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Minister backs detainee community work

The Age

Thursday February 10, 2011

By RUSSELL SKELTON

IN A surprise move, Immigration 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 are being assessed.Mr Bowen said he was "sympathetic to the argument" that asylum seekers should be allowed to volunteer for the Queensland floods clean-up, although 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 told The Age in an interview.Mr Bowen said he had also received confirmation from the Afghan government that the recently signed memorandum of understanding between the two countries did provide for the "involuntary return" of failed Afghan asylum seekers."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 Afghan Minister for Refugees Jamaher Anwary claimed it never meant unsuccessful asylum seekers could be forced to go home and it was "poisonous propaganda" to suggest otherwise.Mr Bowen said he contacted the Afghan government following the minister's reported remarks seeking a clarification. About 2500 Afghan asylum seekers are held in detention. The current rate of rejection after the first interview is 50 per cent.Overall, there are more than 6000 people held in immigration detention. Under immigration law, asylum seekers who arrive by boat are detained while health, security and identity checks are carried out.The recent Ombudsman investigation of conditions at the Christmas Island detention facility, where more than 2000 men women and children are held, found severely overcrowded conditions, a deterioration in recreational facilities and stretched and inappropriate interpreter services.Mr Bowen plans to have more than 900 children and their families living in the community by June, but faces an acute shortage of appropriate accommodation. There are more than 1000 children held in detention facilities such as Christmas Island and Darwin. The number includes 463 unaccompanied minors.Mr Bowen said about 100 children had been found 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 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 help in the Queensland clean-up. Any move to allow detainees to carry out voluntary work would ease the overcrowding, although it would create logistical problems.

© 2011 The Age

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