After a week of violent protests on Christmas Island, it’s clear the federal government is facing a humanitarian crisis with no clear resolution.

More than six thousand people are languishing in immigration detention — some for more than a year — but it was the sight of Australian Federal Police members in full operational gear taking on a group of rock-throwing asylum seekers which really brought it home. Both sides are in agreement, something needs to be done and fast.

But as always, the federal government is also facing a crisis of perception. To appear tough, without being cruel. Humane without being weak. But when the boats keep coming and the strain begins to show it becomes increasingly difficult to play both sides of the game.

The solution to the detention problem, of course, is unclear. Offshore processing, trumpeted loudly pre-election by the Rudd/Gillard government via the East Timor solution, has fallen off the radar. East Timor doesn’t appear to have the capabilities to shoulder the burden, while regional cooperation, also spruiked by the Prime Minister during her recent Asia jaunt, seems to lack the political will required of our partners.

Community detention, also an emotional minefield due to the NIMBY attitude, seems to be one method the government is willing to try in the hope it will help ease the strain on the overloaded system. Although you won’t hear them shouting it from the rooftops.

ASIO are clearly a problem. Criticism is mounting on the secretive spook agency for the length of time taken to process the required security checks for arrivals. The figures speak for themselves — there are are currently more than 900 people in detention who have been granted refugee status but are still waiting for their security check. Apparently ASIO have cut a deal with DIAC to speed up processing.

The Age are reporting this morning that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship is working on a proposal to transfer thousands of single men in detention facilities waiting for their check to a form of community detention. DIAC would not comment on the potential for a new visa category, while the Minister’s office pointed to Chris Bowen’s pledge to move most children out of detention centres by June this year as the main priority.

Last week, 100 asylum seekers were flown from Christmas Island to the mainland, while there are also unconfirmed reports that 40 asylum seekers were moved from Christmas Island into a Melbourne detention centre on the weekend. There are also reports that an asylum seeker boat intercepted recently near Ashmore Reef will be taken to the mainland, instead of Christmas Island which is typical government policy.

Last June, Australia agreed to take 500 refugees in the hope it would discourage asylum seekers from taking to boats.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman has said Christmas Island is unsustainable. The Australian Human Rights Commission wants it shut down. The UNHCR are not keen on mandatory detention full stop, let alone on an island 2,600 kilometres from the nearest capital city.

Whatever the government chooses to do, they best go about it quietly. Unless they want coverage like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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