A new deal for immigration detainees?

27.05.2005 | Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon | Briefing 043  



We start this briefing by addressing the division that exists within the Christian community over immigration detention policy. We restate what the SIE considers to be the most pressing moral problems with immigration detention, and why that deserves our action even if we cannot agree together on other matters relating to immigration policy.

The main purpose of this briefing is then to bring to your attention a new Private Members Bill, which may result in a more just and compassionate treatment of each immigration detainee. The briefing will also summarise some other recent news in relation to immigration detention.

We urge you to read this briefing, and take action, before Tuesday 31 May.

1. Disagreement over detention.

Other Social Issues briefings have addressed the issue of immigration detention. These have generated a lot of response from within the Christian community (which we always welcome and appreciate).

Christians are obviously much divided in their response to immigration policy issues. Difficult areas of moral discussion are difficult because there are so many good considerations to take into account. Those who have opposed our previous briefings raise points that have some merit, such as that:

There does seem to be some confusion about what makes an immigrant ‘illegal’, and whether this label is always justified. Our government's way of handling what it considers ‘illegal’ immigrants, is by a system of immigration detention. Whatever we make of the government's wider immigration policy, the SIE argues that the current policy of immigration detention is deeply flawed. Our main two objections are: (a) that the departmental system governing it is too closed and unaccountable to judicial processes; and (b) that detainees are often stuck in this system for periods of time that are morally reprehensible and totally unjustifiable, particularly when it turns out that they are not guilty of any crime.

We urge readers, then, of all different views, at least to look again at these two complaints. Those who are conservative on general immigration policy might at least be able to agree that the government needs to think again on one particular aspect of it, the detention policy. We raise the matter in this way because an unprecedented opportunity to take action against this policy has appeared, in the form of two Federal Private Members Bills that specifically oppose the above two problems in the current system.

2. A possible change of policy.

During a week charged with much debate and accusations regarding the state of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA), three Liberal backbenchers gave notice in the party room on Tuesday 24 May that they were going to introduce two private member's Bills that would soften mandatory detention for asylum seekers.

The MPs who presented the Bills are Petro Georgiou, Bruce Baird (Member for Cook) and Judi Moylan. Russell Broadbent and Marise Payne have also joined them in support of the Bills.

According to Mr Georgiou the Bills would replace “the system of universal mandatory detention of unauthorised asylum seekers with a targeted system of detention subject to judicial scrutiny.”

Those MPs who have supported the Bills argue that there has been a shift in community attitudes to detention, particularly following the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon cases of wrongful detention and wrongful deportation.

What is important to note is that in the Bills being put forward, the MPs are not trying to dismantle the entire immigration processing system or the government's current immigration policy. Rather they are trying to address some of the problematic issues in the way the system is administered.

“It's not seeking to undo the mandatory detention policy. It's seeking to provide greater transparency, greater accountability, and an independent review process that's taken out of the hands of the department,” says Judi Moylan.

Ms Moylan MP has reportedly received over 2000 emails on this issue in the past few days—and only seven have been critical of her stance.

The Bills have also received support from the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, with a letter to The Age newspaper stating that they:

“... are strongly supportive and appreciative of Petro Georgiou and his Coalition colleagues for their courage in proposing an end to the Government's mandatory and indefinite detention of asylum seekers.

“We, the bishops of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, have consistently called for a review of Australia's inhumane immigration and detention policies, which have been distressing many people for some time. Those of us close to at least some cases know the destructive effects of these policies on individuals, young children and families whose lives, pre-arrival in Australia, were already full of tragedy. It is greatly encouraging that some Coalition parliamentarians are now giving voice to these ethical concerns.

“We call on all members of Parliament to give heed to these concerns and to give serious consideration to the legislation proposed by Mr Georgiou.”

[The Bishops of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne: Archbishop Peter Watson, Bishop John Wilson, Bishop Stephen Hale, Bishop Philip Huggins, Bishop Paul White]

The Bills are expected to go before Parliament in the next month. But they are to be debated next Tuesday 31 May at a private meeting of Liberal Party Members. Both Prime Minister Howard and opposition leader Kim Beazley have ruled out a conscience vote on the two Bills, which means the debate will be hot, because for the Bills to pass in Parliament, some Members will have to ‘cross the floor’. Therefore, the proponents of these Bills will have their hands strengthened if many people write to the Government in support.

