Managing refugees onshore

By Andrew L. Urban

Another contentious refugee policy (they are all contentious) is the bi-partisan policy of isolating refugees in Australian detention centres during processing. It is contentious not between the two major parties but in the community, where humanitarian concerns come into conflict with security concerns. In a democracy, striking a balance between such concerns is a real test of quality of political thought. To date, quality of thought in this discussion has been arguably missing.

This is not to suggest that there are easy solutions to the challenge, but democracies that adopt even the watered down methods of oppressive regimes are doomed to conflict from within their communities. In the case of Australian refugee detention policy, the failure to resolve this challenge of balancing the humane with the secure is evident in terrible stories of refugees suffering from a variety of physical and mental problems as a result of being incarcerated for too long while waiting for processing outcomes.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) carried out an investigation in early 2011 and made 18 recommendations on ways to improve the detention system.

Recommendation 1: The Australian Government should end the current system of mandatory and indefinite immigration detention.

The Australian Government should implement reforms it announced in 2008 under which immigration detention is to be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable period, people are to be detained in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their individual circumstances, and there is a presumption that people will be permitted to reside in the community unless they pose an unacceptable risk.”

The Commission also states in its extensive report:

“The Commission’s longstanding concerns about Australia’s immigration detention system have escalated over the past year, with ongoing troubling incidents across the detention network. These have included six deaths in detention (five of which appear to have been the result of suicide), suicide attempts, serious self-harm incidents including lip-sewing, riots, protests, fires, break-outs and the use of force against people in detention on Christmas Island by the Australian Federal Police. These incidents have occurred in the context of a detention network that is under serious strain due to a number of factors, but most importantly because thousands of people are being held in detention facilities for long periods of time.

As of 11 March 2011 there were 6819 people, including 1030 children, in immigration detention in Australia – 4304 on the mainland and 2515 on Christmas Island. More than half of those people had been detained for longer than six months, and more than 750 people had been detained for longer than a year.”  [1]

In a democracy, this is appalling and inexcusable. It is also counter productive in that the forced and undignified, debilitating co-habitation of refugees – from a variety of backgrounds – has the potential to trigger anti-social behaviour and kick start radicalisation – the one thing we are trying to avoid.


The primary reason for detention is cited as security – the risk of admitting terrorists or potential terrorists to Australia. While this is an easy policy trigger to sell to the electorate, the premise is utterly unconvincing. There has been no evidence whatever that terrorists become fake refugees, hiding among the desperate on small boats that may capsize, to reach Australia, where they will be subject to security clearance checks. It could be argued of course, that the reason this is not a favourite route for terrorists to infiltrate Australia is precisely because of the rigorous and time consuming process, not to mention the hazardous journey and lengthy period of detention.

But that argument lacks substance and it is certainly unproven.

Given how many of those who arrive by air overstay their visas and are never detected, it would seem a particularly stupid alternative to come by leaky boat.

However, where it is reasonably believed that an asylum seeker has deliberately destroyed personal ID papers, and it is believed that this was done to make security clearance and or verification of authenticity of refugee claim, it would be acceptable within democratic principles to detain the asylum seeker until the claim can be authenticated and security clearance is obtained.

The  AHRC report’s 4th Recommendation:

“Until recommendations 1 and 2 are implemented, the Australian Government should avoid the prolonged detention of asylum seekers by complying with its New Directions in Detention policy under which detention of asylum seekers is for the purpose of conducting health, identity and security checks. The security check should not be interpreted as requiring a full ASIO security assessment for each individual before they are released from an immigration detention facility. Rather, the security check should consist of a summary assessment of whether an individual would pose an unacceptable risk to the Australian community. That assessment should be made when the individual is taken into immigration detention, or as soon as possible thereafter.”

Secondly, terrorism is now planned and conducted via internet and terror cells; even self-created ones without central control, hardly need to risk importing terrorist activists. The only ones who would warrant the risk are at the hierarchical top, or with rare specialist knowledge that can only be utilised in person. Such highly valuable terrorists would not take a ride on one of those boats.


As for the risk of importing criminals (refer ‘character test’ Section 501 Migration Act), it is worth noting that under current laws, refugees who commit crimes prior to their processing are still able to apply for asylum, unless their crimes are punishable by prison terms in excess of 12 months – or more, eg having been sentenced to death. But of course the latter is problematic when that sentence is made by a system of law we do not accept, eg Sharia law.

On the first risk, terrorism, the risk seems to be nonexistent; on the second, crime, the risk is inflated in the context.  The third risk, contagious disease, is clearly an urgent matter that does not and must not take months to assess.

Refugee processing time is a major factor in the development of problems that arise out of the system, not out of being a refugee. That is surely a blight on Australian democracy.

[1] Australian Human Rights Commission report 2011, Summary of observations from visit to immigration detention facilities at Villawood.

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