DETENTION centres are not prisons according to the Minister for Immigration.The matter came to a head when Scott Morrison appeared before Human Rights Commissioner, Prof Gillian Triggs, who used her own experience of visiting Australian prisons to raise the issue.
For Morrison, denying the characteristics of detention centres might be a salve to his own conscience – but they are prisons.
It is worse for refugees than for other Australian prisoners. When others go into prison in Australia they have some idea of why they are there and when the sentence will finish.
Indefinite incarceration must be one of the cruellest of punishments and the extent of mental health issues in refugee prisons should be little wonder.
An understanding of human rights is fundamental in dealing with asylum seekers. The right to seek asylum, as outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and the right to health, as outlined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights make this clear.
However, the approach of Labor and Liberal governments simply flies in the face of these conventions.
But political polling is so much more important. The government is particularly vulnerable on children in detention. And children are being held in detention centres for longer and longer.
Morrison told the Human Rights Commission that the average time a child spent in an Immigration Department detention facility as of July 31 was 349 days compared to July 31 last year when it was 115 days.
In an attempt to show compassion Morrison referred to his own children.
“As a parent of two young children, the emotional challenges of working in this policy portfolio are just as real and just as great as they would be for any other parent in my position,” he said.
“But sentiment cannot be indulged at the expense of effective policy that is saving lives and ending the chaos and tragedy that was occurring that many thought could never be turned around. And that is my duty.”
The number of Iranian children vastly outnumbers those from any other country with almost 300 of nearly 770 children in detention.
The approach our community has taken to boat people from Islamic and other non-Christian countries is in marked contrast to the compassionate stance taken by the government in dealing with the Syrian Christians and the Christian refugees from the ASIL attacks in the North of Iraq.
In response to this crisis, the government announced it would “set aside” 4000 visas for refugees who are “most in need of resettlement”. It is unclear whether these are additional or taken from the 13,750 annual visa quota for refugees.
The Anglican Bishop for Canberra and Goulburn, Stuart Robinson, published an open letter calling on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to increase the government’s intake of refugees as a result of the religious violence.
Similar calls have been heard from Catholic and Anglican bishops in the UK and the US. The calls for protection of these people is understandable – they are from a similar creed.
Robinson starts with the Christian perspective: “The displacement of Christians from Mosul and other towns will greatly burden neighbouring centres struggling to meet the needs of those displaced by earlier conflicts”.
Then he goes much further: “The prospect of another generation of children, women and men enduring years of insecurity in temporary camps is intolerable”.
It is already intolerable. The churches have spoken out about the current system of detention in the past. Right now it is intolerable to anyone who is respectful of human rights and it will remain so until we take a more compassionate approach.
The shame for all of us is that the dialogue in our country has been so much about protecting ourselves from the invading boat people when the truth is that Australia benefits enormously from the economic, social and cultural contribution that asylum seekers (most of whom are found to be genuine refugees) ultimately make to our society.