton would not be welcoming them. In fact Dutton is a big part of the problem along with Morrison. How could someone like Frydenburg tolerate being in the same room let alone the same party with these racists. But then ambition beats ethics and morals every time.

  10. Fred

    Wam, you say “… let the humanitarians across the ditch look after them”. From what I’ve seen of the “boat people”, give them half a chance and they will look after themselves.

  11. calculus witherspoon.

    Wam is right to observe that that this has being going on for a long time.

    The people identified in the essay and their predecessors. have never missed an opportunity to smear “others” and exploit the resultant fear and loathing as a shoe- horn for creating something at odds with the aims of justice and democracy..
    The paradigm came nearly twenty years ago with Tampa, later the absurd and and unending persecution of the refugee Bakhtiari family, eerily similar in many ways to the episode involving the Biloela. Murugappan family.

    A little after the Bakhtiari expulsion came the Dr Haneef affair, which demonstrated how far the legal powers had been appropriated by the right to be come rule by whim for the conservatives. The following Intervention in the NT indicated the other why the arbitrary powers had been sought, as they were universalised them to the extent of being used against native born Australians; via Aborigines in the NT.

    These powers were acquired to end the refugee problem, fairly or unfairly but people missed the significant notion that these could be applied against all Australians later, as the Colleary, Assange and finally ROBOdebt examples also demonstrate.

    . With ROBOdebt, the previous excuse of a vague and “loaded” National Security” meme was replaced with an excuse similar to the Intervention, that some how some folk on welfare were intrinsically inferior and unable to run their own lives and that governments again had to be cruel to be kind to save civilisation and punish the less moral..

    With Colleary and Witness X we see that the system does not welcome being unmasked as to its scams, and the real reason Assange and Manning are persecuted also is because they also threaten international bogus “wars” and global control of which the armaments and security industries are such key components.

    Time goes by.

    With the Meltdown, the so called legal systems was employed to keep the Oligarchy solvent to the tune of $trillions, as is occurring now under cover of Covid.

    But many never now discover such events because of the extent to which law and justice has been perverted for the basest of reasons..

  12. corvusboreus

    Why such illogically squandrous largesse on mean cruelty?

    ‘Principally’ to further deviate the national moral compass to help steer the socio-political Overton window further into even more ethically bereft vistas.

    With the secondary effect of furter stretching the discordinant factional wings of the ALP into chronically bleeding fractures,

    And the potential bonus of harnessing inevitable international expressions of indignation into basely reactive nationalistic offront (don’t sledge straya!!!)

    ‘Good’ way to cause division within your principle enemy whilst shock-numbing the spectative masses further into ethically disenfranchised dronedom.

  13. Lawrence Roberts

    It’s all about votes
    If LNP show mercy
    PHON pick up the votes.

  14. Terence Mills

    Finally, the Australian government have agreed to accept the New Zealand offer to resettle refugees who have been held in indefinite detention on Nauru and various hotels and detention centres around Australia.

    The offer was originally made by the New Zealand government in 2013 but was dismissed by Morrison, Dutton and Abbott on the flimsy basis that the re-settled refugees could eventually achieve NZ citizenship and this would allow them to visit Australia, in common with the right that extends to any other New Zealand citizen : we ( Spudley Dutton – the muddleheaded minister) would not countenance that.

    So for the past nine years these poor sods have been held in indefinite detention, never having committed a crime, never having been before a court of law and never having been formally sentenced.

    In an act of political cynicism the coalition now realize that their punitive policy is not sustainable [ e.g. it costs the Australian taxpayer more than $500,000 a year for each of the fewer than 200 people held on Nauru]. They certainly don’t want any scrutiny in the lead up to the election as their legal position is far from being supportable – taxpayers have already paid $70million damages to 1,905 Manus Island detainees in class action for illegally detaining them on Manus Island

    We have to commend the consistency and humanity shown by successive New Zealand governments in maintaining their humanitarian offer : if only our government had that commitment, empathy, common sense and recognition to the rule of international refugee laws.

