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Where to for immigration detention?

By Anna Saulwick - posted Thursday, 7 August 2008

The phrase “mandatory detention” is a little bit special, isn’t it?

One definition of “mandatory detention” refers to the compulsory detention of asylum seekers for long indefinite periods. This system gave asylum seekers no right to appeal their detention on any grounds, and kept them in a constant state of anxious uncertainty about if and when they might be released.

And in the near future a new formulation of “mandatory detention” will describe the process by which asylum seekers are taken into custody for a brief period during which the Department of Immigration and Citizenship will conduct health, security and identity checks. Asylum seekers that pose no risk to the community will be released, pending determination of their application for asylum. The Department will have to justify any continued detention, and that detention will be subject to regular review.


The government hopes to glide between one meaning of mandatory detention and another.

There is a pleasing irony in the fact that the term mandatory detention is being used as a cover for progressive reform. The same semantic blurring that has stifled the progressive agenda is now being used to neutralise the conservative one.

Diction aside, the policy shift is a strong display of leadership - the kind that takes a dignified, clear-eyed look at asylum seekers and tries to come to terms with a humane solution to a political problem. Or a political solution to a human problem. The second best thing about the announcement was that finally, we are hearing a value based approach to Immigration policy, and that the Minister has rejected the old model of leadership on this issue.

But the scheme outlined by the Minister is far from perfect. The excision of Australian territory from the migration zone still underpins a dual system, which makes a distinction between those that arrive on a valid visa, and those that arrive without authorisation. This system exposes the latter group to institutional disadvantages, despite the fact that they stand the highest chance of being genuine refugees.

Unauthorised arrivals who land in the excised zone will be processed on Christmas Island (remote from community oversight and welfare assistance). These individuals will now have access to review of negative decisions by “independent professionals”, but will not have access to federal tribunals or courts.

Some will wonder why this change is being made now, in light of the fact that the current parliamentary inquiry on immigration detention has not even finished taking submissions. It may be that the Minister hopes to road test the changes in order to get some idea of how quickly asylum seekers can be processed, ahead of the firm guidelines that will come out of the Inquiry.


One thing is for certain; the announcement will reframe the Inquiry, usefully doing away with the threshold question of whether there should be significant change, and concentrating resources on the question of the nature of the change that should be implemented.

The Opposition has taken a familiar line. Senator Chris Ellison, the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, described the move as a knee-jerk reaction, which sends the message that Australia has softened its border protection. If we are seeing any kind of jerk reaction, however, we are seeing it from the Opposition themselves. They have responded to a great moral challenge by restating old arguments, which are unsupported by any research, no longer resonate with the public, and fracture their own party ranks.

In pandering to the ultra-conservatives and engaging a political tactic intended to divide and undermine, the Opposition continues what they started with their response to the challenges presented by climate change.

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About the Author

Anna Saulwick is the Rights Justice and Democracy Campaigner for GetUp! Action for Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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