Does Australia treat illegal immigrants too harshly?

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The issue

Australia's treatment of illegal immigrants has recently attracted significant media attention. In part this has been because of a riot and then a number of attempted escapes at a some of Australia's detention centres for illegal immigrants.
The use of water cannon and tear gas to control such outbreaks has been criticised. Many of these criticisms were focused on the Woomera detention centre in South Australia. Then in December 2000 a Tongan man apparently committed suicide in circumstances which suggest that detention centre staff may not have handled his situation appropriately.
Also in December 2000, former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, condemned Australia's illegal immigrant detention centres, especially Woomera.
These criticisms have not led to an independent inquiry. Instead the Immigration Minister, Mr Philip Ruddock, seems to have been primarily concerned to defend his Government's policy on the handling of illegal immigrants.

What they said ...
'As detainees, they get priority over other applicants. In effect, they are jumping the queue'
Gary Klintworth, a former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal

'These people are not criminal prisoners detained at our pleasure but asylum seekers who have effectively placed themselves in our care'
The Age in an editorial published on January 4, 2001

Echo Issue Outline 2001 / 04
Copyright © Echo Education Services

First published in The Echo on-line newspaper information site.

Issue outline by J M McInerney

Australia currently receives about 12,000 asylum seekers each year. About a third of these (4174 in 1999-2000) arrived without authority as boat people. This was a 354 per cent increase in illegal arrivals over the previous year. 1694 people were also denied entry into Australia in 1999-2000 when they landed at Australian airports.
The largest group of illegal immigrants comes from the Middle East.
There are between 1,600 and 1,700 illegal immigrants in detention centres in Australia.
Australia has six detention centres.
In 1997 the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned Australia for its treatment of unauthorised arrivals.
In 2000 the international Committee Against Torture was similarly critical.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has produced guidelines outlining how potential refugees ought to be treated.
The guidelines state:
asylum seekers should be detained only during the period of initial assessment;
all decisions regarding their detention should be subject to independent review;
children should not be detained;
detention should not be used as a means of deterring future asylum seekers.

Australia is believed to be in breach of these guidelines.

Internet links

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has produced a report on Australia's performance regarding refugees. The report is far more favourable than the comments of critics would suggest. Australia is listed as among the UNHCR's top 20 contributors to the support of refugees.
The report also indicates that Australia is also among the top three resettlement countries in the world, with an annual quota of 4,000 persons. This component is in addition to a planned intake of 2,000 asylum-seekers on-shore, and a further 6,000 persons who may be eligible for humanitarian non-refugee visas.
The report does, however, note that among the constraints which limit Australia's involvement in refugee support is 'the detention of asylum-seekers'.
This report can be found at

On March 14, 2000, the ABC's investigative current affairs program, Four Corners, produced a report titled 'A Well-founded Fear of Persecution'. The report was prepared by Chris Masters.
The program notes describe the program in this manner, 'Four Corners gains access to the previously hidden world of Australia's detention centres. Reporter Chris Masters gathers direct evidence of asylum seekers being forcibly and repeatedly injected with sedatives and housed in prisons when no crime has been committed or alleged.'
A full transcript of the program can be read at

On October 16, 2000, the ABC's investigative current affairs program, Four Corners, produced a report titled 'The Queue Jumpers'. The report was producer by Stephen McDonell. The program notes describe the program in this manner, 'According to evidence given to Four Corners, hardening attitudes in Australia are compounding the existing distress of asylum seekers and are even producing new disorders.'
The report can be found at

The Age in its issues collection has put together a series of articles dating from November 15, 2000, and going through to at least March 1, 2001. All deal with aspects of the illegal immigration issue. A clickable list of these items can be found at

A further clickable list of Age items dealing with illegal immigration and going back to January 2000 can be found at

The Immigration Minister, Mr Ruddock, has a section in his Web site which includes press releases from December 1999 (at time of writing). These press releases include many on "people smuggling", as well as illegal and "legal" immigrants generally.
This site can be found at

The ALP Shadow Minister for Immigration, Con Sciacca, has writen an article on the illegal immigration problem faced by Australia and many other countries. The article can be found at:

The United States Commission for Refugees has an enormous (but easily accessed) database of facts and statistics. The initial main page is slow to load, but well worth the wait. The site can be found at:

Arguments in favour of the actions Australia takes to discourage illegal migrants
1. People smuggling provides a supplementary income for international criminals
The Australian Justice Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone, has made this point. Senator Vanstone has claimed that people-smuggling is becoming the domain of international crime syndicates.
The Senator further stated that criminal organisations previously involved in narcotics trafficking were becoming involved in people-smuggling, chaaasing the financial rewaards and low penalties that have been dealt out in the past.
According to this line of argument, the involvement of international criminals in people-smuggling makes it particularly important that this activity be discouraged by every means possible.

