Immigration

Despite Better Treatment, Concerns Remain for Australia's Refugees

Questions linger after a pro-democracy was tortured after being deported back to China.
While Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's government has been promoting recent improvements in its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers during national Refugee Week serious concerns regarding the health, welfare and safety of those seeking protection in Australia remain.

"The new priorities continue Australia's commitment to refugees which has seen more than 700,000 humanitarian entrants come to Australia since World War II," said Immigration Minister Chris Evans in a statement on World Refugee Day, Friday.

Evans was referring to changes made by the Rudd Labor government -- which came to power after winning last November's election -- in Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

Among those changes are increases in Australia's humanitarian programme intake, including an increase of 750 places to 7,750 in the Special Humanitarian Program from 2009-2010, as well as an additional 49.2 million Australian dollars for migrants' vocational English-language training.

These changes were initially announced during the release of the federal budget last month, where Evans also revealed other commitments, including the abolition of the controversial Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) system.

"That's a really good move. The scrapping of the TPVs means that those people are able to become permanent members of the Australian community. They're not kept in this awful limbo," says Kate Gauthier, national director of A Just Australia, which advocates for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

TPVs -- introduced under the Howard government in 1999 -- were issued to people applying for refugee status after making an "unauthorized arrival" in Australia. TPV holders had to re-prove their right to protection as circumstances in their home countries changed.

Under the TPV system, people were "constantly worried about what's going to happen to them in the future," says Gauthier.

She argues that while this created a "state of trauma" for refugees, "the financial cost to the Australian taxpayer as we keep reprocessing these people" was an unnecessary burden.

The 1,000 people still holding TPVs at the time of Evans' announcement -- out of some 11,000 TPVs granted, 9,500 people were eventually issued Permanent Protection Visas (PPVs) -- are now able to access the same benefits and entitlements as PPV holders.

"They're able to access the family reunion programs that normally under TPVs they're not able to have," says Gauthier.

She also supported the government's decision in Dec. 2007 to close the Nauru detention center. Asylum seekers who were intercepted before reaching Australia's migration zone were sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island as part of the Howard government's "Pacific Solution."

But Gauthier is concerned that Christmas Island -- an Australian Indian Ocean territory lying 2600 kilometers northwest of Perth and 500 kilometers south of Jakarta -- where a new immigration detention center is located, represents a similar "solution" under the Rudd government.

"That means in essence that it's now the 'Indian Ocean Solution' because people on Christmas Island are going to have the same lack of legal rights that people in Nauru had," Gauthier told IPS.

Gauthier is calling on the government to put a time limit on the detention of asylum seekers. "Mandatory detention is a real concern for us," she says.

There are currently 461 people detained in immigration centers across Australia. "Where there is no benefit to the Australian community to lock somebody up for health or character or security reasons, why lock them up when it's so much more expensive than the alternatives?" asks Gauthier.

Among those alternatives, she says, are bridging visas with reporting requirements as well as community detention, whereby the asylum seeker must live in a particular location.

Earlier this month, Evans announced a parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention in Australia, during which possible alternatives to locking people up will be examined.

The announcement came at a time of heightened concern regarding the welfare of those detained in immigration detention. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported last month that a team of psychiatrists had identified a new mental health condition among detainees. Unique combinations of depression, psychoses and anxiety were found by researchers in asylum seekers. But instead of deriving mostly from the detainees' experiences in fleeing their home countries, the psychiatrists suggested that it was more to do with the protracted and indefinite process of seeking asylum.

Also in May, Evans released details of a review into the situation of 72 people held in immigration detention for two years or more. Thirty-one detainees were either granted visas -- or were expected to be given visas -- upon the completion of health and security checks, while further proceedings were required to determine the status of 17 people. Twenty-four long-term detainees were not granted visas, and have since been either deported or are currently awaiting removal from Australia.

"Underpinning my decisions in all of these cases are the principles that indefinite detention is not acceptable, and that those people who have no right to be in Australia are to be removed promptly," said Evans.

But while Evans, who personally reviewed each case, may be satisfied that he has made correct decisions, it is apparent that mistakes can also be made.

It was revealed this week that a Chinese citizen -- known as 'Mr. Zhang' -- who was reportedly beaten and tortured after being deported back to China, having failed in his claim for a protection visa, has committed suicide.

Francis Milne, a refugee rights activist who had remained in contact with Mr. Zhang -- he was apparently targeted for "pro-democracy" activities -- said that she had sent letters on the deportee's behalf to Evans and his predecessor, Kevin Andrews.

According to Milne, the letters were ignored, and Mr. Zhang seemingly gave up hope.

Gauthier says the present system of status determination needs to be overhauled to prevent a situation like Mr. Zhang's from happening again.

"If they don't fit the refugee criteria they can apply for ministerial intervention, but sometimes that system doesn't work," she says.
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