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Wednesday, 16 June 2004
Page: 23896

Senator NETTLE (1:19 PM) —In the lead-up to the last federal election, former Minister Reith released photos that he claimed were of asylum seekers throwing their children overboard. At the same time many Australians were appalled by the story of Mr Alzalimi, whose five-, seven- and nine-year-old daughters drowned at sea whilst trying to reach their father in Australia.

Last week I visited Baxter detention centre and the Port Augusta residential housing project to see whether things had changed in three years. I was particularly keen to visit the residential housing project because this is what both the government and the opposition point to when they are asked thorny questions about locking up children in our detention centres. I met a 20-year old Iranian girl, Bahareh, who has been held behind razor wire in Australia for the last four years. She described the residential housing project as a `golden cage'. She pointed to the furniture supplied by the department of immigration and said, `We don't want this furniture; we want our freedom.'

The residential housing project is a gated cul-de-sac in a suburban street of Port Augusta. It is cordoned off from the community by two large fences. At regular intervals along the fences are security cameras and motion detectors. Security cameras also line the edge of the road through the middle of the area. Standing at any one point you can see the entire area, which is only about 100 metres by 40 metres. There are eight sterile demountable buildings, each with a two-metre backyard. Eight to nine guards are present daily, and several times throughout the day they walk into the homes to do a head count. Up to three families are housed in each home.

If it is hot at night, as I imagine it often is in Port Augusta, and someone opens the window after 11 o'clock at night, guards descend on the home to check whether detainees are trying to escape out the window, past the two fences with motion detectors and security cameras and into Port Augusta. Mothers are escorted by three guards to the shops one morning a week. A detainee described to me how, if you are shopping and you see someone you know and say hello, you will be stopped from going on future shopping trips—so much for living in the community in these residential housing projects. There is no talking to neighbours through the two fences and cameras; there is no talking to friends whilst guards escort you on a weekly shopping trip. Children in these prisons who are able to go to school are body searched on the way to and from school each day.

The government boasts of allowing children in detention to attend school. I met two young people who have been in detention for four years and have faced persistent obstruction from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs in trying to access schooling. Benjamin and Bahareh were initially held in the Curtin detention centre when they were 14 and 15. At that stage no children in Curtin detention centre were allowed to access school. The family were told that if they agreed to transfer to Baxter detention centre the children would be able to go to school. So the family agreed to the transfer. On arrival, the children, now 16 and 17, were told they were too old to go to school—regardless of the fact that they had just missed two years of schooling and that they had moved to Baxter on the promise of being able to attend school.

Years of obstruction from DIMIA in trying to access education led the children to approach a private education provider of distance education in Adelaide. The provider was supportive until they received a phone call from DIMIA insisting that the children needed permission from DIMIA before proceeding. Not only has DIMIA been obstructionist with the children's requests to access education but it has been actively preventing them from gaining access to schooling. After four years of trying in vain to get access to education, Benjamin and Bahareh have finally been given permission to access limited study by correspondence. They cannot receive a recognition of the study they do. Baxter detention centre holds on to Benjamin's books and other materials for so long when they arrive in the post that he cannot get any work handed in on time. These children are asked to pay $10,000 each of their own money for this privilege of accessing education.

I also visited a man by the name of Peter Qasim who is believed to be the longest serving detainee in Australia. Peter has been locked in detention for five years and nine months. He has been locked up at Perth, Curtin and Woomera detention centres and he is now locked up in the desert at Baxter, but he, like all detainees at Baxter, cannot see the desert from his compound. He says he has now given up making friends, because at each detention centre when he has tried to relieve some of his pain by making friends, he has been transferred.

Ten months ago Peter applied for an Indian passport so that he could be returned home. Peter is from the disputed territory of Kashmir controlled by India and he was part of the Muslim separatist Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. The Indian government does not recognise Peter as a citizen. With 20 million people living illegally in India, it is unsurprising that validating a former separatist is not at the top of India's to-do list. Indian authorities have said in relation to validating Peter's identity that `it will take a while to hear from their end'. The fact that an Indian state, one in the midst of a conflict, has said it is looking into Peter's identity is something that this government clings to tightly to deny that Peter is a stateless detainee and to deny that all avenues have been pursued. Peter agreed to be returned home 10 months ago, but with no movement on his case, he ekes out a form of existence in our detention centres. He openly wonders how long he can keep his spirits up before he gives in. The government argues that their detention regime is not punitive. With no foreseeable movement on Peter's case it is hard to find a more appropriate word to describe his detention by this government.

