In the wake of a string of arson fires at five Australian detention centers with large populations of asylum seekers, the government has begun new discussions about its much-debated refugee and humanitarian program.
Media and public attention is focused on Australia's mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers who arrive without entry visas, many of them by boat by way of countries such as Indonesia. These detainees, who in November 2002 totaled 1,282 (around 600 of them unauthorized "boat people"), had been reduced to 1,176 by mid-January through a series of hurried deportations. Asylum seekers have allegedly played a key role in increasingly strong protests in the detention centers, where fires deliberately lit between December 27 and 31 caused an estimated 8 million Australian dollars in damage.
Early in January, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs Philip Ruddock kicked off annual consultations about the program by issuing a discussion paper seeking the input of the general community including nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and ordinary citizens on how the humanitarian program can target those in greatest need of resettlement, encourage individuals and organizations to actually provide support to those whom they sponsor to enter Australia on "special humanitarian" permanent residence visas, and reduce incentives for fraudulent claims.
Several new developments will influence these consultations. The recent constitutional crisis and change of government in the nearby island nation of Nauru throws into doubt its role as a "processing" country for asylum seekers denied entry to Australia. Nauru has been used by the Australian government as a "way station" to hold asylum seekers. Additional issues will be highlighted by the fires at the detention centers, which house not only asylum seekers who have entered Australia without authorization, but also non-asylum seekers awaiting extradition and deportation after criminal convictions.
The fires sparked intensified debate in public, media, and political circles over the government's hardline policy on border control, extending it to include the handling of people who have been denied asylum, but who cannot easily be returned to their homeland.
The first fire took place on December 27 at the new Baxter detention center in South Australia. Other fires subsequently occurred at Port Hedland, Woomera, Christmas Island, and Villawood in Sydney. Anti-detention activists have argued that the fires highlight the desperation of the detainees, especially those who have had all their requests for asylum rejected and are being held pending deportation. For the year 2001-2002 the major nationalities of the detainees were Iranian, Afghan, Chinese, Indonesian, and Sri Lankan.
The destruction caused by the fires has, however, also given new ammunition to influential media personalities who favor the government's hardline policies. These figures have for some time been complaining about what they consider to be the inappropriately high standard of the facilities provided for the detainees.
In fact, not all those accused of involvement in lighting the fires were asylum seekers. The first individuals charged included a United Kingdom national and others from China, Vietnam, and Jordan awaiting deportation for other reasons. But asylum seekers made up the majority of those suspected of involvement and subsequently transferred from the detention centers to state-run jails. The decision to transfer suspected ringleaders in these arson cases from civil to police custody has become an additonal matter of debate.
There is international agreement that prompt and fair evaluation of asylum claims is a key element in any system to handle requests for asylum. In fact, the concerns raised by critics of Australia's handling of such claims relate less to "fairness," and more to the length of time required for processing. Complicating this issue is the fact that those who arrive with no ID or other documents "lose" time while they are being identified. Another factor is that in Australia's system, which allows various levels of appeals, even duly following the assessment process can take a great deal of time. Some government officials have expressed the desire to reduce the scope for judicial appeal.
What has been brought into stark relief by the fires, meanwhile, is the practical difficulty involved in the Australian policy of compulsory detention when it is associated with delays in deporting individuals whose applications for asylum have been rejected.
This dilemma is shared by other states sought out by asylum seekers. In many European nations, such as Germany, large numbers of rejected asylum seekers remain in the country because of the practical and humanitarian difficulties involved in returning them to their homelands. In some cases their home governments refuse to accept them. In others, homeland security and social circumstances render their return problematic.
At present, Australians seem to be divided over how to deal with the issues brought up by the spate of arson fires. In contrast with the tone of government supporters in some segments of the media, a recent editorial in the widely circulated Sydney Morning Herald commented on January 4, 2003, "any system too rigidly applied will throw up — cases which cannot be resolved. For these cases, the government has a responsibility to find a fair and just resolution. Detention for an indeterminate period is a poor option." The lack of a solution to this problem is becoming an increasingly pressing issue confronting Australian policy makers.