16 September 2010

Time to resume processing of Afghan asylum seekers

There is a great deal of attention being paid in the media at present to the overcrowding of Australia’s immigration detention centres, and the Government is somewhat on the back foot.

The Coalition attributes the overcrowding to the number of boat arrivals, and that is of course a factor. There is, however, another factor – the fact that on 9 April 2010 the Government suspended processing of asylum seekers from two of the major sources of boat arrivals, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan (see Department of Immigration and Citizenship Fact Sheet here), ostensibly to enable the Government to conduct a review of the situation in the two countries, but in my view it had more to do with the “anxiety” about boat arrivals in the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne which has driven asylum policy throughout the year and especially during the recent election campaign. I have seen no evidence that would lead me to believe that the situation for Tamils in Sri Lanka or for Hazaras in Afghanistan had improved to the extent that one would feel it was time to conduct a review.

Processing of Sri Lankan claims resumed on 6 July (“following a review of country information”), but Afghan asylum seekers remain in limbo and their children rot in places like the Darwin Airport Motel, not behind razor wire I grant you, but definitely in a place of detention and a psychologically damaging environment.

This is a catastrophic approach to policy from every point of view. Typically 90+ per cent of Afghan claims are successful , although the success rate dropped dramatically from March – from almost 100% to as low as 30%, prompting the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to ask what was going on (see the transcript of the ABC program The World Today, 21 July 2010, here). UNHCR seems unable to discern the dramatic improvement in conditions in Afghanistan that our immigration officials can see.

Be that as it may, if we continue to receive and incarcerate asylum seekers from an important source country, but don’t process any of them, it follows as the night the day that the facilities will rapidly become overcrowded, a self-inflicted policy injury if ever there was one, because it gives the appalling Scott Morrison an issue to beat the government over the head with.

The Government will never be able to outdo the Coalition on the harsh treatment of refugees, the Coalition can endure the suffering of refugees with great stoicism. It is time to abandon the stunt of the suspension of processing, and time to abandon the fiction that the situation in Afghanistan is improving to the point where we could in good conscience start sending people back.

Rather than spend millions of dollars on building additional facilities, let’s get on with assessing the claims, and let those who are successful against decent criteria get out of detention and get on with becoming productive Australian residents and, in due course, citizens.

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