The Liberal backbenchers introducing the Bills are displaying great courage in challenging their own party's position. We urge you, then, to write or email any or all of them in support of these Bills:

Also, email your own local Federal member to indicate your support, particularly if they are Liberal or National. (Remember that Labour MPs are not discussing the matter on Tuesday.)

If you're confused about who your member is, go to http://www.aph.gov.au/house/members/mi-elctr.asp. Click on the name of your electorate to find your member. (Further information about members can be found at http://www.aph.gov.au/house/members/index.htm.) If you cannot remember which electorate you are in, go to http://www.aec.gov.au/esearch/main.htm (and if your suburb straddles an electoral boundary, check out the maps at http://www.aec.gov.au/_content/Who/profiles/index.htm).

3. Other recent news.

In addition to this latest development, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) has featured prominently in the media over the past few weeks regarding related matters. We thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to pause and survey the current immigration landscape.

Cornelia Rau: Most of us are now familiar with the story of Cornelia Rau. The 40 year old German woman, who came to Australia as a toddler, was discovered in Baxter detention centre after authorities became concerned about her mental health. She is now the main subject of the Palmer inquiry into wrongful detention.

Palmer inquiry: Former Federal Police commissioner, Mick Palmer, has been appointed to lead the investigation into cases of wrongful detention, following the case of Cornelia Rau. Working with Palmer is former Victorian chief police commissioner, Neil Comrie, who will be in charge of the investigation into the deportation of Vivian Alvarez Solon. There are reportedly some 200 additional cases of wrongful detention or deportation, which may or may not fall within the scope of the Palmer Inquiry.

Vivian Alvarez Solon: In February 2001 Vivian Alvarez failed to pick up her five-year-old son from a childcare centre in Brisbane. She later turned up at Lismore Hospital with head, neck and spinal injuries. In July 2001 Lismore hospital spoke to Immigration officials when they couldn't establish Alvarez's identity. Australia deported Ms Alvarez to the Philippines in 2001. In late April 2005 Australian Federal Police were ordered to look for her, as Immigration officials conceded that an Australian has been wrongfully deported. She lived in a convent from then until she was located earlier this month. It was found that she was suffering mental illness.

Virginia and Naomi Leong: It is alleged that In December 2001, Virginia Leong, then two months pregnant, was caught trying to leave Australia to return to Malaysia on a false passport. She was taken to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) and has remained there ever since. In May 2002 her daughter Naomi was born. Because Naomi was born in detention, she was deemed ‘stateless’. On Monday night, 23 May, Virginia and Naomi were released on bridging visas into the community while they await the outcome of their visa application. Why were they released? Because of the increasingly concerning behaviour of Naomi (including banging her head repeatedly on a wall, muteness and withdrawing from others) and Virginia's growing depression.

Latest act of self-harm: Palestinian man Mohammed Ali Mahmoud has been held in Villawood Detention Centre for the past five years. This week he attempted suicide by drinking a bottle of bleach. His mental health has deteriorated, refugee advocates say, as the length of time he has spent in detention gets longer.

High Court rejects status of ‘discreet Christians’: The High Court found on Thursday May 26th that the Refugee Review Tribunal was correct to refuse refugee status to an Iranian who had converted to Christianity. It declined to apply the principles it expounded in a case concerning a homosexual Bangladeshi couple. Justice Kirby dissented from the decision, arguing that the Refugees' Convention does not require that “applicants for protection must act ‘quietly’, ‘maintain a low profile’, avoid proselytising their views or otherwise act ‘discreetly’ in matters so fundamental” as religious belief.

Amir Mesrinejad: This Iranian Christian asylum seeker in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, who has been in detention for four and a half years, has heard no new word on his case. We would encourage you to keep committing Amir, and others like him, to the Lord in prayer, and to keep writing letters as you are able to anyone and everyone you can think of.

