While most commentary has focused on Gillard’s East Timor solution, it has diverted attention from the ongoing abuses in Australian detention centres. The other elements of Gillard’s Lowy Institute address were just as disturbing.
Almost 2000 Afghans are in detention. More are arriving, with no sign that the situation in Afghanistan or Pakistan is improving. Yet Gillard has kept the freeze on processing Afghan protection visas. Curtin detention centre now holds around 300 Afghan men whose visas are not due to be considered until at least October 9.
Over 560 children or unaccompanied minors are in detention—so much for detention being a last resort. Labor’s detention regime is now reproducing all the horrors of the Howard years. The government is maintaining a veil of secrecy around the detention centres, with bans on mobile phones, restrictions on access to the centres, and restrictions on communications with the detainees.
There are rising incidents of suicide and self-harm attempts, a direct consequence of long-term detention.
Such incidents have become at least weekly events at Christmas Island and there have been two suicide attempts at Villawood in the last month. Saddam Hussein, one of the Iraqis involved in a serious self-harm incident, staged a hunger strike with three other Iraqi detainees on his release from hospital on Christmas Island—he has now been sent to Villawood.
Labor’s visa freeze announcement in April compromised the independence of the offshore refugee determination process. Overnight the rejection rates of Afghan and Sri Lankan visas skyrocketed. From success rates of better than 99 per cent for Afghans, 70 per cent of initial applications are now being rejected. Since April, 500 Afghans have had their first rejection.
There are reports that assessors appointed by the Immigration Department have been told that unless they are willing to reject visa applications, they won’t be assessing applications on Christmas Island. Whether explicit or implicit, it is obvious that the assessments are subject to political influence.
Julia Gillard has lifted the three-month freeze on Sri Lankan protection visa claims but she has threatened Sri Lankan asylum seekers with rejection and deportation. Rather than stress the willingness of a Gillard government to provide protection for those fleeing ongoing persecution in Sri Lanka, Gillard declared: “Do not pay a people smuggler, do not risk your life, only to arrive in Australian waters and find that far, far more likely than not you will be quickly sent home by plane.”
The refugee campaign has a lot of unfinished business with any incoming government.
More Tamils and Afghans face the threat of deportation. The Tamil refugees stranded at Merak after Kevin Rudd called on Indonesian President Yudhoyono to intercept their boat in October last year are now in detention in Tanjung Pinang, still waiting to be processed by the UNHCR. They are still Australia’s responsibility.
Gillard’s ascendancy has been a set back for refugee rights and the election campaign looks set to inflict more damage. Tony Abbott may not be able to carry out his threat to turn boats around at sea, because of Indonesian government opposition—but his explicit anti-refugee campaign will inflame racism and xenophobia in the community.
The refugee movement will have to counter this, just as it did under Howard. Gillard’s shift to the right has brought widespread condemnation—from union leaders, Labor For Refugees and Amnesty International.
Many people understand only too well what is wrong with her policies—and that they will have to be fought.
The pre-election rallies called by the refugee campaign can be the next step in regalvanising the campaign to oppose offshore processing, close Christmas Island, end the Afghan visa freeze, end mandatory detention—and free the refugees.
By Ian Rintoul