Back in September I wrote to Julia Gillard, Immigration Minister Chris Evans and my local member to express the view that both offshore processing and immigration detention should be abandoned and asylum seekers allowed to live in the community. Not long after, the High Court ruled that offshore processing is illegal and the Gillard government accidentially arrived at a policy somewhat similar to my suggestions.
Finally, I have a reply to my letter to Chris Bowen from Kate Falvey, Director of Protection Policy in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Some of the things she says are as follows.
You will be pleased to know that on 18 October 2010, the Government announced that it would move the majority of children, and a significant number of vulnerable families, into the community by the end of June 2011, by expanding the community detention program. This commitment was met.
As at 21 November 2011, the Minister had approved 2382 clients (1266 adults and 1116 children) for accommodating in the community detention program since October 2010. Of these, 1292 clients (774 adults and 518 children) are residing in the community under these arrangements. Around 1000 clients have left the program after being granted protection visas.
On 25 November 2011, the Hon Chris Bowen MP, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, announced a new approach to the management of asylum seekers. Following an initial mandatory detention period for health, security and identity checks, eligible boat arrivals who do not pose risks to the community will be progressively considered for community placement on bridging visas while their asylum claims are assessed.
Asylum seekers on bridging visas will have the right to work and support themselves, and will also have access to necessary health services. Some will also be eligible for support services through the existing Department of Immigration and Citizenship funded programs such as the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme and the Community Assistance Support Program, which will be determined on a case by case basis.
Astute readers will note the weasel words in this letter - the "majority" of children, a "significant number" of "vulnerable" families (presumably some families are invulnerable), "eligible" boat arrivals will be "progressively considered" for community placement, and "some" will be eligible for support services. This is a cautious bureaucratic document which leaves a lot of wriggle room.
Nonetheless it's a move in the right direction. Community detention represents a sort of half-way house, much like parole in the prison system. The Immigration Fact Sheet on the program says:
Community detention enables people to reside in the community without needing to be escorted. These arrangements do not give a person any lawful status in Australia (for example, no visa is granted at this stage), nor does it give them the rights and entitlements of a person living in the community on a visa (for example, the right to study or work). The person remains administratively in immigration detention while living in the community....Conditions include a mandatory requirement to report regularly to the department and/or their service provider, and reside at the address specified by the minister.
This is problematic because they still remain in limbo, with no way to support themselves and limited opportunity to engage in meaningful activity. However, at least they have basic freedom of movement and a home environment rather than a traumatic institutional one.
The bridging visa option is a further improvement. People are allowed to start establishing their lives, to work and become independent. However, it does provide less security for people - they have to jump through the hoops to be approved for discretionary assistance programs run by the Red Cross (see the fact sheets here and here) and you can be sure many will slip between the cracks.
The letter doesn't mention the High Court decision but it is clear the court has set the cat among the pigeons. Policy is moving fast, cautious public servants are having to think on their feet, and there is an opportunity for those who are looking for humane solutions to get ahead of those who see only danger. I'd still like to see more generosity, but at last after years of the zero sum game of detention we seem to be moving in a more generous direction. May we keep moving forward!