Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Labor modifies its refugee policy

Reading Time: 3 minutes

More cosmetic changes from the ALP

The Rudd government has boasted that they have relaxed some of the more onerous detention rules for refugees. Senator Chris Evans announced, “The current model of immigration detention is fundamentally overturned”.

While any changes that will make life for refugees easier should be welcomed, the changes the ALP has made are largely cosmetic. It is the current model that is overturned and not immigration detention itself.

Mandatory detention was brought in by the Keating ALP Government in 1992 at a time of many refugees arriving by boat. The first detention centre was set up in October 1992 at Port Hedland. This policy was expanded by the Howard Government with offshore detention and exclusion zones. Various islands were declared not to be part of Australia when it came to refugees landing and these people were not detained on the mainland but on a detention centre on Nauru – the so called Pacific solution.

Before the last election, Rudd promised to reform the mandatory detention policy. This is the third reform in asylum seeker policy since the election in 2007; previously the Rudd government had closed detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and abolished temporary protection visas (TPVs). TPVs were used when boat arrivals found to be refugees were given temporary not permanent residence.

The main parts of the existing system based on mandatory detention are to be maintained. This includes the detention centres and their commercial management, excising of Australian territory from the Immigration Act, detention while security and health checks are made and if identity cannot be established, naval patrols and the keeping of the Christmas Island detention centre in case the number of boat people increases.

Under the new system people, overstaying visas and asylum seekers will only be detained if they pose a risk to the community. They will remain in the community until their cases are decided. Refugees arriving by boat will be detained at Christmas Island but will have access to legal representation and the ability to appeal the Immigration decision to the AAT. After health, identity and security checks, they will be released into the Christmas Island community.

These changes have been made before the outcome of a Parliamentary Enquiry, and there is no proposal for the changes to be put into law.

These changes have not been brought about by any sudden change in heart of the ALP to the policy of mandatory detention. Currently very few refugees arrive by boat, the main group of ‘illegal’ immigrants is those that overstay visas. Of the 357 people currently in detention, only six are ‘unauthorised’ boat arrivals most arrived legally and overstayed their visas.

At present there is no danger of the ALP suffering from a conservative backlash about making it too easy for people smugglers and asylum seekers as Opposition Immigration spokesman Chris Ellison would have us believe. From the government’s point of view, the policy allows flexibility as most refugees arriving by boat arrive in excised areas and can be housed on Christmas Island.

It also means that there will be a readily disposable supply of cheap exploitable labour available, as previous detainees will be allowed into the community. It would also be expected that the cost of the new policy with fewer detentions would be less than the previous policy as well.

The current mandatory detention policy must be completely abolished, including off shore processing and the closure of all detention centres. None of this will happen under the Coalition or Labor as both of these parties are tied to the capitalist system.

Capitalism not only works to divide working class people but it puts the interests of big business above the interests of ordinary people. Only a socialist system that promotes equality and puts people before profits can treat all people with the dignity that they deserve.

By Gary Duffy


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