Just when you’re ready to give up hope on all politicians forever, some of them go and do something worthwhile. Those fighting for the humane treatment of asylum seekers got a win today.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced that the government would expand the use of existing resident determination powers to move unaccompanied minors and ‘at-risk’ families out of isolated detention facilities, and into community detention instead.
What’s community detention? Simply put, it’s housing these particular asylum seekers in existing facilities (Bowen suggested disused aged care residences or church properties, as well as some private housing) and allowing them to become part of the community. They will most likely be required to undertake some sort of reporting regime, and children would be subject to a curfew. In addition, if their housing was the kind of hostel where there are on-site personnel, those personnel would report regularly to the Department of Immigration.
Children will attend school – in fact, will be required to do so unless there are extenuating circumstances. In addition, Bowen announced greater access to mental health care for all asylum seekers.
Bowen expects the majority of children, and a ‘substantial portion’ of at-risk families, to be in community detention by June 2011. That means nearly 700 children will be out of detention centres, long identified as extremely damaging to mental and emotional health.
Now, if all that sounds just a bit familiar, it might be due to this story that appeared in The Age yesterday. Senator Sarah-Hanson Young of the Greens confirmed that the details as put to her by media were ‘in keeping’ with discussions she had with Bowen in the last week.
The Opposition leapt on that. Here was proof, they said, that ‘Labor might be in government, but the Greens are in power’. That slogan, trotted out ad nauseam over the next twenty-four hours, presumably was intended to be a killing thrust in the Opposition’s campaign to scare the country into running back into the Conservative fold. It’s really just a variation on a theme; the Greens are a dangerous risk to the economy/jobs/Our Way of Life, and now the government is in debt to them and has to do whatever they say.
Clearly, that was on Gillard’s mind today. After delivering the good news on getting kids out of detention, she stressed that this was entirely the government’s idea. There was no deal with ‘any other party’. There were no discussions with ‘any other party or parliamentarian’. None. And in case she wasn’t fully understood, she went on to repeat it later.
Bowen acknowledged that he had spoken with Senator Hanson-Young ‘at the beginning of the new term’, but not lately, and not with regard to this plan. There was clearly an element of selective reporting there; it’s hard to believe that any discussion with the Senator would not involve the issue of children in detention, given how passionately she has championed the cause of asylum seekers. Equally, though, it’s likely they did not talk about any specific plan.
So the government was playing it a bit tricky there, but the aim was clear – to strongly refute any claim that Labor was in any way beholden to the Greens. It’s an understandable goal, but one that is disappointing. The Opposition have succeeded in panicking Labor, and in doing so, Labor runs the risk of alienating a strong potential alley. The Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate from July next year – their support may be the only way Labor can implement its agenda.
And for what gain? To reassure us? The public and most welfare organisations have repeatedly called for detention of children to end. Today’s announcement shows that the government is capable of compassion, rather than simply dogwhistling. Would it really have damaged the government to show that it had been in discussion with the Greens – indeed, with anyone?
It wasn’t all good news today – though on balance, the tone was positive. Gillard went on to announce that temporary tent facilities at Christmas Island would be decommissioned, and that motels would no longer be used to house an overflow of asylum seekers. This is partly because of community detention, and partly because two new facilities will be developed. One is the Northam Defence Training Camp, located around 80km north-east of Perth, which will house up to 1500 single men. The other is the Inverbrackie Defence Housing Facility, 37km north of Adelaide, for up to 400 family members.
To guard against potential overflow of asylum seekers in the future, two contingency detention accommodation sites will be developed. The 11 Mile Antenna Farm in Darwin will house single men. The existing Transit Immigration Facility at Broadmeadows in Melbourne will also be expanded.
Bowen was quick to point out that all asylum seekers will still be initially detained for health and security checks, before decisions can be made about moving some people into community detention. He also said it would be ‘irresponsible’ to simply throw open the gates and release all families and children at once, without making sure there was an infrastructure in place to support them.
On the face of it, that’s a perfectly reasonable statement. It remains to be seen what delays may arise, but in principle, the idea that there should be a good support structure for people coming suddenly into the community is a sensible one. This is especially true given these people may well be traumatised from the situation they fled, the risky voyage they undertook or their experiences in detention centres. It’s particularly heartening to see that the mental health of asylum seekers is at last being addressed.
Bowen said one surprising thing today; he acknowledged that Australia had the ‘toughest mandatory detention system in the world’. That’s not news to anyone, of course – but Bowen didn’t then attempt to excuse it. Previously the government has been at great pains to put up all sorts of justifications – most appallingly, the idea that they are responding to ‘understandable’ community concern (read: xenophobia encouraged by scare-mongering politicians and talk radio hosts). Not this time.
Is this the sign of an overall move towards more compassionate treatment of asylum seekers? I’d like to think so, but I think we will still see men in detention centres, possibly going on hunger strikes or climbing up on the roof to call attention to their situation.
Getting rid of the tents on Christmas Island? Updating facilities? Providing mental health care? And getting kids out of a toxic, damaging detention situation? It’s a start.
But that’s all it is. And the government shouldn’t think it can now rest on its compassionate laurels.
Australia still has a long way to go. And there will be people questioning and calling the government to account. It won’t be the Opposition – if anything, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison will lead the fear-frenzy with cries of ‘soft on border protection’ and ‘armada of boats’.
It will be the Greens, Andrew Wilkie, and people like you and me who continue to speak up and challenge the idea that Australia is under attack from desperate people fleeing persecution. It’s the small voices that start the groundswell. That the government has finally agreed to release children is a sign that – even in this one way – that groundswell is starting to become hard to ignore.
At least, that’s what I hope.