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NO VACANCY

The Age

Thursday February 10, 2011

Russell Skelton - Russell Skelton is a contributing editor.

Australia's detention centres are full, the system is in crisis and there are few solutions in sight. What happens now? Russell Skelton reports. ON THE outskirts of Afghanistan's strife-torn capital Kabul can be found the dusty Jangalak re-integration reception centre, a lasting, if forgotten, monument to Australia's failed border protection policies.Opened in 2003 by the Howard government, the centre was designed to receive, house and train hundreds of returning Afghan asylum seekers who had been shipped from Nauru as part of the fabled Pacific Solution. It was thought a cash handout of around $10,000 each and the promise of a new beginning in Afghanistan would be enough to persuade stranded asylum seekers to return home.About $10 million in taxpayer funds were committed to the project and in the two years that Jangalak operated before being quietly abandoned by Australia it accommodated 41 returnees. Only six of the eight who trained at the centre found jobs.It was all part of a much-trumpeted memorandum of understanding signed by a desperate Howard government with an inept Afghan administration to discourage Afghans from seeking a new life in Australia.Eight years on, the lessons of Jangalak appear to have been lost. Last month the federal government signed yet another memorandum with Afghanistan to speed the return of Afghan asylum seekers. Unlike the old agreement, the new deal provides for involuntary returns, but the assumption remains strikingly similar Afghans stranded without hope of obtaining a refugee visa will eventually oblige Australian authorities by volunteering to return home.Today over 6000 asylum seekers are held in Australia's overcrowded detention facilities close to a postwar record. They wait in places such as Curtin, Darwin and Christmas Island to have their claims for refugee status assessed, reassessed and, where necessary, appealed through the courts.It is a process that can take several years because of the huge backlog of cases created by the Rudd Government's bungled six-month moratorium on refugee processing."We could easily end up with 10,000 in detention because people-smuggling pipelines through Indonesia are so well established they cannot be closed," a well-placed federal government source told The Age."Canberra is the second-biggest jailer in the land and the cost is blowing budgets out of the water. The present position is unsustainable."The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, estimates that it costs up to $150,000 a year to house a detainee (or close to $1 billion annually for all detainees) and that figure does not include numerous ancillary costs. "We are rapidly approaching a situation where we not only have nowhere to put people, but it is prohibitively expensive to go on locking people up while their claims for asylum are tested."The opposition's immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, claimed this week that the blowout in this year's Immigration Department budget would reach more than $1.1 billion, which he said was a direct result of the failure of the government's border protection policies.And history suggests those who are rejected and the rate of rejection among Afghans is now running at 50 per cent will not go easily. Unlike some countries, Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee convention and does not bundle deportees at gunpoint into unmarked planes and dump them. Nor is it likely to take the German option of rejecting all those who arrive without identity papers.Arriving in Australian territory without identity papers is, according to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen: "A complexity we have to deal with."Over the past 18 months, Mr Bowen told The Age, about 700 asylum seeker claims were rejected after a first interview and about 50 people failed their second interview but can still appeal to the courts.This is a fraction of the 6000 people who still have to be assessed.Inquiries by The Age, in and outside government, reveal that the nation's detention and processing regime, despite extensive and welcome reforms in the way asylum seekers are cared for, is in crisis with few solutions in sight.The Commonwealth Ombudsman's report into conditions at Christmas Island last week slammed chronic overcrowding, a lack of support services including accredited interpreters and inordinate delays with ASIO security checks. Much-needed recreational facilities are being cannibalised to make space for beds for the 2600 detainees.Louise Newman, a professor and director of development psychiatry at Monash University, and an adviser to the Immigration Department on mental health issues, believes such chaotic and cramped conditions are unsustainable. Traumatised asylum seekers will inevitably slip into depression and committing acts of self-harm, she says.Dr Newman, who has studied conditions in detention centres for a decade, believes self-harm among long-term detainees is on the rise, although there is no clear data available on the frequency of incidents. Suicides and hunger strikes at the Villawood centre in New South Wales, breakouts and protests in Darwin and a recent disturbance among children at the Maribyrnong centre indicate the rising tension and despair caused by prolonged detention, she says. In a four-month period last year nearly 80 incidents of self-harm were recorded."What is needed is short-term detention, fast processing and security checks. You have to identify people at risk and get them out," Dr Newman says.While detainees are locked up for long periods in remote and isolated locations, Dr Newman says, the risk of long-term mental and emotional damage increases. She is still treating