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Immigration detention - reading the tea leaves

By Howard Glenn - posted Monday, 5 September 2005

This week, the Immigration Department’s weekly “situation report” identifies 671 people in immigration detention. These weekly reports have been a useful tool for tracking what’s been happening to asylum seekers and refugees over the last few years.

The department has never made a fine art of transparency or accountability, and the weekly statistical summary has to be read a bit like tea leaves in the bottom of a cup to get an interpretation on what’s going on. With a bit of practice though, you can get a good idea of the number of long-term detainees, movements between detention centres, and an insight into the human tragedy being played out.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the continued denial that the people still held on Nauru are part of Australia’s responsibility - these figures have always excluded the detainees there, and there’s still 30 blokes stuck on that desert island who have been there for nearly four years now. Out of sight, out of many minds.


But let’s look a bit more closely at what else this week’s figures do and don’t show, particularly compared to the same time three years ago.

Detainees are only at Nauru, Baxter, Villawood, Maribyrnong and Perth, with the majority being at these latter three metropolitan detention centres. Woomera, Port Hedland, Curtin, Christmas Island, Cocos Island and Manus Island are closed. If we could just get those last men off Nauru - women and children have long gone - and mothball Baxter, then we’ve won our call for immigration detention centres to be close to major population centres for accountability, speed and ease of processing. The worst of the camps - Woomera, Curtin and Port Hedland - are gone.

The children are out of detention. Three years ago, before we’d won the first of the series of backbencher-forced back-downs from the Government in December 2002, (one which proved so hard to get implemented): there were 89 children in the detention centres in Australia, including kids unaccompanied by their parents; plus another hundred or so on Nauru; with only a handful in “alternative accommodation pilot projects”. Today, there are still children deemed to be in detention - or in hospitals, foster care, private apartments and so on - but it’s a big breakthrough to get them finally out of the detention centres.

Fully a third of last week’s number are from China, and I’d guess that almost all would be in detention for relatively short periods for breaches of visa conditions, on the way to removal from Australia. The main point is that compared to three years ago, the detainees are not largely boat-arriving asylum seekers.

The enormous political and social mobilisation that has made immigration one of the key issues was about the treatment of those who fled Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, and arrived in Australia by boat. The vast majority of these people have now been given refugee status, and most are now on the path to permanent protection in Australia, and eventually citizenship. While a handful of refugees have left Australia, I am not aware of any cases where people got temporary refugee status (the three year temporary protection visa), and were removed after the end of this period of protection. There are of course still unresolved cases in the system.

Now as we have discovered, the mere presence of a single person in immigration detention must give rise to some concern, as the department has a dreadful track record for not handling people with dignity, sensitivity or respect for basic human rights. These are surely also a group of people who are so damaged by the processes they’ve been through since arriving by boat. These are people whose settlement into the community has been fraught with insecurity as they have waited for the promised removal that so far has not come.


There is a whole other group of asylum seekers - people who arrived here with visas, but whose circumstances changed while here and then seek refuge. If that change to circumstances happens more than an arbitrary 45 days after their arrival, they have to wait through the whole refugee determination process without income support or work rights, reliant on a stretched charity sector.

But while it’s not popular to admit it, those of us who’ve been working on these issues in recent years have a lot to be proud of - we’ve taken things a long way.

Starting from a time of bi-partisan support for mandatory detention, and the failure of both the Government and the Opposition to resist using human misery for political capital, scores of groups, and tens of thousands of Australians have organised into one of the biggest human rights mobilisations we’ve seen.

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About the Author

Howard Glenn leads lobby group Rights Australia Inc, was previously founder and national director of Australians for Just Refugee Programs, and brought the widest range of organisations and individuals together to challenge poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Formerly CEO of the National Australia Day Council, he was responsible for modernising national celebrations and the Australian of the Year Awards, and involving communities across Australia in debates on reconciliation, republic and national identity.

Howard was an adviser to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke-Keating Governments, and had key involvement with Indigenous education policy, the response to the deaths in custody Royal Commission and the establishment of the reconciliation process. Outside government he has extensive community sector involvement, currently on human rights, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol issues. When not at a computer, Howard is a middle distance runner and a surf lifesaver.

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