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Refugee policy back to the future

By Graham Thom - posted Friday, 29 April 2011

Four years ago, the Australian government was detaining asylum seekers on Nauru as part of the so-called ‘Pacific solution’, and many refugees lived in constant fear of being deported under the Temporary Protection Visa system. Fast-forward to 2011, and the talk is of a processing centre on East Timor – and of bringing back a form of the failed TPV. Given that the overall numbers seeking asylum in Australia remain tiny, this is an extraordinary situation.

In my casework involving asylum seekers around Australia, I saw time and time again the devastating effect TPVs had on individual asylum seekers and their families. Far from being able to integrate into Australian life, the visas left asylum seekers in limbo. They were unable to sponsor their family to join them, and feared they could be sent back to, say, Afghanistan or Iraq if Immigration officials decided that conditions there had improved. To make matters worse, with asylum seekers often separated from their families, wives and children were left especially vulnerable – alone and without a means of supporting themselves in places such as the Afghan border and Syria.

This is why the move to reintroduce a type of Temporary Protection Visas is so disturbing. Of course, the government is putting forward this proposal in the aftermath of the riots at Christmas Island and Villawood detention centres. If the Immigration Minister gets his way in parliament, any asylum seeker convicted of an offence during their time in detention will automatically fail the “character test”, virtually disqualifying them from a permanent protection visa.


So the argument goes, people who light fires in detention centres ought to be punished, not rewarded for their actions. While violence by certain individuals cannot be condoned, the government also needs to take its share of the responsibility for creating the pressure-cooker conditions which inevitably led to frustrations boiling over.

Are detainees who participate in riots inherently violent? The answer is no. That's why you don't see disturbances involving asylum seekers who are being processed in the community. The government knows from previous experience that long-term detention leads to desperation and mental illness. Asylum seekers arrive at detention centres grateful and optimistic, but as the months or years go by they break: becoming depressed, resorting to self harm or lashing out. The Minister’s proposed changes are a knee-jerk reaction to a symptom of the wider malaise in Australia’s asylum seeker processing procedures. Put simply, people should not be punished for a system that is broken.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia, regardless of whether you arrive by boat or by plane. No asylum seeker is ever brought before a court or charged with a crime. Detention is supposed to be for “administrative” purposes; it is not a punishment for any wrongdoing. Australia is the only Western democratic country to have a system of mandatory detention – a system that fails to live up to our obligations under international law.

My greatest concern is that with such harsh penalties being put in place for damaging property in detention centres, asylum seekers will increasingly take out their anxiety and frustration the only way they can – on their own bodies. Many refugees are already resorting to self-harm and hunger strikes. A month ago, a 20-year-old Afghan man took his own life at the Curtin detention centre – the fifth suicide in Australian detention centres since September. I fear it will not be the last.

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About the Author

Dr Graham Thom has been Amnesty International Australia’s Refugee Coordinator since 2000, working on behalf of individual asylum seekers as well as on broader human rights issues relating to refugees.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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