Since August 13 the Government has been forced to pack almost all its asylum seeker deterrents into the rickety vessel called Off-Shore Processing. Today the Government had to acknowledge its policy craft had sunk.
Any discouragement of asylum seekers it might have carried has disappeared. In fact, the prospects for boat people look somewhat brighter. Nauru and Christmas Island have been overwhelmed by asylum seeker arrivals since August 13, and Manus Island in P-NG is only now open for business and soon will be full.
So Immigration Minister Chris Bowen today announced that two on-shore centre in Tasmania and Victoria would be re-opened as detention facilities and more asylum seekers would be sent into the general community.
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As questions are raised about the readiness of Manus Island to receive asylum seekers and debate rages about whether the “no advantage” test is harsh enough, it becomes increasingly clear that we are in the process of writing pages of history that future generations will wish they could erase.
These pages will sound strangely familiar to some written in the years prior to 2007 – tales of hunger strikes, children in detention, riots and protests – that a nation sought to expunge in the election of a leader promising a new approach towards asylum seekers.
In those days, the images of lips sewn together, the suicide attempts and the destruction of people’s mental health together became unconscionable to the electorate. Today, political reality, the media environment and public opinion have conspired to lead us down a path we have trod before, and not enjoyed treading.
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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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Late this morning another group of refugees clambered on top of the roof at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre in protest.
And while the Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen managed to get yesterday’s group down by refusing to “give in to their demands” maybe it’s about time we stopped cushioning the issue with industrial size mattresses and faced them head on instead.
Ian Rintoul is one person looking for a better solution. As a spokesperson for the Sydney based Refugee Action Coaliton, he’s described the situation as “desperate” and that most detainees, having spent between 12 to 16 months in Christmas Island prior to coming to Villawood, “see no future”.
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