Saturday, May 28, 2011

Immigration Detention

Yesterday, I had the most depressing interchange, on Twitter, with a fellow called @StreetSmarts111 . His profile called out his conservative political bent. The reason the interchange was so depressing, and indeed the reason I ultimately blocked him, was that there appeared no intent on his part to engage in an exploration. This Tweeter simply wanted to pound a mandatory detention path.
What frustrates me also is that 140 characters is only the first intake of breath on a subject like this. So here goes.
Firstly about Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard. Reprehensible is the only word that works for me when I think about their refugee policies. They and the parties they lead continue to chase each other to the bottom of a very unpleasant slope. They are both playing to first world paranoia. They are seeking to garner even a few voters by playing to anxieties and misapprehensions amongst the population. They are doing this by causing irreparable damage to the lives of asylum seekers and, increasingly, damage to Australia's international reputation.
@StreetSmarts111 stubbornly equated mandatory detention with the need to "process" people. Let's just unpick that. Australia engages in mandatory, indeterminate, arbitrary detention of asylum seekers arriving by sea.
  • Mandatory - you come in by sea, you must be detained;
  • Arbitrary - the mandatory nature of detention means that, no matter who you are and what your risk, origin or claim you are nevertheless detained;
  • Indeterminate - it is impossible to say how long you will be detained for.
Now @StreetSmarts111 argues that all that is necessary in order that we be able to "process" what he chooses to call "illegal immigrants". Firstly let's put the illegal to bed. It's anyones' right to seek asylum in another country. That other country has the right to determine their view of the veracity of that claim. These people are not "illegal immigrants" they are asylum seekers.
So let's look at processing. What does Australia need to do in this regard? I'd argue that the necessary components of a processing system are:
  • It focuses firstly and quickly on simple things like "who are you?", "where did you come from?" and "who came with you?". That check is done daily at our airports to thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people. Not all of them have pre-issued visas. That system does not lack integrity suggesting that such immediate information should be accessible, even for quite large boatloads in 24-48 hours. That information also allows the commencement of security checking (more on that later);
  • Health checks. We would reasonably want to know whether arrivals were suffering from a communicable disease. We would also want to know, for the sake of the arrival, whether they were suffering from medical conditions requiring treatment;
  • The next step is to determine the nature of the claim that each person is making for asylum. This is a longer step, but in fact does not require continued detention for its conduct. By now we should be in a position to know who each arrival is and to have made an accurate assessment about whether they pose a security risk, or whether there is a high level of uncertainty about their identity, or the risk they pose. In default of such risks they are ready to be released from detention. That is not to say that they have a place in Australia as a refugee, it is not to say that they are in fact a refugee. It's simply to say that we have adopted a risk-management approach and formed a view that they can be released into the community pending a decision on their status and whether they will be granted Australian residency.
Such an approach would leave the vast majority of arrivals in our community within a month or so. Some small proportion would be detained on the basis of their risk and perhaps even removed to their country of origin (after the exhaustion of their avenues of appeal under Australian law).
So what are the risks to Australia from such an approach, rather than mandatory detention? There are none. You are more likely to be run over by a car on your way to work than harmed in any way by one of these arrivals with such a sensible managed, streamlined processing system in place. There is no physical risk beyond that which already exists through homegrown extremists, organised crime and bikie gangs - none of which have anything to do with people arriving by boat. There is no economic risk. These people in the main are hard workers, delighted to be in a place of opportunity. They contribute to economic growth which we all benefit from. They do not steal jobs from "Australians".
But there are a couple of issues. Firstly the government needs to deal with both the legislation and the performance of ASIO with respect to security vetting. As I understand it, if you receive a negative security vetting you cannot find out why and on what it is based. You simply have a negative vetting. Why is that acceptable in a democratic country? Where is ASIO's accountability to parliament, the courts and the populace? How do we know what standards are being applied by ASIO? How can we know whether their standards are hopelessly laissez-faire, entirely appropriate to the needs of modern Australia or based on utter, unfounded paranoia? We can't under the legislation and the recipient of a negative vetting is unable therefore to effectively challenge it. The legislation needs to be changed to allow proper scrutiny and review of decisions.
Equally as important, the process of security vetting needs to take place at a brisk clip, not the current inefficient, glacial pace. If it's a matter of resources then the government needs to act. If it's a matter of priorities then the government needs to set ASIO straight about what's required. In any event the current pace and framework seems unacceptable.
So what would be the benefits of ending mandatory detention and briskly processing arrivals?
  • The massive cost of mandatory detention - the financial cost - would end;
  • The irreparable human damage caused by indeterminate and arbitrary detention would be greatly reduced, perhaps eliminated;
  • Australia would begin to benefit rapidly from the contribution of these people to our society and to our economy. Yes there's a cost - people need access to support and to healthcare and education - but that cost is minuscule compared to the costs of mandatory detention and it is a cost that accrues for every member of society.
  • Australia's international reputation would cease taking the battering it is now.
  • The politicians could focus on matters of real national importance such as overhaul of the health system, implementation of an appropriate carbon strategy and ensuring the country enjoys long term benefit from the "minerals boom" rather than ending up as a bankrupt hole in the ground.
Let's not either begin imagining a mass exodus from countries around the world, all attracted to Australia by these new arrangements. That's simply a paranoid fantasy. Asylum seekers are "pushed" to leave the place they know by circumstances we can barely imagine. They are not "pulled" from the comfort of their homes by some vision of an Australian nirvana.
Asylum seekers make up such a small proportion of the immigrants coming to this country each year, that even a doubling of the numbers would have an almost negligible effect...except for the massive burden that we have imposed on ourselves by our mandatory detention policy.
There is only one thing that is needed in order for this situation to change: some sensible, ethical and moral leadership from our politicians. Our politicians need to start informing the population, they should lead the change in thinking about this situation. Instead they resort to the politics of fear, they dog whistle to those who fear everything including their own shadow.
All we need is a clear political message that asylum seekers are a positive and welcomed part of Australian life for this whole issue to vanish.
That won't unfortunately happen whilst we have the current morally bankrupt political leadership that we have - on both sides of parliament. I'd rather spend a day with any of the refugees that I know than be caught in the same room as our current political "leaders".

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