Sources/Further Reading:

“‘Discreet’ Christian Not Entitled to Refugee Status: High Court,” online: http://www.findlaw.com.au/news/default.asp?task=read&id=23665&newstype=L&site=NE

“Detention is no deterrent, says Liberal MP,” The Age May 25, 2005. Online: http://www.theage.com.au/news/Immigration/Detention-is-no-deterrent-says-Liberal-MP/2005/05/25/1116950726782.html

“Immigration detainee attempts suicide,” The World Today 26 May , 2005. Online: http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2005/s1377808.htm

“Immigration Detention Inquiry Looking at 200 Cases,” online: http://www.findlaw.com.au/news/default.asp?task=read&id=23669&newstype=L&site=NE

“The Act of Compassion Bill 2005,” with commentary by Margo Kingston, May 24, 2005. Online: http://webdiary.smh.com.au/archives/margo_kingston/001062.html

“The Mandatory Detention Bill 2005,” with commentary by Margo Kingston, May 24, 2005. Online: http://webdiary.smh.com.au/archives/margo_kingston/001063.html

“We bishops welcome Georgiou's initiative,” online: http://www.theage.com.au/letters/index.html

“When getting punished means getting a promotion,” SMH May 27, 2005. Online: http://www.smh.com.au/news/National/When-getting-punished-means-getting-a-promotion/2005/05/26/1116950819333.html

Alexandra Kirk, “Division among Liberals over detention policy,” ABC 24 May 2005. Online: http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2005/s1376107.htm

Joseph Kerr and Louise Dodson, “PM won't step up detainee inquiry,” SMH May 27, 2005. Online: http://www.smh.com.au/news/National/PM-wont-step-up-detainee-inquiry/2005/05/26/1116950819330.html

Joseph Kerr, “Detainees' isolation too long: rights body,” SMH May 25 2005. Online: http://www.smh.com.au/text/articles/2005/05/24/1116700714277.html

Louise Dodson, “Howard explodes at MPs' revolt,” SMH May 25 2005. Online: http://www.smh.com.au/text/articles/2005/05/24/1116700714825.html

Michael Gordon, “Georgiou tried everything else, says colleague,” May 26, 2005. Online: http://www.theage.com.au/news/Immigration/Georgiou-tried-everything-else-says-colleague/2005/05/25/1116950759995.html

Michael Gordon, “Libs defy PM over detainees,” The Age May 25, 2005. Online: http://www.theage.com.au/news/Immigration/Libs-defy-PM-over-detainees/2005/05/24/1116700714047.html

Michelle Grattan and Michael Gordon, “Vanstone: Palmer has no conflict on inquiry,” The Age May 27, 2005. Online: http://www.theage.com.au/news/Immigration/Vanstone-Palmer-has-no-conflict-on-inquiry/2005/05/26/1116950821736.html

Michelle Grattan, “Vanstone, Immigration head should go now,” The Age May 26, 2005. Online: http://www.theage.com.au/news/Immigration/Vanstone-Immigration-head-should-go-now/2005/05/25/1116950760006.html

Peter Hartcher, “Howard's chance to lock up a bad joke,” SMH May 27, 2005. Online: http://www.smh.com.au/news/Opinion/Howards-chance-to-lock-up-a-bad-joke/2005/05/26/1116950819081.html

Petro Georgiou, “Why we need a new policy on refugees,” May 26, 2005. Online: http://www.theage.com.au/news/Opinion/Why-we-need-a-new-policy-on-refugees/2005/05/25/1116950753630.html


Related material

Conditions of use:

  1. You may forward this paper to others, as long as you forward it in full.
  2. You may freely publish it (e.g. in a church newspaper) as long as it is published in full, not for profit, and including the ‘Note’ paragraph. (You don’t have to include these ‘conditions’.)
  3. Media and academic publishers should cite this paper according to their professional standards. We would appreciate audiences being directed to socialissues.org.au.
  4. Not-for-profit publishers may use the ideas in this paper without acknowledgement; but if quoting it directly, please cite title, authors, and the web link socialissues.org.au.
  5. Permission may be given for use in publications for profit. Please send details of your proposal to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).