Mandatory detention has had its day

Today the Uniting Church in Australia has again called for an end to the policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers who come by boat. Here is what we said:

The Uniting Church in Australia has called on the Australian Government to urgently review the policy of the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

The Director of UnitingJustice Australia, the Uniting Church’s national justice agency, Rev. Elenie Poulos said, “The tragic events at Villawood Detention Centre this week are a stark reminder of what the Government knows to be true: the prolonged mandatory detention of asylum seekers compounds the suffering of people who have already endured considerable mental and physical trauma.

“Deteriorating conditions for asylum seekers on Christmas Island, in Darwin and Curtin and in alternative places of detention, are an indication that quick action needs to be taken. Radical change is necessary if we are to avoid a re-run of the post-Tampa horrors of Port Hedland, Curtin at its worst, Baxter, Nauru and Manus Island,” said Rev. Poulos.

The Uniting Church in Australia has for many years been calling on successive governments to end the policy of mandatory detention for those who arrive by boat and commit fully to onshore processing.

Rev. Poulos said, “Instead of expanding the failed paradigm of detention facilities and offshore processing, just a small proportion of that money could fund alternative programs which allow asylum seekers – after health, security and identity checks have been done – to reside peacefully in the community while their claims for refugee protection are assessed. This is the current practice for those who arrive by air and then claim asylum.

“We have been pleased to hear the new Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, speak plainly about the complex, global situation of asylum seekers and the very small numbers who come to Australia compared with other countries”, said Rev. Poulos.

“We urge the Government to continue this move away from using asylum seekers to score cheap political points and call on the Opposition to do the same – the sloganeering must stop. As has always been the case, people’s lives are at stake.”

“In particular we encourage the Government and the Department of Immigration to bring this openness to the complexity of conflict and post-conflict situations to the situation facing Tamils in Sri Lanka and asylum seekers from Afghanistan. One sign of a civilised country is that we do all we can to ensure that people are not being deported to life-threatening situations. Surely if these were our own families we’d want a government erring on the side of caution.”

Rev. Poulos said, “The Uniting Church calls on the Government to take a stand for justice and decency. It is time to show the world that Australia is ready to stop demonising asylum seekers and prepared to do our bit to care for our neighbours in need.”

Mandatory detention is what happens when we fail to recognise, deliberately or out of willful ignorance, the right of people to come to Australia seeking asylum.

Mandatory detention is what happens when we discriminate against asylum seekers based on their mode of arrival.

Mandatory detention is what happens when we think there is some kind of orderly queue that only selfish people ‘jump’.

Mandatory detention is what happens when we fail to engage our capacity to empathise with people. What would you do after years languishing in a horrid camp in Malaysia and Indonesia? What would you do if the nearest UNHCR office was two countries away with your persecutors standing between it and you?

Mandatory detention is the result of politicians playing political point-scoring games with vulnerable human beings.

Mandatory detention is unnecessary and costs an enormous amount of money to implement and administer. Successive Australian Governments have spent billions of dollars on a system that is known by everyone to cause harm and which does not deter people from risking their lives to come here by boat. A fraction of that money could have easily covered the cost of a safe, secure and decent community processing program.

It is to our great shame as a country that we continue to implement policies that cause harm to people.

And for the record, children who are detained in ‘alternative places of detention’ are, for all intents and purposes, in detention. It is a clear breach of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We are a secure and wealthy country. The numbers of asylum seekers who arrive by boat are so small.

How pitifully small and sad are we, when we try to offload so few people onto poverty stricken countries in our region because politicians regard it as a ‘vote-loser’ to process them here on the mainland?

The Government is right to try to engage with countries in our region in a positive and productive way to develop a regional protection framework. The chances of it being a success will rest on whether we are seen to be taking our own moral and legal responsibilities seriously; on whether we are seen to be offering genuine leadership or merely playing to internal domestic politics.

Policies that have been proven to cause harm have no place in the kind of Australia that most of us would hope for. It is time to put an end to them.

1 thought on “Mandatory detention has had its day

  1. Jared McCorkindale

    Excellent article. Completely agree with what you have written.

    I think the issue is also compounded when Australians seem to have this unspoken fear that if we let one queue jumper in, we are going to a crisis where we have masses of queue jumpers wanting to come to Australian for a bit of the lifestyle. And this scares us because Australia is “our land” not theirs, and we have done all this work to secure our little bit of paradise, why should we share?

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