This week’s relocation of the first 27 individuals from detention into the community onto a bridging visa will finally bring Australia in line with other countries that implement comprehensive community-based processing.  It is the action many of us hoped for when New Directions in Detention was announced in 2010, encompassing seven key immigration values, including No.5 “Detention in immigration detention centres is only to be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time”.  Sadly, it has been three years and four months since this announcement and much suffering that has been experienced by detainees and staff.

Yet if there is any silver lining from this last period of long-term mandatory detention — it has become blatantly obvious that after both sides of government have tried it, both failed to keep people safe and healthy.  As such, neither succeeded in establishing a sustainable environment for long-term detention, assuming this is even possible.  Furthermore, it is clear that the non-statutory process for those arriving by sea has caused unnecessary delays and contributed to a less than robust and fair process.

Finally, with the decision to utilise bridging visas for sea arrivals and to phase out the non-statutory process, we are seeing the kind of leadership that we’ve needed to create a more compassionate and effective system for processing those who reach our shores.

So now it is time to move on.

Yet, the brave new world of community processing is actually neither new, nor particularly brave.

Community processing utilising bridging visas has existed for many years for those who arrive by air and subsequently apply for asylum.  After a long campaign to overturn restrictions to access to work rights, finally granted in 2009 under the Rudd government, asylum seekers will be granted the right to work with the aim of achieving self-sustainability. There are established care models including health care, income support and other services for those who are deemed to have the vulnerabilities to require them.

The number of people being actively managed by the Department of Immigration in the community on bridging visas at any time is about 8500. So for all those media headlines since the announcement on Monday, designed to create fear of asylum seekers, they have already been on our streets, in our shops, as our neighbours and the sky has not fallen in.  Less than 20% of this number rely on income support from government, with the bulk working independently or being supported by family or friends.

Any concerns about security or risk to the community will be addressed with an assessment before a person is relocated into the community and the largest risks at this stage lie in whether people will be able to find sustainable housing and work.

There is no doubt that the current community processing system is not perfect.  For those who will be eligible for income support, living on $215 per week is a significant challenge if resources cannot be pooled with others to cover rent, or without support from community connections or agencies.

There is a further concern that those who have been in detention for extended periods may experience demise after the initial elation of community release, back into the anguish of uncertainty, separation from family and addressing the wounds of the detention experience.   As a consequence, counselling services and torture and trauma services could well be inundated if appropriate provisions are not put in place.

The selection process as to who will move into the community and when, will be challenging and no doubt highly vexed for detainees. For those who have sustainable family or community links, the process may be fairly straightforward. But there are many involved in the design of transition arrangements, including Department of Immigration staff, who acknowledge that it would be detrimental to have detainees scrambling for a community link that may result in exploitation or in danger to the client. Yet the desperation levels will be high for eligible detainees and the need for appropriate placements will be an important priority for those working on the transition.

It may be big news in Australia, but internationally, community-based processing is a norm. There is no evidence to suggest it is a pull factor for others to arrive, just as there has been no evidence that mandatory detention provides a deterrent, as recently established by research conducted by the International Detention Coalition.

For now, the challenge is twofold. The first is to engage and educate community-based organisations on the entitlements for asylum seekers on a bridging visa and harness support networks and resources that will establish this model sustainably into the future.

The second is to turn our minds to those who will not be eligible to be relocated from a closed detention environment and find solutions that do not equate to further damage to the dignity and health of these people.  This is a whole other issue.

*Caz Coleman is former director of the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project and a member of the Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution (CISSR) advising the Minister for Immigration.  Opinions expressed are her own.