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Amnesty International condemns Australia's immigration detention system.

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Wednesday 23 March 2005

Amnesty International condemns Australia's immigration detention system


MARK COLVIN: Coincidentally or not, the Government's announcement comes out on the same day as a report by Amnesty International condemning Australia's immigrant detention system. 


Dr Graham Thom is Amnesty International's Refugee Coordinator, and he joins me now.  


(To Graham Thom) Dr Thom, do you think it is a coincidence or do you think that this flurry of activity is designed in some way to pre-empt the criticism that you're coming out with today? 


GRAHAM THOM: Well I think there are a number of reasons why the Government's made this announcement now, and I think Amnesty has not been alone in raising these issues.  


So I'm sure that's had something to do with it.  


Whether it's also to do with pressure from their own backbench, a number of individuals throughout Australia who have finally realised that this situation is just untenable. 


MARK COLVIN: Does it any sense pre-empt your criticisms? 


GRAHAM THOM: Well no, I don't think it does.  


I think people can see that it's a very quick fix solution, that it's actually no solution at all to the real problems that flow from mandatory detention, that indefinite detention will instead be able to remain, and that a number of the long-term detainees such as Peter Qasim will remain behind the razor wire. 


MARK COLVIN: Just talk about numbers for a minute. How many indefinite detainees are there? How many of the long-term detainees? We heard the minister talk about 105, and yet we've been told that maybe only a handful will get out. 


GRAHAM THOM: Well I think the 105 that the minister was talking about are those people who've been there for more than three years. But in terms of indefinite, those who the Government cannot return - countries are refusing to take them back, the stateless people - that really is a dozen at the most. 


So yeah, it's a visa category that applies to a very small number of people. 


MARK COLVIN: This is the Peter Qasim type of case? 


GRAHAM THOM: It is. And it also includes Palestinians, Kuwaiti Bedouins, and a number of other classes of individuals that have nowhere to go. 


MARK COLVIN: And so what about the hundred or so that she's talking about? How is that number made up? 


GRAHAM THOM: Well I think that is also made up of a number of the Iranians, for instance. We've been hearing a lot about the Christian converts. And there's at least 50 of those. Most of those people would have been there for three years and up. 


We're also looking at a number of Afghans who have also been there for over three years, and who the Government won't forcibly return because it's too dangerous, but are given the option of either you go voluntarily or we keep you locked up. 


MARK COLVIN: Isn't Afghanistan though a good example of where some of the Government's supporters might well say, "Well shouldn't they eventually go back as Afghanistan reconstructs itself?" 


GRAHAM THOM: Well I think it depends on individual circumstances. The reality is the vast majority of people who have been on temporary protection visas and have reapplied have been found again to be in need of protection, and this has included the Government's review of Afghans on Nauru last year who are people who were initially rejected on the basis that the Taliban was gone, back in 2001, but years later, it has now been established that look it is just not safe enough. Maybe one day they can return. If they're on a temporary visa they can't, because they're not allowed to travel and go back and see if it's safe or not.  


But the reality is there is no durable solution there at the moment, and so these people are being given this choice of being locked up or risk your life. 


MARK COLVIN: Do you want an end to all immigration detention? 


GRAHAM THOM: I think what we're calling for is an individual assessment of why people need to be detained. 


MARK COLVIN: But isn't it what's called for in this paper? 


GRAHAM THOM: Well that's… no, the paper is definitely calling for a number of things, like judicial review… but an assessment, why do you need to mandatorily detain a two-year-old child? What are you trying to administratively determine that you can't determine in another form that is used everywhere else, you know, in the Western countries. No Western country mandatorily detains all undocumented children who arrive. 


So clearly there are going to be security concerns. And we're not saying let's mass murderers or people who have committed serious crimes be allowed to walk in the community. But that assessment needs to be made on an individual basis, and that individual needs to be able to challenge it. They need to be able to go to a court and say, "Why am I being locked up? Why am I still being locked up?" 


MARK COLVIN: Should there be a fixed term beyond which people can't be detained? 


GRAHAM THOM: Well again I think that would be a good step, but if you're not going to… clearly security and other … 


MARK COLVIN: Could be a recipe for legal procrastination, couldn't it? 


GRAHAM THOM: Well, I think that's the norm… there should be … 


MARK COLVIN: You'd just have to string out the case for more than six months, and then your time will be out. 


GRAHAM THOM: Well that's the problem with timeframes, that is the problem with timeframes. And I think what we need is an assumption against detention. That needs to be the first step. There is no need to detain somebody who is exercising a fundamental human right to seek asylum. There is no need to detain children who are exercising a fundamental right to seek asylum. 


So to say, "Look it's okay for us to detain you for three months, six months, one year, two years, three years," that is an arbitrary date. What you need to establish is a way for them to go to an independent court and for that court to be able to decide is it still appropriate to detain that individual. 


MARK COLVIN: Finally and briefly, we've had elections fought on this issue. Do you see any sign that there's a political tide that's turning or turned now? 


GRAHAM THOM: Well I think the longer people are spending in detention, the more people realise that children are being damaged by the way that we detain them, the more people realise we're out of step. I think yes the tide is turning. 


MARK COLVIN: Graham Thom, thankyou very much. 


Dr Graham Thom is Amnesty International's Refugee Coordinator.