I met another young man at Baxter called Ali Gharamany. Ali has spent most of his life since childhood in prison, first as a political prisoner in Iran's infamous Evin prison, and now in the desert prisons of this government's mandatory detention regime. What is his crime? Struggling for democracy in Iran. He escaped the torture and persecution he received in Iran only to be locked up in Australia. This young man's mental health is clearly under strain. All he is asking for is the chance to live a regular life, to contribute to Australian society and live free from persecution. Instead, this government locks him up.

My trip to Baxter and the residential housing project has highlighted for me the urgent need for Australia to change its asylum seeker processing system to a humane process that does not involve mandatory detention. We need to do this in order to rebuild our international reputation as a welcoming country. We also need to do this so that we as a country can benefit from all that those seeking asylum have to offer to our country. About 90 per cent of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are found to be genuine refugees. Years of imprisonment inhibits them from being able to enjoy and contribute to strengthening the diversity of our society.

The treatment of asylum seekers was a pivotal issue in the minds of many voters at the last federal election. Three years on, Australians have heard the stories of individual detainees and have met the TPV holders contributing to the economy of their regional towns. We have a situation where even more Australians are concerned and appalled by this government's treatment of asylum seekers. Both the major political parties need to explain their vision for humane treatment of asylum seekers and how it differs from the current situation.

The residential housing project and community or home detention of asylum seekers are not appropriate or humane systems for detaining asylum seekers. They are simply another form of detention; they are simply a different type of prison. The residential housing project separates families and community detention extends the system of detention into our society in the same way that home detention of prisoners extends the criminal justice system into our communities.

Community or home detention is when responsibility for a detainee is given to an agency, often a church agency. The house in which they are kept is designated a place of detention and certain individuals are police and DIMIA checked in order to be able to interact with the detainees. Children can be taken to school only by these individuals and parents can only leave the home in the company of these individuals. If a mother runs out of milk and there is a shop across the road selling milk, she cannot simply go out and go across the road to buy some milk.

Families are locked up in these houses in the community and are completely isolated. They rely on approved and security checked individuals for any contact. It is unlike even the situation in a detention centre when there are other detainees to talk to and interact with. It is also an incredibly expensive form of detention. We heard last night about the $700,000 of taxpayers' money spent on keeping a mother and her youngest child in a hotel in Adelaide away from her five other children. There is another mother and a child who have been kept in the same hotel for at least two years. If the costs of keeping them there are the same as the $80,000 a month to keep Mrs Bakhtiyari in the same hotel, then this government has spent $1.9 million dollars in detaining one woman and her young child. Think about the incredible community services and support that we could be providing to asylum seekers in this country with this money.

The Greens advocate a system of processing asylum seekers where claims are assessed whilst individuals live in the community, as they do in Europe and as we had in this country in the 1970s and 1980s. We can and we should implement a policy of hostel style reception centres in our cities, which are open to our communities, so that those healthy and security checked asylum seekers can come and go whilst they wait to move into the community. We should be strengthening our diverse community. We should be rebuilding our international reputation rather than locking up, in razor-wire prisons in the desert, individuals who have come to this country—fleeing torture in places like Iran, fleeing persecution in places like Kashmir—to seek asylum and the opportunity for a new life contributing to our community. They are locked up in these prisons. Their mental health continues to suffer under a mandatory detention regime that is supported by both major parties in this parliament.

We, as a country of Australians, need to rebuild our reputation internationally. When I have told these stories that I have been telling today to people whom I have met in the community, they have said, `That is embarrassing.' It is embarrassing that that is the way that this country and this government are treating people, such as those fighting for democracy in Iran. It is not acceptable. A growing number of Australians are immensely concerned about what is happening and want to see a change. This election provides an opportunity for those thousands of refugee advocates around the country who have been assisting and helping these detainees to speak out to both the major political parties and say, `These are the changes we need. This is the humane way that we should be treating asylum seekers in this country. Let's look to other countries; let's look to examples in Europe and in our own country not so long ago where we had a humane system and people were in the community whilst their claim for asylum was being assessed.' That is the path that we should be going down and that is the path that the Greens will continue to advocate for both here and in the community.