27 Apr 2011

The Right Response To Villawood

By Nick Riemer
Property damage at Villawood is a distraction from the much greater injustice of mandatory detention. Recent unrest at detention centres should galvanise opposition to this wholly unacceptable policy, writes Nick Riemer
The widespread description of last week's riot at Villawood as simply a criminal act is remarkable. In what was described as a "stern" warning to asylum seekers, Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen said that "Australians have a right to be angry at those who have conducted this sort of damage", and invoked the possibility of criminal charges. His opposition counterpart, Scott Morrison, agreed. Early on the morning of Good Friday, 22 asylum seekers were forcibly removed from their beds by police and transferred from Villawood to Silverwater jail, a move strongly criticised by the NSW Council for Civil Liberties.

The suggestion that the Villawood detainees are the appropriate objects of public anger is a precise reversal of the truth. People who are genuinely concerned about right and wrong only need ask themselves the following straightforward question to reveal just how misplaced is a focus on detainees' possible crimes: What matters more, offences against property, or the long-term imprisonment, without charge, of nearly 7000 innocent and vulnerable people, most of them fleeing amply documented conditions of war and persecution in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka? (See the latest DIAC detention statistics figures, for 11 March 2011 here.) 

It is absurd to fixate on possible offences committed by detainees at Villawood or Christmas Island amid the far more serious human rights violations of the Australian refugee policy to which they are subject. This policy has led to five suicides since September, recurrent hunger-strikes, and an epidemic of self-harm. In the face of wrongdoing of this amplitude, any offences committed by detainees at Villawood or Christmas Island are inconsequential.

Political leaders' attempts to criminalise protesting detainees are, then, a major distortion of the truth. But they are also strikingly inconsistent with the principles they defend in other contexts. The Prime Minister's expression of anxiety that China is taking a "backward" step on human rights rings particularly hollow in the same week that the government announced a further tightening of the very policy consistently condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee. 

This double-standard runs throughout political reaction to asylum seekers. Earlier on the day of the riots, in response to which he said that protesting asylum seekers "will certainly feel the full force of the law", Wayne Swan told a Queensland media club lunch in Brisbane that his involvement in politics springs from his belief that "there are people who need a bit of compassion, a helping hand from the rest of us". In a keynote speech to the Migration Institute in October of last year Chris Bowen said he was aware that when it came to asylum applications, "behind every discussion, every briefing note, every case, are real people with simple hopes and dreams."

The public is entitled to ask what, if anything, these declarations of principle actually mean. We have seen nothing remotely like an attempt to consider asylum seekers' human rights, still less to take account of their "hopes and dreams", to offer any "helping hand", or to show "compassion". Having pushed asylum seekers to the brink, government and opposition are now seizing on the riots as confirmation of the implicit premise of their mandatory detention policy: asylum seekers are basically criminals.

In this situation, it is crucial for refugee supporters to remember whose side they are on.

Like many refugee advocates, sections of the Greens have responded to last week's events by calling for limits on the timeframe for detention and for management of the detention centres to be returned to government. For anyone committed to refugee rights, this is a serious tactical mistake. What refugee advocates should be demanding is that mandatory detention be abolished, not that it be restricted or managed better. Refugee supporters cannot afford to compromise over those key demands.

Countenancing mandatory detention — even with time-caps, even in nationalised and fully transparent facilities, even just for adults — in itself concedes the major parties' point that detention is the correct response to refugees arriving by boat. If prominent voices in the pro-refugee camp endorse limited-timeframe detention as an acceptable option, the government of the day will always be able to find reasons to extend the time-period beyond the initially agreed parameters, and Australia's detention policy will not have changed.

The risks for any kind of compromise-approach to refugee advocacy are evident in a remarkable recent column in the Sydney Morning Herald. Under the cover of a commitment to a "humane" approach to refugees and a genuine concern for asylum seekers' mental health, Tanveer Ahmed, a regular Herald columnist as well as a psychiatrist, mounted an unprecedented and highly disingenuous attack on refugees.

Ahmed tried to discredit asylum seekers on multiple grounds, claiming that they are out to manipulate "white man's guilt" and that self-harm in detention is often malingering by people without any real mental health symptoms. He also cast doubt on refugees' bona fides by emphasising that their "circumstances are almost universally impossible to verify". Since he thinks that abolishing detention will "surely increase the number of boats," the "most humane" solution "with regards to reducing distress" is to reinstate the Coalition's Pacific Solution.

