This week, the secretary for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Andrew Metcalfe, presented to the joint select parliamentary committee on Australia’s detention network.  In his opening remarks, among other things, he asked of the committee to consider how we could better manage the reception of asylum seekers, a phrase not commonly used in Australia, but more common in the European Union (EU).  Within this context, the EU acknowledges the need for mandatory processing as opposed to mandatory detention, whereby asylum seekers do not need to be detained for long periods, if at all, to have their claims processed.  Metcalfe’s comments open a window of opportunity for considering how Australia may better manage those arriving on our shores.

There are currently no mainstream alternatives to detention for unauthorised arrivals operating in Australia.  The expansion of community detention, while welcomed by many asylum seekers and advocates and that has demonstrated a more humane way of receiving asylum applicants, still remains a part of the mandatory detention framework.

While we have recently observed the  government’s commitment not to detain unaccompanied minors and children in closed detention facilities, it is an active decision by a government that is not compelled, through legislation, to provide alternatives to detention in a community setting.  Utilising a model established by the Howard government in 2005, the expansion of community detention facilitates, with ministerial approval, appropriate care arrangements for vulnerable individuals in a detention environment to be cared for in the community.

Yet, little known to Australians is that more than 8000 asylum seekers already live in the community and the sky hasn’t fallen in.  Furthermore, a number of these 8000 have been living in Australia for years waiting for their protection application to be determined.  The only difference between these asylum seekers and those in detention is that they arrived by air, not sea.  Community-based care arrangements are not only more compassionate but cheaper and more effective.  Well and healthy people transition into settling and contributing to Australia faster and more effectively.  In addition, those who will be refused and must return to their country of origin are better able to deal with this reality when they have not been detained for long periods of time.  Not only do they return to their country of origin healthier, but Australia saves thousands of dollars in having them lived in the community and then returned voluntarily, rather than detained and removed forcibly with escorts at extraordinary cost.

On a recent research trip to the UK, I was confronted by the detrimental effects of a lack of legislation in Australia relating to the reception and care of asylum seekers.  In an interview with a senior UK border agency official, I asked why the UK does not mandatorily detain asylum seekers but rather provides community-based housing, support services and financial aid to the majority of the 25,000 asylum seekers applying each year.  Without hesitation, he responded by saying “It’s a human rights issue.  Besides we couldn’t possibly afford to detain them all.” His response was refreshing and distressing as I realised domestic legislation in the UK requires the government to provide community-based care arrangements for low-, or no-risk, asylum seekers.  There is no debate on the issue, unlike in Australia.

The sad reality is that Australia has the awful “luxury” of debating the treatment we will apply to asylum seekers who reach our shores because we do not have the domestic legislative environment that reflects the UN Refugee Convention and protects the basic rights of care for asylum seekers.   In the meantime, human beings suffer in long-term detention despite being statistically likely to be refugees, with the detention population reflecting a current success rate of 70%.

Minister Chris Bowen must be congratulated for making the decision to care appropriately for children, their families and unaccompanied minors in the community, a program that has now assessed 1765 people as eligible for community care.   However, it is not the only model that could be utilised to manage the reception of asylum seekers better and to achieve more effective outcomes whether it be settlement or return.   The expansion of community detention is only one piece of a bigger picture for appropriately managing asylum arrivals in Australia and should be celebrated for its logic and compassion.   Yet the next steps should be to find agreement on appropriate community-based care arrangements through a short-term visa system, not only for children but for those suffering in long-term detention.  We’ve been doing it for years and is not out of the realm of possibility.

Let’s then legislate these arrangements and stop the ugly debate on how much suffering for asylum seekers in detention is too much.

*Caz Coleman is a member of the Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution (CISSR), advising the federal Minister for Immigration.  Opinions expressed are her own.

Peter Fray

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