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Bowen backs work for asylum seekers in disaster areas

Sydney Morning Herald

Thursday February 10, 2011

Russell Skelton

IN A surprise move, the Immigration and Citizenship Minister, Chris Bowen, has revealed he would like to make it possible for asylum seekers held in detention to work for "the good of the community" while their claims for refugee status were being assessed.Mr Bowen said he was "sympathetic to the argument" that asylum seekers should be allowed to volunteer for the massive Queensland disaster clean-up. Under current legislation they could not be paid."I have been looking at mechanisms to occupy them better, to give people skills to improve themselves, whether they stay in Australia or return to the country they came from," he said.A recent memorandum of understanding signed with Afghanistan provided for failed asylum seekers to return. "Both countries agree that returns will occur and they will be involuntary if necessary," he said.The agreement, signed last month, was thrown into doubt when the Afghan Minister for Refugees, Jamaher Anwary, said the agreement never meant unsuccessful asylum seekers could be forced to go home. It was "poisonous propaganda" to suggest otherwise.Mr Bowen said he contacted the Afghan government and sought a clarification.Some 2500 Afghan asylum seekers are held in detention, with the present rate of rejection after the first interview running at 50 per cent.There are more than 6000 men, women and children held in immigration detention, one of the largest such tallies since World War II.Under Australian immigration law, asylum seekers who arrive by boat are automatically detained pending health, security and identity checks.The report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman last week on conditions at Christmas Island - where more than 2000 men, women and children are detained - found severe overcrowding, deteriorated recreational facilities and stretched and inappropriate interpreter services.Mr Bowen plans to have more than 900 children and their families released into the community by June but faces an acute shortage of suitable accommodation.More than 1040 children under 18 are held in detention, including Christmas Island and Darwin. They include 463 unaccompanied minors.Mr Bowen said about 100 children were in community accommodation and he was happy with the progress. "You cannot just say, 'I am going to release people' and send them on their way," he said."I took the view very early on that I was not prepared to split families, which was the approach of the Howard government."He said there "were challenges" to changing the present system to allow asylum seekers to interact more with local communities."I think there is scope to work in the community in a voluntary fashion and allow them to build up their skills."Sixty detainees at the Villawood detention centre in Sydney have volunteered to assist in the Queensland flood clean-up and others have offered to make donations.

© 2011 Sydney Morning Herald

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