Ahmed* was an unaccompanied 15 year Hazara boy when he reached Christmas Island on his second attempt in 2010. He would have been in the 800 the Government wanted to send to Malaysia as part of their human swap deal but for the High Court’s intervention.
Even now, almost two years later, his face clouds as he talks of that time of indecision on Christmas Island, the anguish and bitter disappointment of having reached safety to then be despatched again into the unknown. He is still marked by the cruelty of that proposal.
This cruelty is what both major parties want us to be known for throughout our region. South East Asia has the lowest density of Refugee Convention signatory countries. Australia was among the first to ratify this 60 years ago but very few of our neighbours have followed our example. The experience of the Pacific Solution showed that we are not going to be swamped with other countries’ offers of resettling refugees who have come to us for protection. We can’t have it all ways.
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Welcome to this week’s I Call Bullshit, a regular column where we take a look at codswallop and propaganda, logical failures and brain farts. The big news today is the Government’s plan to pay families to look after asylum seekers.
Last year, to ease pressure on detention centres, the Government started releasing more people into the community on bridging visas – but there’s still not enough room.
So now they’re going to use the Australian Homestay Network - a network of households who have already signed up to look after international students. The Government will cover the costs of room and board – about $140 per asylum seeker per week.
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Australia’s treatment of asylum seeker children and our successful program placing minors in community accommodation was misrepresented and maligned in the inaccurate piece by Sophie Peer on The Punch yesterday.
In October 2010, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and I announced a program to move the majority of asylum seeker children into community accommodation by the middle of 2011.
At that time there were around 700 children in immigration detention facilities and, despite the marked increase in boat arrivals that followed, we met that commitment and today continue to move children and vulnerable people into the community as quickly as possible.
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Imagine an Australian child is orphaned overseas. The local Government appoints him a legal guardian. The first thing the guardian does is take the boy to jail-like conditions in a remote location where he will stay indefinitely.
Would our headlines call this barbaric? Would there be outcry: children shouldn’t be treated this way? Surely he needs a comforting environment, surely there’s a better place for the boy than a detention centre? Why does he need to be so far from people who speak his language, people who could give him some support? Doesn’t he need a carer, maybe a counselor more than a guard?
It would no doubt be a scandal.
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I’ve just returned from two weeks visiting some of Australia’s most remote detention facilities. In eight different centres across Christmas Island, Curtin, Perth and Darwin I met with hundreds of asylum seekers caught up in Australia’s policy of indefinite detention.
If people in Australia were able to replicate my harrowing trip and come to any conclusion other than detention is a cruel, expensive and unnecessary farce of a policy, I would be shocked. Unfortunately, one of the problems with these centres being so remote is that most Australians will never get this opportunity.
So let me tell you what I saw.
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The Federal Government now has a clear policy direction on asylum seekers: Confuse them so much they go elsewhere.
What the Government needs is a decisive way to stop desperate people getting into boats bound for Australia while maintaining our UN and human rights obligations to accept asylum seekers.
What they’ve got is a fear-induced policy spasm that tries to keep both sides (the turn-back-the-boaters and the open-armers) happy, but succeeds in pleasing neither.
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Christmas Island, Curtin, Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin, Maribyrnong, Perth, Phosphate Hill, Scherger and Villawood Detention Centre…
These are the welcoming arms of Australia for the few desperate individuals who make it into Australian waters seeking asylum. They are detention centres that could become “home” for indefinite periods of months or even years.
In the early hours of the morning Villawood Detention Centre was set alight, and protestors climbed up onto the roof of the centre.
“Everyone has been accounted for…..we think.”
The chaotic events on Christmas Island last week were the clearest sign of dysfunction in Australia’s immigration detention system in close to a decade.
Had it not been for the recent devastation in Japan, images of rioting, tear gas, fires and general pandemonium on Christmas Island would have led every bulletin and been on the front page of every paper in the land. That they were not has bought the Government some breathing room, unfortunately, their response thus far appears to be largely in keeping with the ham-fisted ineptitude that has characterised their time in office.