We can leave aside the questions of what qualifies Ahmed to comment on the verifiability or otherwise of asylum applications; what actual relevance the Canadian studies on which he based his claims have to the Australian situation; and how the most humane solution could possibly involve incarcerating desperate and traumatised people in a bankrupt, remote and tiny Pacific state without any of the support infrastructure available in Australia. What Ahmed's column shows is how easy it is to appear to have refugees' best interests at heart while promoting policies that are only hostile to them.

There is no question about the genuineness and good intentions of refugee supporters who assume that the only viable argument that can currently be made is for detention to be limited in some way rather than wholly abolished. But by implicitly endorsing detention as an appropriate option, those supporters find themselves dangerously poised over the top of Ahmed's own slippery slope.

Weak or qualified opposition to mandatory detention only strengthens the hand of those whose real agenda is to stop the boats, but who want to do so with an appearance of high-minded compassion. Australia should not be trying to dissuade refugees from coming here. Our current exposure to international refugee movements is minuscule on any measure. Asylum seekers want to come here because they are trying to escape unjust persecution. As a detainee in Villawood described the irony of Australian policy when I spoke to him by phone last week, "Big country — no room".

Our response to asylum seekers could be a matter of national pride, not an international disgrace. We should make room for asylum seekers by ending their persecution, not compounding it. The only way to do so is to abolish mandatory detention immediately, without compromise.


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David Grayling
Posted Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - 16:22

The Americans would solve this problem quickly and easily. They would launch a squadron of drones and blow up anything that moved in the oceanic region to our north east.

I know there are Australians who would favor this measure or who would be happy if our navy sank the boats and left men, women and children struggling in the water.

I know also that there are many big-hearted Australians who want to share our wealth with others who are less fortunate as long as they are genuine refugees and are willing to embrace the 'fair-go' principle and our way of life.

How we put these two disparate groups together is a worry. Of course, the reality is that most Australians came from overseas originally, a fact that is often forgotten!


This user is a New Matilda supporter. nickriemer
Posted Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - 16:59

First things first, Dr Dog. I agree with you that selling a wholesale abolition of mandatory detention becomes harder the more the major parties continue down their current track. But the first step is winning an acceptance that detention of innocent people for any length of time is always unacceptable. What we're seeing at the moment is some hesitation to make the argument for that as strongly as it needs to be made.
Having said that, I think that public hostility to refugees isn't as deep as is often assumed. It's virulent, certainly, but I'm optimistic enough to think it could be dissolved by a concerted effort of political will, aimed at appealing to people's better feelings. If you believe (as I do) that an abolition of detention is better for everyone, then the arguments aren't hard to find...

Posted Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 08:29

Nick - in the current hysterical right wing environment, the Federal Government is hardly likely to wake up one day and abolish mandatory detention. So, how to make it happen? There needs to be a co-operative and collaborative campaign from all pro refugee groups leading up to the National Conference of the ALP where the policy on mandatory detention should be abolished. And then there will be the campaign to make the government implement that policy. So what should be the conditions inside detention centres while this campaign is underway? Certainly if the government got rid of Serco, and Bowen seems to be wavering on this, there could be a more humane environment created. The government putting a lot of pressure on DIAC and ASIO to get on with procsessing applicants expeditiously would time limit their stay.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. nickriemer
Posted Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 08:50

Jenny –

Clearly there are any number of improvements that could be made to current arrangements that would lead to a more humane environment but would fall short of abolishing mandatory detention altogether. The question is how these improvements should arise in the debate. It's possible to argue for the various reforms you mention without conceding the principle that mandatory detention itself must go. But that's exactly what seems not to be happening at the moment.

I'd certainly welcome seeing Serco lose their contract, but I'm not convinced that replacing it would automatically lead to a more humane environment in detention centres. If I was DIAC I might be looking to create a tougher one, to prevent events like last week's. Already we've heard suggestions that it's a problem that detainees have mobile phones...

Marilyn Shepherd
Posted Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 14:20

We got by without bloody refugee prisons from the first signing of the convention until 1992 when Gerry Hand lost the plot entirely.

Perhaps many don't know what happened. Some in the ALP wanted to "deter" asylum seekers from Cambodia and Vietnam because they had "brokered" peace with them. So three ministers were approached about detention and they rejected it.

Then that ignorant racist pair of so-called left wing cowards Gerry Hand and Nick Bolkus got the wind and loved it. It was these two facists that put the refugee convention into domestic policy in 1992 at article 36 of the migration act.

They then took out all offences for entering or staying in Australia without a visa and invented this ridiculous "administrative" detention where they could lock up those who were obeying Australian law without charge or trial for 273 days and if they stayed locked up longer they had to be released.

