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Australia Welcomes Asian Refugees with Detention in For-Profit Jails -- Or by Just Allowing Them to Drown

Boat arrivals only make up 5% of Australia's annual humanitarian intake. There are approximately 50,000 "illegal" persons in Australia at any one time and most are British.

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Australia has a policy of mandatory detention for all refugees and asylum seekers who arrive by boat and the government has also sub-contracted with other nations in the past to detain immigrants offshore, including Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Indonesia. (The poorest country in the region, East Timor, is the current focus of the Gillard government.) There are five domestic centers located near Sydney (Villawood,) Melbourne (Maribyrnong,) Perth (Curtain,) Christmas Island (offshore) and Darwin (Air Force base).

Christmas Island is famous for the 2001 Tampa controversy when the government stopped a Norwegian ship, the MV Tampa, from disembarking 438 mainly Afghan asylum seekers, including 43 children and four pregnant women.

The boat, which was designed to carry only the 27 crewmembers, was steered by Captain Arne Rinnan. After being rejected by the Australian government, Rinnan attempted to slowly turn the boat around so the refugees wouldn't notice their retreat to Indonesia. Except, they did notice and started to throw a fit. Fearing an outright revolt, Rinnan turned around again and headed back to Christmas Island. The captain begged for permission to dock, saying that many of the asylum seekers were suffering from dysentery and that some were unconscious.

Five days passed and though the government offered medical assistance and food, they still refused to allow the ship into territorial waters. Finally, in an act of desperation, Rinnan declared a state of emergency and entered Australian waters without permission. The government responded by dispatching Australian troops, who boarded the ship and prevented it from approaching Christmas Island. The troops reported that the refugees were dehydrated, malnourished and suffering from exhaustion and cases of lice, scabies and gastroenteritis.

Another incident occurred in October 2001 when the SIEV-X sank en route to Christmas Island and 353 refugees, including 146 children, drowned. But before they died, the then-survivors clung to debris for 22 hours and, although the Navy was aware of their presence, did nothing to rescue them.

In response to the inhumane controversies, former Prime Minister John Howard introduced an equally inhumane "emergency bill" called the Border Protection Bill 2001, which granted the government permission to remove any ship in territorial waters with "reasonable force," and protected the government from any criminal proceedings after the fact. The bill aimed to be a retroactive piece of legislation thereby protecting the government from any unpleasant legal ramifications over messy civilians deaths.

Christmas Island is now used as a convenient way to deny asylum seekers protected status. The Howard government secured passage of legislation, which removed Christmas Island from Australia's migration zone, so when asylum seekers arrive on the island, they cannot automatically apply for refugee status. The people are either deported or detained indefinitely.

There are now roughly 5,000 people in detention on Christmas Island and Serco has made tremendous profits capitalizing on anti-refugee policies. In the first half of 2009, Serco saw its profits rise by a third to $136.6 million due to an influx of contracts. Again, in the first six months of 2010, Serco reported a 21 percent rise in profits. It seems while many businesses are experiencing hardship and bankruptcy, the human incarceration business is booming.

In 2008, before Serco operated Villawood, the facilities were called the "most prison-like" of all Australia's detention centers by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. In response, the government pledged $186.3 million in funding for the redevelopment of the center that is expected to be completed by 2014. The Refugee Council of Australia reports that the overall capacity of the center will increase to a general operating capacity of 400 and a surge capacity of 728.

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