Let’s get one thing clear: asylum seekers do not get more than Australian residents and citizens. The recent reporting on the household goods that are so-called “given” to asylum seekers is a mischievous manipulation of the facts.

Community detention is a program that was set up by the Howard government in 2005. The program is designed to enable asylum seekers in closed detention facilities, and who have multiple vulnerabilities, to move into a less-damaging environment in the community. Community detention lies squarely in the mandatory detention framework.

Not unlike having to set up a detention centre, a range of practical items need to be supplied for safe living. A roof, a bed, items for cooking and a small payment to be able to buy food, pay utilities, contribute to rent and purchase other essential items. The asylum seekers do not get to keep these goods, just as someone coming out of detention does not get to take any of the items used to house, feed and support them in detention. As for the small income, paid at 89% of the equivalent Centrelink benefit, this income is less than any Australian resident or citizen is eligible for and does not allow the many concessions other low income earners can access.

The fact that there are more people who have arrived recently who are vulnerable in a detention environment is a separate issue to what must happen once they have arrived.  Asylum seekers who are detained within the mandatory detention framework, whether it is in a closed centre or community detention, invoke the government’s duty of care to ensure they are safe.

To put it simply, human rights are not the exclusive domain of Australian citizens and residents. The duty of care by government to detained asylum seekers has existed for 20 years since mandatory detention was first introduced in 1992. Over the years we have seen the numbers of people arriving without a valid visa rise and fall, rise and fall again, largely depending on what is happening in the region. But once they are here and subject to mandatory detention under the current legislation, the government cannot walk away from its obligation to provide a duty of care to asylum seekers.

The reality is that, on average, more than 90% of those arriving by sea are determined to be genuine refugees. The longer we hold them in closed detention, the sicker they become and the more we damage our future Australian residents and citizens. Last year the Yarra Institute released a report authored by Dr Tony Ward indicating that effects of prolonged detention result in significant additional mental health costs after people are released. He conservatively judged that trauma sufferers who have experienced prolonged detention will have lifetime mental health costs 50% more than the average Australian — amounting to an extra $25,000 per person.

From a purely financial perspective, investing in models such as community detention significantly alleviates future health costs arising from the damage done in prolonged detention. Not only is it cheaper but our future Australian residents and citizens are more easily able to adapt to life in Australia and enter the employment market earlier. This mitigates the need for long-term reliance on welfare. If people are worried about where their taxes are being spent they are better off supporting community detention than prolonged detention in a closed centre that will cost far more in the long run.

For those interested in a more compassionate stance, community detention prevents the terrible cases that history has seen in damage to children and individuals. Many will recall the high-profile case of a young boy who was held with his family in Woomera between 2000 and 2002. Within a year of being detained this young boy developed psychiatric illness to the point of diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and later depression. Even more recently, the AMA Northern Territory president Dr Paul Bauert reported that AMA members were witnessing children under the age of 10 self-harming and even attempted suicides.

To quibble over the size of a television or the number of tea towels that may be provided in a community detention location is to glaze over the more significant issues and challenges in providing a management system for processing protection claims and keeping people safe within that context. Notwithstanding the financial implications of prolonged detention costs and the future health care costs, there are also the potential compensation payouts for those who legally prove the harm done to them within a prolonged, closed detention environment.

In the end, community detention makes a hell of a lot of sense from a financial and a human perspective. Expanding the use of it may well be one of the smarter decisions the Gillard government has taken.

*Caz Coleman is a member of the Minister’s Council on Asylum Seekers and Detention. Opinions expressed are her own.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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