Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Refugees in Australia - Q & A (viii) - What are alternatives to detention?

Australia is the only Western country that has mandatory detention for all asylum seekers that arrive in Australia without valid documentation. Ongoing and prolonged detention of asylum seekers places many detainees at risk of mental anguish. There are better, economically viable and humane ways of responsibly handling onshore asylum-seekers. Mandatory, ongoing detention of asylum seekers in Australia, many of who are fleeing grave human rights abuses, is one of the most controversial issues for Australians today. Almost every day, we are bombarded with images in the media of detainees suffering from depression, mental anguish, trauma and psychological damage - yet despite this, a public debate on how to install a new regime has not fully commenced whilst the current government states there is simply no alternate option. So, realistically, is there a viable alternative to detention?

Since the introduction of mandatory detention in Australia in 1992, an array of alternative schemes has been proposed. In 1994 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) headed a Detention Reform Coordinating Committee, who presented an alternative detention model to the minister for immigration in 1996. This model proposes a four-stage refugee determination process taking into account government and public concerns on border protection and national security. In the 1998 HREOC report, Those who've come across the seas, this alternative model was promoted as a solution to a detention system that puts many men, women and children's human rights at risk.

The Refugee Council of Australia has also put forward an alternative detention model. Their model proposes a simple three-stage administration, from closed to open detention, then on to community release. Under the community release stage, family members or community organisations would take some responsibility for the care of individual asylum seekers. Justice for Asylum Seekers (JAS) has also outlined their position on alternatives to detention. They have examined a Reception and Transitional Processing System as an alternative approach to holding asylum seekers in prolonged and ongoing detention.

In posing alternative schemes and models to mandatory detention, comparison to arrangements for asylum seekers arriving in countries overseas demonstrate schemes that provide the balance between maintaining border security and protecting the fundamental human right to flee persecution. Many European countries, such as Germany, Spain and Austria, have a limit on the period of time asylum seekers are held in detention. Other countries, including Finland, Denmark and Belgium, only detain asylum seekers in exceptional circumstances when they feel there is a high risk of absconding.

Presenting the different models for housing and caring for asylum seekers in Australia is the first step in taking forward in the debate on Alternatives to Detention forward. Actually delivering on a humane solution to mandatory detention is the ultimate goal. What's needed is lobbying and dialogue as well as calling for political will to introduce a new system of accommodating asylum seekers in Australia.

Members of Parliament, responsible to their electorate, need to be made aware of alternate options to detention for asylum seekers. Politicians need to be encouraged to represent the views of their local electorate on Alternatives to Detention both in parliament and in the party room. You can write to your local member of parliament and let them know there is an answer to mandatory detention.

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