Detention centre’s closure not a win for people seeking asylum

JULY 19, 2016
By Rosie Donegan


Detainees at Darwin’s Wickham Point detention facility have gradually been moved to unknown locations since June, with the last remaining asylum seekers reported to have left last week. Although this may seem to be a hopeful development for the rights and welfare of people seeking asylum in Australia, the closures have less to do with Australia’s moral and legal obligations and more to do with balancing the budget and claiming political victories.

Announced in conjunction with the 2016-17 Budget in May, the centre’s closure is one of four planned shut downs in the next year; in addition to the Maribyrnong Centre in Victoria, The Blaxwood compound at Villawood and Perth residential housing. This follows thirteen prior closures that have been heralded by the Coalition as indicative of their success in “Stopping the Boats” which threatened to overwhelm Australia’s domestic immigration system under Labor.

The Government has not disclosed where the detainees are being taken, but alternative places of detention such as Wongah Hill in WA and the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre are likely destinations. Advocates say the remote centre should never have been built, but for some of the detained, the move may mean being further away from their families and community networks. Such an upheaval only compounds the known effects that prolonged detention has on mental and physical health. Closures of onshore detention centres, in the absence of humanitarian visa approvals or a greater use of community-based solutions, is not a positive result.

Similarly, the Coalition announced in April that there were no more children in immigration detention. It had initially brought relief for many who had fought against the detainment of children, due to the highly damaging effect that it had on children and their physical and mental health. Yet Immigration Minister Peter Dutton neglected to mention the fifty children still held in offshore detention and that some children remained at Villawood, in a newly designated “community detention” section of the centre. This kind of selective reporting has been used to try and convince the Australian public that despite the condemnations of the international community, Australia upholds its obligations under refugee law.

Significantly, another detention centre poses an imminent threat to the government’s mandate: the Manus Island facility has been declared unconstitutional by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court in April. So far, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has been silent on the fate of the 850 people still detained at Manus, other than they will not be calling Australia home. This uncertainty means that the future of both onshore and offshore detention must be reconsidered. In doing so, the rights and wellbeing of people seeking asylum must be given priority.

In conclusion, the “Pacific Solution” is again proving to be no solution at all, and budget reshuffling has driven the closure of certain onshore centres. Though fewer resources will be expended to prop up a policy that violates human rights through indefinite and arbitrary detention, there is no end in sight for people seeking asylum. Even when released on a Bridging Visa or a Temporary Protection Visa, they can never be sure that their new life is secure.

Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen has stated that “Every boat we intercept, every child we detain, is a reminder that we can be part of the problem or part of the solution.” Permanently ending indefinite detention is only the first step towards a policy that comes close to acceptable, one which upholds the inalienable human dignity of us all.