In a major reversal of past policy, Australia has begun releasing asylum seekers who have arrived by boat into the community.
Mandatory detention for them was the policy, adopted as a ‘deterrent’ by the previous conservative government.
Those released will have the right to work and access health services. Priority for community release under the new bridging visa program will go to asylum seekers who have spent the longest time in detention.
Boat arrivals will also be treated like others who arrive by plane and allowed access to the Tribunal which considers asylum cases. The special rules for boat arrivals saw decisions being consistently overturned on appeal, showing their unfairness.
It is only because of a High Court decision in December last year that boat arrivals could access judicial review at all.
Another legal decision has forced the government to change tack, the one which spiked the so-called ‘Malaysia solution’ where all boat arrivals would be sent to camps in that country.
Australia’s High Court decision was based on a lack of protections for refugees in Malaysia, where beatings of them have been documented in the media and with Malaysia not being a signatory to the Refugee Convention.
Mandatory detention has come under increasing pressure, with moves made earlier to release children and a leading Australian current affairs program documenting the mental harm caused by long-term detention only last month.
Richard Towle, Pacific UNHCR representative, told ABC:
What we’re talking about is people who are claiming asylum and whether they remain in detention or go into the community whilst their claims are looked at and we’ve always said that it’s much fairer and more humane to allow people who don’t pose any threats to the community or security risks to the country to be released into the wider community where they can live as normally as possible while their claims are be assessed, that reduces the pressure on the immigration system, it’s cheaper and it reduces the high risk of what we’ve seen recently of self-harm and suicides and very damaging consequences at immigration detention centres. So we believe all round it’s a very positive development. That’s an approach that’s adopted by most asylum countries around the world and we’re very pleased that Australia is moving in that direction.
This is by far the widest practice by countries in the industrialised world, the whole scale and widespread use of mandatory detention for asylum seekers is not used by other countries by and large and that’s why we’re very pleased that Australia is moving away from those policies heading towards ones that are based on individualised risk assessment, so that by far and the large number of asylum seekers are allowed to remain in the community. They don’t pose any threat, they’re able ideally to look after themselves. Those with work permits will be able to find work and be self-sufficient and have much better psychological support in the community, rather than in detention.
Picture by The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre