Much debate is raging in Australia at the moment over refugees. It makes me angry and sad that we are still arguing over details in the foreground rather than it being a background topic, as if asylum seekers are a sign of end times. For those in mandatory detention, it must be beyond anger and sadness, as the rioting demonstrates.
Now the government has had enough. Enough of the rioting. Enough of asylum seekers burning down perfectly good squalor for attention. So Chris Bowen, the Minister responsible, has angrily come out, fists flailing, saying that any refugee charged with a criminal offence in a detention centre run will fail the character test and therefore be deported. Further, the government will be reintroducing the much reviled Temporary Protection Visas.
The real reason this is such a crisis isn’t mandatory detention, it isn’t offshore processing, it isn’t a failure to “stop the boats.” It’s a simple problem with a secretive mission: ASIO. No asylum seeker is granted refugee status within Australia until ASIO has done a background check. These background checks have, over the past 2 years, blown out to more than 60 days per detainee and growing.
What is the solution? More ASIO staff to do background checks? Maybe, but not really practical. Bigger detention centres? The prison management company Sirco can barely staff what exists now. Naru? Naru still hasn’t signed the Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, despite promising to do so, which effectively means any asylum seeker (or indeed refugee) has no rights when in Naru.
A the risk at being unpopular, this is what the government could do: use detention centres only for medical checks and quarantine, then release the asylum seekers into the general Australian community with a visa within 30 days. Once released, the asylum seeker would have to report to Immigration once a fortnight, inform the department of their whereabouts at all times where practical, is barred from work and would not have access to Centrelink or Medicare services. In other words, they would be for all intents the same as a tourist on a tourist visa (except for the reporting requirements).
Some may say this is inhumane and doesn’t give the asylum seeker certainty. This is true. Australia’s obligation is to protect asylum seekers and process their claim, and we should do this better. What better place than for some poor wretch to be housed with family or friends or people of the same culture or refugee advocacy agencies who can provide until refugee status is granted (or declined)?
It’s time to stop treating asylum seekers as the problem in need of easy but tough solutions for political games, or as potential terrorists or criminals. Sure, not all asylum seekers are genuine, but the vast majority are. Those who are are no more a criminal risk to the broader community of citizens and permanent residents. I’d even risk a frown or two to suggest saying they are less of a criminal risk.