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There is a central immigration question which never gets answered: Should Australians be asked to live next to people who have sewn their lips together with wire as a protest?
Or put another way: Should they have to share a community with people who, a few months previously, had fought police and destroyed public facilities?
Whether they should or not is still unanswered. But the fact is, they do.
You’ve heard a lot about the asylum policy debate in the media. The Government announces a new policy. The opposition denounces any new policy. Talk back radio goes back and forth about the best way to deal with this issue. If all this noise about asylum seekers makes you almost believe there is thought put into how to develop best practice approaches, think again. You’ve been conned.
For those of you who have seen The Usual Suspects, asylum seekers are Kaiser Sozé. A made up bogey-man criminal used to distract you from what is really going on.
It’s all just a political marketing campaign from both parties aimed at marginal seat voters. They use the boatpeople debate to define their party’s image. ‘Cruel to be kind’ for the Coalition, with ‘tough but humane’ for Labor. The reality is, when you analyse policies from both parties from a purely rationalist public policy angle, they both fail the test.
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In the giddy afterglow of Kevin07, as the nation’s lefties rejoiced at exorcising the devil that was John Howard, it was assumed that the nation would become a more compassionate place. These same people obviously haven’t been paying attention.
There are now more children in detention than there were under Howard. Right now there’s 1045 of them. Just 28 of them are in community detention; that is, not behind bars but being cared for in private homes, in keeping with the softer policy that Howard introduced in 2005.
One of these children, Seena Aqhlaqi Sheikhdost, was trundled back to Christmas Island this week, a few hours after he had buried his parents. Whether you agree or disagree with mandatory detention, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that locking up a nine-year-old on the day he’s attended his parents’ funeral meets the dictionary definition of compassion.
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Are the people of Inverbrackie racists? Are South Australians who complain about a lack of consultation in the decision to house 400 asylum-seekers in the Adelaide Hills actually closet rednecks who simply don’t like foreigners turning up unannounced on our shores?
Some of them might be. But overwhelmingly, most of them are not. Whatever you think of Mike Rann, you would be hard pressed to accuse the Premier of racism in questioning the less-than-transparent process by which Inverbrackie was chosen as the venue for a detention centre.
There are plenty of other South Australians with similar concerns, and to suggest that they’re all pitchfork-wielding hillbillies does them a disservice.
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Nauru has been struggling to get a good run in the press of late. Tales of business largesse, overseas trips, and big deals make juicy copy, leaving scant oxygen for any other news about Nauru. Coupled with the reporting on the detention centre which characterised Nauru as a bleak island in the middle of the Pacific, the Australian public could be forgiven for having a dim view of the place.
And yet such a view would not appreciate the deep history and friendship which has existed between Nauru and Australia since Nauru’s independence and before.
Originally known as Pleasant Island for its natural environment and the friendliness of its people Nauru is one of two nations (the other being Papua New Guinea) which has a history of Australian administration pre-independence. This history alone means Australia has a particular role of friendship to play in modern Nauru.
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Judging by Julia Gillard’s confident counter-maneuvers in Question Time yesterday against a barrage from the Opposition on asylum seekers, you could be forgiven for thinking the issue is starting to go the Government’s way.
After all, if Julie Bishop can’t tell the difference between Nauru and Vanuatu, as Gillard delighted in detailing, the PM must have the upper hand.
But in fact the Government is copping it from both the left and the right as boats keep arriving and the detention centres overflow.
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The last thing Adelaide Hills residents would have expected to hear this week was that their community would be home to Labor’s newest detention centre.
The ambush announcement by the Prime Minister on Monday to turn the defence housing site at Inverbrackie near Woodside in South Australia into a detention centre has caused enormous concern amongst local residents.
Now, I know there are people out there who consider themselves morally superior to me. So to them I make this point very clear to begin with - my issue is not with asylum seekers; my issue is with this Labor Government and the decisions it has made.
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