This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the introduction of the policy of mandatory detention of refugees in Australia. Mandatory detention is a system whereby the act of seeking asylum is met with contempt, with people being locked up in detention for months and years despite committing no crime.
Under the current system, even refugees who are granted refugee status may not be released from detention. ‘Indefinite’ detention can occur if the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) decides an accepted refugee has not passed a security clearance. In these cases, of which there are currently over 50 across the country, ASIO refuses to explain why the refugee received adverse security assessments. There is no right of appeal.
These refugees are trapped in limbo. As they have been granted refugee status, the Australian authorities cannot send them back to the country they fled due to fear of persecution. Yet as they have not passed the ASIO security clearance, they will not be released.
One refugee, who has been detained for more than three years, is challenging indefinite detention in the High Court of Australia. The refugee, who cannot be named, is arguing that ASIO’s assessment process is a denial of natural justice and indefinite detention is unlawful. The refugee’s legal team has argued that refugees should have the right to an independent review of their ASIO security assessment. In 2004 the High Court ruled that indefinite detention of asylum seekers was legal.
Research indicates that detention causes asylum seekers psychological harm. Time spent in detention has been found to contribute to the severity of symptoms relating to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, anxiety and suicide. In the Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne, three Tamil refugees who are in indefinite detention due to negative ASIO assessments have attempted suicide.
Children are not exempt from the conditions and consequences of indefinite detention. A Tamil refugee and her two children are currently being detained in Villawood detention centre in Sydney with no hope of release. This woman, who has been granted refugee status but received a negative security assessment from ASIO after initially being released, is also pregnant with her third child.
The majority of those who have received negative security checks are Sri Lankan Tamils.
One of the main questions surrounding ASIO’s security checks is their sources. In the past ASIO have been known to collaborate with the brutal Rajapakse regime in Sri Lanka, the very government many of these refugees have fled. It stands to reason that a government with a long history of war crimes and persecution of Tamils should not be considered a genuine source of security information.
Whilst indefinite detention is destroying the lives of an increasing number of refugees, both major political parties continue to try to outdo each other with their anti-refugee policies. They both support offshore processing and mandatory detention, and talk about ‘deterring’ asylum seekers. The ability to detain people indefinitely on so-called security grounds is another attempt to paint refugees as criminals, rather than people in desperate need.
The aim of all this is to distract people from the real problems that they face. By making people think that Australia is being flooded with ‘dangerous illegals’ it takes the focus away from the underlying economic problems that have created a scarcity of decent jobs, affordable homes and well funded services.
Mandatory detention, including indefinite detention, needs to be opposed. Those fleeing war and persecution should be allowed to settle in the community while their claims are being processed. If an asylum seeker is suspected of being a genuine security threat they should be made aware of the allegations and have the right to full defence on the basis of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. They should also have full appeal rights.
Alongside defending the rights of refugees we need to fight for a society that puts people’s needs before profit. In this way we could put an end to the war and persecution that force people to seek asylum in the first place.
By Socialist Party reporters