those who were detained behind razor wire at the Curtin, Baxter, Port Hedland and Woomera centres by the Howard government."The language has changed, the general overview has changed, but the same problems persist. Long-term detention carries with it a heavy price. We are still detaining children and we know from past experience there are very serious implications from that."SO WHO are those in detention? Some employees of Serco, the private company running the detention centres, provided the following sketchy profile. Among the Afghans, they say, are significant numbers of young men of Hazara ethnicity from remote rural areas where they often worked on the land tending herds and crops. Some may be related to Afghans already living in Australia and go to great lengths to avoid being identified.There is also a smattering of Afghans of Pashtun or Persian background. In the Darwin detention centre where they follow the political debate about asylum seekers on TV they refer to Tony Abbott as "Uncle" and Julia Gillard as "Aunty". All appear keen to work.Mr Bowen, who readily admits the system is under pressure, is confronted by problems on several fronts. Not only is there a constant flow of boat arrivals, thanks to a highly organised people-smuggling industry a network integrated into Jakarta's economy and political fabric but there is also more attempted identity fraud, with young adults understating their age to be classified as minors (under 18 years of age). Being classified as a minor means less rigorous questioning and qualifies an asylum seeker for release into the community.With the increased rejection rate, detention centre populations are expected to remain high, although Mr Bowen is committed to moving 900 children and their families into the community by June.The centres now hold a record 1043 minors, 463 of them unaccompanied.Mr Bowen refuses to demonise asylum seekers and rejects the idea that you can stop the boats from coming by adopting harsh punitive measures, including long-term detention. In an oblique reference to ASIO's tardy performance in completing security checks he says: "You can try and speed up security processing as fast as you can by putting in place whatever efficiencies you can. At the other end of the equation you must go down the road of finding an international solution."The minister concedes that finding a regional solution that includes the processing of claims in Timor will take time to set up. In the meantime, he says: "I don't believe detention is a deterrent, it is not designed as a deterrent, it is a management tool for people who come without visas or passports by boat and require health, security and identity checks."In what could be a significant shift in approach, Mr Bowen says he would like to make it possible for asylum seekers to work for "the good of the community" while their claims for refugee status are being assessed. He is is also "sympathetic to the argument" that detainees could be allowed to volunteer for the massive Queensland flood and cyclone clean-up, although under existing 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 says.The architect of the Pacific Solution, Howard government immigration minister Philip Ruddock, says governments must take a holistic approach by using every weapon at their disposal to discourage people smuggling.He argues that the present system of processing asylum seekers onshore and placing families and children in the community only encourages people to believe "they can get a residency outcome".In his view Timor is too close to Australia to be an effective disincentive. Nauru, he says, was the ideal place to send asylum seekers for processing because it took them "way past Australia" and destroyed the credibility of people smugglers promising an easy passage to a new life Down Under.Moreover, he says, history shows that the Pacific Solution worked, with a dramatic drop in boat arrivals.Mr Bowen emphatically rejects this view, saying that it was the overthrow of the Taliban regime and a peace accord between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, rather than the Pacific Solution, that led to the sudden drop in boat arrivals from 2006.He says the new memorandum he recently signed "is quite clear, it requires Afghanistan to accept people back who have not been granted protection"."Despite all their talk the Howard government did not return one single person to Afghanistan."But time is running out for the Gillard government and the boats keep arriving. Intelligence sources estimate that there are 15,000 asylum seekers in Indonesia waiting to board boats. The number may be a tiny fraction of the world's 23 million displaced refugees (3 million of them Afghans) but it is enough to overwhelm Australia's increasingly stressed mandatory detention system.According to a federal government adviser who has worked with the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments, Australia's border protection policies have been frozen in time by the political jostlings of governments bent on ignoring global realities."Mandatory detention is becoming increasingly untenable," the source says. "Fresh thinking is needed. The boats will keep coming because the networks are too big to be stopped and the fallout from regional conflict unpredictable."The former adviser says the question for policymakers is whether Australia should accept everyone who turns up in Australia with a legitimate claim for asylum?"If the answer is no, and remember there are millions of people in refugee camps in Africa with legitimate claims, then how do we as a nation go about framing a new set of policies to address the realities?"Unfortunately nobody is ready to have that debate not the government, the opposition or the NGO sector."

© 2011 The Age

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