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Demand for more change on immigration detention

By Fiona Reynolds
Created 14/01/2009 - 00:22

Yesterday morning’s interview on AM [1] with Graeme Innes, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, is interesting, especially given the hopes with which many Australians voted the ALP into power federally in 2007:

BRENDAN TREMBATH: The Australian Human Rights Commission says asylum seekers are still being treated like political footballs and enduring "miserable" conditions at some immigration detention centres.

The commission's latest report on immigration detention again calls for the new Christmas Island centre to close and parts of the Villawood centre in Sydney to be demolished.

The Government says conditions are improving and it is committed to a set of immigration values.

But the Human Rights Commissioner, Graeme Innes, has told Naomi Woodley in Canberra that he's still waiting to see if those values translate into actual changes.

GRAEME INNES: It's starting to show through but there are still far too many people in detention for far too long a time. As at the middle of last year there were, the average length of time for people in detention was 308 days, which is more than 10 months, and 13 per cent of people in detention had been there for more than two years.

NAOMI WOODLEY: You're calling for some legislative changes. You'd like minimum standards for conditions and treatment of people in detention. Why do you think there needs to be those legislative changes?

GRAEME INNES: Well, I think the Minister's proposals and the Minister's policies are excellent but they're not yet put into law and in some cases not yet put into practice. And I would like to see some solid changes to the detention process so that a future government can't come back and take us back to the bad old days that we had three or four years ago.

What the Government is going to do, likely to do, is introduce some of its changes administratively and look at legislation in the medium term. But we need to get to a situation where detention is the exception rather than the rule.

NAOMI WOODLEY: Is the Government though, in a difficult position where, as you say, it might choose to do these changes administratively because it doesn't require the Senate to get them through? Is that just a reality that perhaps they have to face?

GRAEME INNES: The Government may be in a difficult position as far as legislation is concerned. Unfortunately immigration detention and particularly unlawful boat arrivals have been made somewhat of a political football. And that's very sad considering the plight that these asylum seekers are in.

I think it's important to put that in perspective. There were only 170 boat arrivals last year. There 148 the year before. So there hasn't been a huge increase as has been suggested. And compared to the number of people who sought asylum after World Youth Day, which was 217, it's a trickle; it's not a flood.

NAOMI WOODLEY: On Christmas Island you've called for the new centre there to be closed. It's only recently had some detainees put in there with the arrivals late last year. This has been a very expensive, very large centre that's been sitting empty. Why should it be closed?

GRAEME INNES: Well, it's a forbidding, prison-like facility and in fact we've called for no detention on Christmas Island of any type, not just in the new centre. That's because people are in a very remote situation where there isn't available support from the community.

Yes, the new detention centre has been built but we need to, as a community, recognise that as a mistake. We do not need a prison for detainees and we need to move on from it.

The main observations and recommendations (taken from the summary factsheet [2]) of  the Australian Human Rights Commission 2008 Immigration Detention Report [3] are as follows:

What were the Commission’s main observations in 2008?

Despite observing improvements in the physical conditions in immigration detention facilities over the past few years, the Commission has significant ongoing concerns. Major concerns include the following:

What are the report’s major recommendations?

The Commission’s recommendations are set out in full in section 3 of the report [4]. Major recommendations include the following:

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