    The irony is that if the ALP had come out and said that they would, when in office, accept the NZ offer, there would be shrieks from the coalition that Labor are soft on border security – so sad that we have come to this !

    https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/historical-moment-refugee-deal-between-australia-and-new-zealand-could-be-weeks-away-20220216-p59x21.html

  15. Terence Mills

    On Friday evening nine refugees held in detention in the Park Hotel, one person from the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) and three people from Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA) were released.

    Immigration Minister Alex Hawke and the ABF refused to confirm how many people had been released or provide any detail on the reason for the action.

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-03-13/refugees-released-melbourne-brisbane-immigration-detention/100905292

    This leaves approximately fifty-five people still held in indefinite detention around Australia plus those on Nauru who we are told will be part of the New Zealand resettlement program.

    Why, you may ask are this government releasing these refugees without explanation after detaining them for up to ten years at various locations onshore and offshore. A cynic would suggest that with an election approaching and with a campaign of denigrating China underway, that our criticism of China’s human rights record is blunted when contrasted with our treatment of refugees.

    We seem to have a very ambivalent approach to human rights under this government. For instance, yesterday ( March 12, 2022) Saudi Arabia conducted its largest mass execution in its modern history, of 81 convicted men many of them political dissidents : would you expect our government to condemn the Saudi government – probably not after all they have the oil now that Russia is under sanctions.

    https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-60722057

  16. Terence Mills

    24 March 2022

    New Zealand has now confirmed that Australia has agreed to accept the offer first made [by New Zealand] and agreed by the Gillard government in 2013, to take 150 refugees a year from Australia’s offshore detention facilities for an initial period of three years (i.e 450 in total subject to review).

    The original deal was scrapped by the Abbott government on coming to office in 2013 and has been resisted by Morrison and particularly Dutton in the intervening years.

    Prime Minister Morrison said…………………You can’t trust Anthony Albanese.

    Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said……………………….Duh !

    Will somebody please make a statement of some sort !!

    ‘Seems it takes nine tears for the coalition to do a backflip.

  17. leefe

    Well, it’s about bloody time, but I’m wondering what’s behind this. What does the misgovernment see in it for themselves?

    Just hope all those we’ve mistreated and imprisoned for all this time can get out and make decent lives for themselves.

  18. Terence Mills

    Leefe

    Agreed, they will need a lot of support and TLC after what we have done to them.

    Somebody called Karen Andrews* has now come out and made a statement saying that this was ‘cleaning up Labor’s mess’.

    I think she meant cleaning up the mess left by Abbott, Dutton and Morrison.

    I looked her up on Google, evidently she is minister for Home Affairs.

  19. Terence Mills

    One thing the government did not mention is that the NZ deal does not include refugees still in PNG, either on Manus or mainland PNG.

    Evidently the government have decided that they owe no duty of care to these remaining people and that it’s a problem bilong PNG.

    When it comes to cruelty, you can’t go past this coalition government.

  20. Terence Mills

    Another twenty refugees were allowed to leave detention centres in Victoria, NSW, and Queensland overnight (1 April 2022) .

    Half of the refugees were released from Melbourne’s Park Hotel, the spokesperson said, while the others were from the Brisbane Immigration Transit Authority and Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.

    The Department of Home Affairs has declined to confirm the reports, with a spokesperson saying it would not comment on individual cases.

    Why they are doing this now is not clear but evidently the government’s campaign initiative to condemn China for its treatment of minorities could be something to do with it : it’s very hard to condemn other country’s on human rights issues when we continue to it detain asylum seekers on an indefinite basis, without trial.

  21. Terence Mills

    7April 2022

    Another 20 refugees have quietly been released from immigration detention, including eight people from Melbourne’s Park hotel – meaning there are no detainees remaining at that facility.

    The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said the 20 refugees who were released on Thursday also included six people from the Brisbane Immigration Transit Authority.

    The remaining six refugees were reportedly released from other sites across the country. The Department of Home Affairs will neither confirm nor deny the reports.

    It’s still not clear why these releases are occurring now, within weeks from a federal election, but it evidently has more to do with politics than it does with humanity. There are also a number of legal cases moving towards the courts based on unlawful detention and this may be why the government are moving quietly to clear the detention centres.

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