2. Illegal immigrants are often drawn into crimes such as prostitution and narcotic trafficking.
This point has also been made by the Australian Justice Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone. Senator Vanstone has stated, 'The arrivals, by the nature of who they have dealt with to get here, also risk other crimes being committed - such as blackmail, prostitution and narcotic trafficking, which frequently goes hand in hand with illegal immigration.'

3. Illegal immigrants are often placing themselves in danger by attempting to enter Australia.
It has been noted that many illegal immigrants put themselves in in significant danger in order to enter Australia. Those who come by sea face the obvious danger of shipwreck. They are also usually dealing with unscrupulous people whose only concern is to make money from them. Thus they are likely to be overcharged for their trip to Australia and are also likely to be travelling in unsafe vessels.
Because the people-smuggling trade is illegal, no safety standards apply.
It is estimated that a large percentage of those people who set out to find sanctuary in Australia never arrive here safely.

4. Only mandatory detention can prevent illegal immigrants from remaining in Australia.
This point has been made by Gary Klintworth, a former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal. Mr Klintworth has stated, 'Illegal immigrants should not be simply released into the Australian community to await a decision on their refugee claims. Those who have their claims rejected can prolong the process. In the end, they can simply "vanish", as they have in Britain, to create an underworld pool of illegal immigrants, with possibly thousands ore in the pipeline.'
This point has also been made by Mr David Wilson, the deputy director of the United Kingdom Immigration Service. Mr Wilson has stated, 'The only way that any country can achieve removals anywhere the numbers of people coming in is by a much stronger detention policy.'
It has further been claimed that it is particularly important to discourage illegal immigrants as they are taking places which could be had be refugees prepared to apply from and wait in their own country.
This point has also been made by Mr Klintworth, who has claimed of illegal immigrants, 'As detainees, they get priority over other applicants. In effect, they are jumping the queue.'

5. Illegal immigrants are not mistreated in detention centres.
This claim has been made by the minister for immigration, Mr Philip Ruddock. Mr Ruddock has stated that Australian Correctional Management, a private firm running Woomera detention centre was doing an exceptional job under very difficult circumstances.
The minister has defended Australian Correctional Management against accusations that it operates with excessive secrecy and that there are not proper complaint procedures for detainees who believe they have been mistreated.
Mr Ruddock has argued, 'The detention standards are very comprehensive and there are penalties [for breaches]. A failure to report where there was an obligation to report would lead to a breach.'

Arguments opposing the actions Australia takes to discourage illegal migrants
1. Immigrants often come to Australia illegally because they face grave dangers in their countries of origin.
According to this line of argument it is not appropriate to describe such people as 'queue-jumpers' as they have no choice as to whether they should leave their country of origin; they are in such danger that they have to leave.
This point has been made by Arnold Zable in an interview published in The Age on January 11, 2001. The interview was with an Afghistan refugee. Mr Zable states, 'To describe him as a 'queue jumper' is an insult. His people, the Hazara, have suffered terribly under the Taliban dictatorship. His flight began with a knock on the door in the dead of night. A neighbour had come to warn him that Taliban soldiers were looking for him ... It was time to get out.'

2. Australia's definition of who should be regarded as a refugee is too narrow.
It has been claimed that Australia adopts an unnecessarily restrictive view of who should be classed as a refugee and thus be able to stay in Australia.
There have been a number of highly publicised instances of Australia denying refugee status to people, who, it has been argued, would be in danger of persecution or death in their own countries.
One such case was that of Karim Tchoylak, an Islamic resistance revolutionary.
Mr Tchoylak was first denied refugee status in Australia because it was judged that his revolutionary activities in his own country were 'crimes against humanity' and so meant he was barred under the terms of the Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory. After an appeal it was decided that Mr Tchoylak's activities were not crimes against humanity and so he could be judged a refugee. By this point, however, Mr Tchoylak had already been returned home and it was feared he had been killed.