They moved people from one place to the other to avoid courts and Bolkus ultimately wrote the law that is now known as Al Kateb which the ALP could have scrapped but chose not to. I don't know if you are aware but estimates show that DIAC are now using Al Kateb to illegally lock up the poor Indonesia crews without charge, then they are using the smuggling protocol in the exact reverse to charge them with smuggling after the passengers are found to be refugees.

The protocol forbids this utterly, but hey, everyone knows a destitute fisherman who just gave refugees a ride is worse than those locked in Gitmo, the republican guard of Iran, the Al Qaida organisation and the Taliban all rolled into one.

The ALP then decided to make it a crime to escape detention even though the UNHCR and many others have said for 20 years that the detention is illegal.

Even bloody Julian Burnside thinks 1 month of detention without charge is OK, seems that the rule of law doesn't apply if the people are 'unpopular".

We are the stupidest country on earth.

As the SMH have finally got to - it's the detention stupid.

Posted Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 16:02

Dear Nick,

Wouldn't abolishing mandatory detention encourage more people to come here? Wouldn't that mean more lives lost at sea? Wouldn't that raise possibility of someone being rejected just doing a runner? Can mandatory detention be humane if managed properly?

Jonah Bones
Posted Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 16:19

My first reaction was that these people would make great Australians , having demonstrated the spirit of the Eureka Stockade and the Great Shearers Strike.
I am dismayed that contemporary Australians side with the bureaucrats and politicians, rather than the underdog fighting for a fair go with a f... off attitude to overbearing authority.

Posted Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 17:34

And I thought trench warfare was a thing of the past!
Sorry folks extremism either left or right is counter productive. Can we take the rhetoric back a peg or three pleease.
I have yet to find any contentious topic being resolved by emotive language and rants.
What is needed is a calm considered discussion regarding finding better option(s).
As I raised in my comments to Ben's go at the topic, there are other issues involved which seem to be ignored.
Clearly a good start would be to improve the environment, new better management (profit is never a good motive for provision of humane services).
Next more bodies on the ground in other countries checking the bona fides wouldn't go astray.
Before we rush into"in the community" system there are a myriad of issues to be considered.
At the end of the day we as a community need to be prepared to fund the prerequisite services. As it stands to day I'd say good luck with that.

Marilyn Shepherd
Posted Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 17:51

We are not allowed to have people in the countries of origin checking up on people, that is a breach of the law.

(309) Program 4.3: Offshore Asylum Seeker Management
Senator Cash asked:
The 2010-11 Budget provided an allocation of $357 786 000 for
Program 4.3 - Offshore Asylum Seeker Management. What is the number of illegal
maritime arrivals this figure was based upon? Has this figure been adjusted?
By how much? What is it now?
The $357.786 million referred to in the question (page 59 of the 2010-11 PBS) only
relates to the Program 4.3 administered appropriation estimate for the 2010-11
financial year.
The estimated number of IMAs used in the calculation model was 2,000. This 2000
IMA estimate was adjusted as part of the 2010-11 Additional Estimates process to
6629. The equivalent 2010-11 administered appropriation is $597.134 million.

Perhaps this incredible waste of money will put the cost of a few frigging tents into perspective.

$90,000 per person which achieves nothing at all.

Posted Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 18:41

Perhaps you can lower the temperature a bit and consider ALL that I've written on related topics centre, and then address the points I've raised.

We agree that the current system is manifestly inadequate.
Notwithstanding neither should we act by extremes.
Just because the conservatives want to paint all wannabe asylum seekers as agents of "Allah know what" is patently idiotic.
So is being so utterly naive as to white wash them in shaded of purity.
Don't run away with the idea that some (more than you think) wouldn't stoop to manipulating/abusing our obligations/generosity.

My experience with other cultures has taught me NOT to view others through our cultural mores.

Over simplicity tend to assist the evil more than the moral. The moral (Idealistic) are bound by those rules. The evil aren't so inhibited.
Simply look at who succeeds in business. We must avoid ignoring other's Malthusian or exploitive traps.

Be wise and just, not naive and assuming.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. nickriemer
Posted Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 19:05

Homerjunior –

You ask whether abolishing mandatory detention wouldn't encourage more people to come here. Simply for the purposes of argument, let's grant that it would. (As a matter of fact, there's no reason to think that that's true. The number of arrivals has varied substantially since 1992, when mandatory detention was introduced, as a result of conditions overseas.) But, in any case, why should we want to prevent more people arriving here? Australia currently takes only a minute proportion of international refugees. As a uniquely affluent society, we should be assuming our share of the burden – I'd prefer to think of it as the privilege – of helping desperate people out. We can't somehow opt out of the world. We would have a very, very long way to go before we needed to start worrying about having more refugees than we could handle.

