The End of Mandatory Detention?

Since the Australian Labor Party won last year’s Federal Election, a number of changes have taken place in Australia’s immigration system. The so-called Pacific Solution (whereby asylum seekers were taken to Nauru and Manus Island for processing) has been dismantled and the cruel process of granting temporary protection visas has been abolished. However, this week saw reports of what would be the biggest change: the Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans has announced the “End of Mandatory Detention.” (1)


Introduced by the Keating Labor Government in 1992, mandatory detention has been a policy supported by both major parties. Under this policy, ‘unlawful non-citizens’ were detained until they were either granted a visa to remain in Australia or deported. The detention was indefinite, with one detainee, Peter Qasim, detained for over seven years. The policy came under close scrutiny in 2005, when it was discovered that an Australian resident had been in immigration detention for almost a year, and an Australian had been deported to the Philippines. These two cases were investigated by inquiries established by the government, neither of which were authorised to question the policy of mandatory detention. (2) The policy has also been criticised by organisations such as the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (3)


The end to such a policy would be a great victory for all Australians who view it as a stain on the country’s international reputation, and it has been greeted as such. (4) Unfortunately, mandatory detention in Australia has not been abolished. Positive changes have been made that should see an improvement in the treatment of refugees, but the policy of mandatory detention is still at the core of Australia’s refugee policy.


Announcing the new policy, Evans outlined seven key values that will guide Australia’s immigration system, the first of which is: “Mandatory detention is an essential component of strong border control.” (5) It is therefore difficult to understand how the changes can be perceived as the end of mandatory detention. In fact, Evans explicitly notes in his speech that the Labor Party went to last year’s election with a commitment to maintain mandatory detention, a commitment that has been honoured.


Flying in the face of earlier statements, the Government has also kept the operation of immigration detention centres in private hands, blaming the fact that the immigration department has already started the process of tendering for new providers. Maintaining operations in private hands means that there is a severe lack of transparency and accountability regarding what happens in these centres.


Another policy of the previous government that has been maintained is the excision from the migration zone of certain parts of Australia, meaning that asylum seekers that land at these areas have no claim to asylum in Australia. Further, they will continue to be detained and processed at the detention centre on Christmas Island, described by Evans as representing a “maximum security environment.”


In fact, a close reading of Evans’ speech shows that in many ways, Australia has not progressed as far as many would like since the nadir of the 2001 Federal Election, when the Howard Government used the fear of asylum seekers to gain a third term in office. This saw the false accusation that asylum seekers threw their children in to the water, the suggestion that terrorists may enter Australia as refugees and the implementation of a ‘disruption’ program in Indonesia that may have contributed to the death of 353 people onboard SIEV X. In his announcement this week, Evans noted the importance of controlling Australia’s borders for reasons of national security, continued the Howard Government’s propaganda that people entering Australia without a visa with the intention of claiming asylum are doing so unlawfully, and raised the issue of detainees being terrorists.


Although the changes outlined by Evans have not gone far enough, they are heading in the right direction. Changes such as the requirement for the immigration department to show why an asylum seeker should be detained, rather than having the onus of proof on the asylum seeker to show that they should be freed and a more regular review system are to be applauded. However, as Denis Shanahan said in an opinion piece this week, “the simple fact is that Evans proposals do not alter the basic building block of Australia’s bipartisan immigration policy of the past 15 years: mandatory detention.” (6) Hopefully, the strong endorsement received by the Government this week will convince Evans to go further, and completely dismantle the policy of mandatory detention.


(1)  Kate Hannon, “End of Mandatory Detention” Canberra Times, 30 July 2008, p. 3 and Sarah Smile, “End to Mandatory Detention” The Age, 29 July 2008, p. 1.

(2) and

(3) and$FILE/G0215391.pdf

(4)  Mike Steketee, “Stain on nation’s reputation cleansed” The Australian, 31 July 2008, p, 14 and “Finally, Australia banishes its odious treatment of refugees” The Age, 30 July 2008, p. 12.

(5) /media/speeches/2008/ce080729.htm\\

(6)  Dennis Shanahan, “Still in the same old boat” The Australian, 1 August 2008, p. 12.


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