Girt by Sea

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By Adeline Teoh, ASM.

Australia’s maritime borders have been a battlefield for asylum seekers ever since the Tampa affair became a national issue. Our waters have never been so politically contentious—or so emotionally charged.

Border security. These two words come loaded with associations, from the reality TV show where officers of Australian Customs and Border Protection, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship go about their day jobs, to the Royal Australian Navy meeting a boatload of asylum seekers on the open sea. Both these associations form an important part of Australia’s refugee policy that attempts to find the line between protecting Australia from undesirables and welcoming refugees.

While the majority of us are generous and willing to give refugees a good old Aussie ‘fair go’, there’s a vocal minority with a hold on our politicians shaping the way we treat refugees. The legacy of this vocal minority is contained within 10 detention centres spotted around Australia, expensive jail-like compounds for people who have done nothing but try for a new life across the sea.

 Attention to detention

Earlier this year, humanitarian organisation Amnesty International sent a delegation on a 12-day tour of Australia’s immigration detention centres, which culminated in a report of the conditions—including the state of the facilities as well as the wellbeing of the detainees—and a list of recommendations to reform the system.

The report, Amnesty International Australia Detention Facilities Visit 2012, highlighted the length of detention and the uncertainty of release as the two most significant factors in the deterioration of detainees’ mental health. The remoteness of the centres was also a factor that emphasised the divide between detainees and the outside community, says Amnesty refugee spokesperson Dr Graham Thom.

“Once it gets to six months, 12 months, and you just don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s when it starts to break people. And particularly people in Curtin [remote Western Australia]when you can’t easily contact friends or family or you don’t have people coming to see you just to lift your spirits up, that’s when it also drags you down,” he explains. “It is a harsh environment. Three months in the middle of the desert you can bear, but after 12 months where there’s nowhere to go except your tiny room because it’s 40°C outside or hotter, 12 months is way too long. We would say three months is too long.”

Some detention centres are akin to prisons, which makes the atmosphere unnecessarily strained. The Christmas Island facility Thom says has “high fences, heavy steel doors and caged areas” under heavy watch. “Many of the men are baffled as to why they are made to feel like prisoners when they haven’t committed a crime,” he remarks.

The report, and other corroborations by medical staff, further detailed widespread use of medication among asylum seekers to deal with depression, psychosis and insomnia, and recorded numerous incidents of self-harm and suicide attempts.

Amnesty’s recommendation is for asylum seekers to be kept for no longer than 30 days in detention to allow authorities to conduct checks, in alignment with the Refugee Council of Australia. “You should be able to decide whether somebody’s a risk to the community in a month. Do the health checks, do the identity checks, do an initial character check and if those things show that this person’s not a risk then they should be out in the community [on a bridging visa],” says Thom. “As long as people have faith in the checks that are being done then that really shouldn’t be a problem. You don’t need to constantly detain people after that because, one, it’s extremely expensive, it’s extremely inefficient trying to process somebody thousands of kilometres away, and it’s damaging.”

Real risks

Mandatory detention presents more risk to Australia than letting refugees live in the community during the immigration process. The trauma of detention has ramifications beyond a detainee’s stint behind the fence, says Thom. “Detention should only be for a last resort. It should be for people who you think may be a risk. You don’t lock up people who aren’t a risk with people who might be a risk; it’s just a recipe for disaster.”

John Menadue, long involved with immigration and politics and now the founder of the Centre for Policy Development, agrees. “The public want to know that there have been some preliminary checks made as to likely security problems, health problems, criminal records, but 95% of them in detention, in my view, could be released into the community with minimal risk.”

He states that the economic argument for community release is just as strong as the humanitarian one. “Our detention centres cost about a billion dollars a year to administer, apart from any capital costs, which results in a cost per detainee of about $130,000 per annum. My estimate says it would be only one-tenth of the cost of that to release them into the community under various bridging visas where they can report as appropriate to the immigration department or the police while their refugee status is being determined.”

Not only does this result in savings for taxpayers, it is more humane for the new arrival. “There is very little absconding by persons released into the community while their status is being determined,” Menadue says. “Also, they have the view that they have been reasonably treated. If they are found not to be refugees, they depart much more willingly and voluntarily than if they believe they’ve been unfairly treated.”

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