As to the risk of lives lost at sea, if we were really serious about our humanitarian obligations we'd not criminalize people smuggling, so that refugee boats wouldn't hesitate to appeal to Australian authorities if they got into trouble.

Could someone who was rejected 'just do a runner', you ask. Of course. No system is perfect. But there's no reason to think that this would be a serious problem – certainly nowhere near as serious as the litany of disasters afflicting present arrangements.

Finally, you ask 'can mandatory detention be humane if managed properly?' Asylum seekers are innocent of any crime. Depriving them of their freedom is a gross violation of their fundamental rights and is therefore inhumane, regardless of how gilded the cage we keep them in. Or so it seems to me.

Posted Friday, April 29, 2011 - 10:36

Dear Nick,

Thanks for your reply. I think the concerns I and many people have are that firstly, the numbers of people arriving would grow to be unmanageable, and secondly, the people arriving would be genuine asylum seekers. It seems reasonable to detain people while their claims are assessed, while treating them with respect, to address these concerns.

Posted Friday, April 29, 2011 - 10:49

ick Riemer,
It seems to me that your focus is a little too tunnel visioned.
As I've said before, in a perfect world Asylum seekers could be accepted on face value but sadly we don't live in such a world. I advocate we lose the loaded hype, diametrically opposed (political) mind sets and address the issue(s) in turn in a measured and rational way. Something that is sorely missing in the media and what serves as parliament.
I'm advocating a wider (more realistic) perspective of refugee seekers, clearly that indicates a more reasoned approach.
Negotiation 101 dictates that hype begets hype never accommodation (solutions)

While the much of the (basically ignorant and therefore reactionary) public are inclined to see all non white wannabe migrants as some sort of assault/threat on our way of life (sic)and consequently want to excoriate them en toto. I would suggest that taking the diametrically opposite view is both exceedingly naive and very unwise on a multiple of grounds.

I'm not as sanguine as you about loading ANY land mass to beyond its carrying capacity. And no I'm not advocating 'fortress Australia' either.
I mean “carrying capacity” financial, sociological, and environmental terms.
For example sake we have issues now with providing some services for existing clientele.
Are we sure that centralisation isn't the most practical way of delivering needed services etc?
NB I agree that the current system is manifestly in adequate in almost every respect.
Nor am I convinced that in community is necessarily the most secure approach.
History has shown that 'runners' from justice (human rights/war criminals) do hide in refugees. Dodgy marriages, standover gangs are also worthy of factoring in.
The problem with moral judgements is that we are bound by that logic. However,we mustn't assume that the other side of the equation is likewise constricted.
Experience has shown that unscrupulous intentions are not racially limited.

One only needs to look at the WW2 crims that have surfaced in recent times. Not to mention the millions to try and bring them to justice after the event.
Is also fact that “watchers” also infiltrate refugee groups as do crims.
It has also been noted that documentation is often deliberately discarded to cloud the issues.
I am not convinced that no detention at all wouldn't simply attract a new type of migrant. Nor do I believe that it will solve the problem.
I think it's a combination of arrogance and naivety that assumes well placed foreign aid isn't in our best interests.
I also note you didn't mention that the part the failed asylum seekers probable role in the riots. They would not be beyond trying to manipulate the system.
I am neither wedded to mandatory attention nor not improving the genuine situation.
The question to me is HOW to achieve a balance between our need to plan run our country and humane treatment? At the moment the extremists are getting the air.

Posted Friday, April 29, 2011 - 16:14

<b>"I would suggest that taking the diametrically opposite view is both exceedingly naive and very unwise on a multiple of grounds."</b>. This isn't a case where the "other" side is required to be moderate though: because the opposite side is the current prevailing view and is actually currently <i>in effect</i>. Why should pro-refugee supporters be told that they need to find a more moderate view point, or even that the onus be put on them to find a more "reasonable solution"?

It is a complete abuse of our privilege to even take the stance suggested upstream. I really don't mean any personal offense to "Examinator", but the current deplorable treatment of asylum seekers really deserves nothing less than extreme, diametric opposition. That is the only thing that really does seem reasonable.

<b>"I am not convinced that no detention at all wouldn’t simply attract a new type of migrant."</b> Heaven forbid.