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‘Rolling out the red carpet’ for asylum seekers

Recent media reports that ‘asylum seekers are receiving plasma TVs, microwave ovens, DVD players’ and other ‘free handouts’ whilst in community detention are inaccurate and only serve to mislead and misinform the public on what is a very complex issue.

Due to the recent expansion of Australia’s community detention arrangements, several community houses around the country have been furnished in order to prepare for occupancy. However, as the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, pointed out in a recent media release, none of these basic household goods are allocated to individuals detained under community detention arrangements. In fact, the items provided are only there for the use of the occupants while they remain in either community or held detention.

The Australian Government has a duty of care to support all detainees while they are being held under Australia’s mandatory immigration detention system and, as the Minister noted, individuals held in community detention are unauthorised to work and are often the most vulnerable of all the detainees:
The Australian Government has a duty of care to provide basic items such as cleaning supplies, furniture and bedding, and baby items such as prams for vulnerable asylum seekers in community detention. People do not get to keep these goods—they remain in a house when a family moves out and are used by the next people who move in...
People who are approved for community detention are the most vulnerable in the detention network because they are children, families with children, or because they have serious mental health issues or have suffered torture and trauma.
Similar claims that refugees and asylum seekers receive free houses, mobile phones or higher social security benefits than age pensioners, have been doing the rounds for years. Most of the claims are misleading and many are adapted from international emails referring to conditions elsewhere, prompting the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) to release several press releases and letters to the editor in an attempt to correct the record. The Refugee Council of Australia has also refuted many of these claims.

Asylum seekers receive very basic support while their applications for protection are processed. Under arrangements introduced by the Howard Government in 2005 (with bipartisan support) the Red Cross is funded to assist asylum seekers in community detention to find housing and access health and community services. See the Parliamentary Library paper, Australian government assistance to refugees: fact v fiction, for more detail.

Why community detention?

Mandatory immigration detention has been the subject of vigorous debate since it was introduced in Australia in 1992, igniting great passion in both its supporters and detractors. Since then, unease at the detention of asylum seekers in often remote locations and the duration and conditions of their detention have plagued successive governments beginning in the early 1990s when there were several hunger strikes, rooftop demonstrations and suicide attempts at centres in detention centres—see the Parliamentary Library publication, Immigration detention in Australia, for more detail.

The Howard Government introduced community detention for families with children in June 2005 after significant pressure from refugee advocates and certain Coalition back benchers concerned at the escalating unrest in detention and the deteriorating conditions experienced by detainees.

It was further expanded in October 2010 by the Gillard Government in response to growing pressure on the detention network due to an increase in boat arrivals and corresponding concerns expressed by interest groups. To further release the pressure on the detention network, in October 2011 the Government also announced that some asylum seekers who arrive unauthorised by boat would be removed from detention altogether, issued with bridging visas and released into the community while their claims are processed.

What are the advantages?

Over the years many have argued that there are many less costly and less harmful alternatives to mandatory immigration detention in often remote facilities. Australia’s Human Rights Commission argues that the strain on the detention network is unsustainable and is unnecessary, costly, counter-productive and harmful to the physical and mental health of detainees. The UNHCR has stated that ‘asylum seekers should not be detained beyond the purpose of assessing identity, health and security checks’ and that moving from a focus on detention centres to either community detention or other ‘detention alternatives’ affords significant savings.

In Senate Estimates on 13 February 2012 (Immigration portfolio, Hansard transcript, pp. 18 and 103), DIAC officials outlined the many benefits of community detention:
Clients who live in community detention, and therefore have more responsibility for managing their own lives, can be expected to experience better mental health because they are living and operating as a person normally would. Improved family relationships are a consequence as well. Clients also have the opportunity to regain some of the living skills that they would have lost in the journey and in, potentially, their time in Indonesia, in detention and so on. That is beneficial to them ... whether they remain in Australia or return home. Similarly, for those granted visas, a better understanding of life in Australia and opportunities to learn some English, make connections in the community and so on, should enhance their settlement prospects. We also expect to see some reduced downstream costs ... including the cost of mental and physical health services, family intervention services and other support programs. And there is the potential that time in community detention could facilitate a faster entry to the workforce once someone does get a visa. Clients are allowed to volunteer, so the opportunity to volunteer with an organisation or what have you, may lead to the opportunity for a job later on.
Community detention is just one of the strategies being pursued to ease the pressure on the immigration detention network at present and it affords many benefits, including lower costs. Since mandatory immigration detention was introduced the Australian Government has been obliged to care for those it detains, including the provision of a basic range of practical household items in all its detention facilities and community accommodation.