Tuesday, July 29, 2008

And About Time, Too

One of the less pride inducing things done in Australia is going to be wound down. The mandatory detention of asylum seekers is going to be stopped1,2,3. And not a moment too soon, I might add.

I was surprised to see that the original implementer of this policy was not Howard, but in fact Keating. However, in my particular case I really don't recall much politics pre-Howard, and in general the idea has been associated with Howard more so than Keating for the inflexible way Howard stuck to the idea in the face of popular disapproval, human rights concerns from the United Nations, cock-ups like the Cornelia Rau incident.

The changes include no longer detaining children at detention centers and in general asylum seekers will be allowed to live in the community while their applications are processed. Some detention will still be allowed, but each case will be examined at least every three months and the onus will be on proving a need to keep the person detained.

Hopefully this will see a lot less people detained for a much shorter time.

The detention centers were a stain on Australia's national conscience, and it is good that finally something is being done to reform them. It really was an appalling way to treat people, and the extremes it drove some of the refugees to to get their voices heard were horrible. It is shaming to think that my government did that to people.

There are some people who would argue that such strict measures are necessary to protect our country from the refugees, as if the illegal immigrants would soon outnumber us if we didn't. The fact that the total capacity of the facilities built to house such immigrants is around a few thousand shows the problem with that argument4.

A number of years ago (around 2001) I generally took the position that since there was a legitimate method for acquiring a visa to Australia that these people didn't take, then yes they were here illegally, but the way they were dealt with was somewhat harsh. I don't think the idea that like any other lawbreaker they still deserved a trial with proper representation occurred to me at the time.

That changed a few years later. The thing that crystallized the change was talking to someone who had moved to Australia from another country. Hearing about all the things he had to do to get a visa was daunting. And he was a well educated person with a job lined up from England, and he still had a lot of hassles. Imagining how a poor, persecuted person living in a country where they were liable to be arrested for thinking of leaving would go about getting a visa made the idea farcical. So instead they'd pay all that they had and risk their lives to travel here illegally, since for them that was a much easier and safer option. Then when they got here, we stuck them in a prison that was much more like their home country than the country they were dreaming of.

This is another move the Rudd government has made to distance itself from the Howard years, and I think all of Australia will again benefit from this. It doesn't erase what went before, but we're now moving in the right direction.

1) Australia abandons asylum policy
2) Mandatory detention (sort of) scrapped
3) Tough asylum laws scrapped with comments
4) List of Australian immigration detention facilities, Wikipedia

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