3. Illegal immigrants should not be held in detention centres.
Amnesty International has claimed that Australia is the only country in the world to employ an automatic mandatory detention system without recourse to judicial review.
There is concern that the Australian system of mandatory detention for potentially illegal immigrants is excessive. It is argued that these people are detained before it has been established that they are not entitled to stay in Australia. They are detained while it is determined whether they qualify as refugees. Critics maintain that this treatment is unjust.
The Age in an editorial published on January 4, 2001, has stated, 'These people are not criminal prisoners detained at our pleasure but asylum seekers who have effectively placed themselves in our care.'
Amin Saikal, professor of political science at the Australian National University, has stated, 'The need to exclude [those] who may not be refugees should not be used as grounds for meting out collective punishment to [those] who are found to be genuine.'

4. Australia's detention centres treat detainees too harshly.
The Swedish system of dealing with illegal arrivals has been held up as a better model than Australia's.
Unlike Australia, under Swedish law, children cannot be held in detention for more than six days. Women and children are housed in community homes near detention centres with full visiting rights to their husbands and fathers.
Australian detention centres have been criticised on a number of grounds. It has been claimed that the detention of children is inappropriate. There have even been allegations that some of the children in these centres have been abused.
There have been claims that guards treat detainees insensitively. Water cannon and tear gas have been used to quell demonstrations. One man has died under circumstances being investigated by the coroner.
It is also claimed that the detains are too far away from major population centres. It has been suggested that this makes mistreatment harder to detect as there are very few potential observers. It has also been claimed that the ban the Government has placed on media representatives entering detention centres has also made abuses more likely as they will probably not be publicised.

5. Detaining illegal arrivals does not act as a deterrent.
Amin Saikal, professor of political science at the Australian National University, has claimed, 'The desire of the Immigration Department to make an example of [those illegal arrivals it apprehends] to deter others from coming to Australia is essentially pointless, since there is no way its message will get back ...'
It has further been claimed that those who make the usually hazardous and difficult journey to Australia as illegal immigrants are often so desperate to escape their home countries that fear of detention once in Australia would not deter them.
This point has been made by Elizabeth Kendal, in a letter to the editor published in The Age on January 18, 2001. Ms Kendal has dramatised the situation of many illegal immigrants with the following rhetorical question, 'So your mother froze and starved to death, your father was killed by a sniper ...your son stepped on a landmine, your wife has been made a cripple and now your daughter cannot chose her religion ... but is she worth the risk?'

Further implications
It seems likely that Australia will allow the children of illegal immigrants to live near to their parents, but outside the detention centres. These children's mothers will be allowed to stay with them.
This is a significant concession and one that has been long demanded by critics of Australia's policy of detaining illegal immigrants.
However it is unlikely to still the criticism as concerns remain about the conditions under which male detainees are kept. Indeed there are many who object to the very fact of detention and who note that Sweden, which also detains illegal immigrants, does so for a far shorter period and offers illegal immigrants far more support.
The Government seems unlikely to alter its policy on this issue any further. The Government has rejected what it has claimed is inappropriate interference from the United Nations on issues such as mandatory sentencing. It is therefore unlikely to respond to international criticisms of its handling of illegal immigrants.
The current policy was originally developed by a Labor Government and has enjoyed bipartisan support. Liberalising the treatment of illegal immigrants is also not likely to be particularly popular with the electorate. Given that the Government is soon to face what is likely to be a difficult election, action on immigration policy is unlikely to be on its agenda.
All that seem likely to prompt further change is additional revelations of mistreatment of those within the detention centres.

Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $34.00 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)

The Age
15/11/00 page 3 news item by Louise Dodson, 'Canberra targets the boat people'
26/11/00 page 1 news item by Paul Heinrichs, 'Did we send a man home to be shot?'
28/11/00 page 4 news item, 'Ruddock backs Woomera centre'
29/11/00 page 16 editorial, 'Refugee children deserve protection'
2/12/00 page 5 news item by Karen Kissan and Penelope Debelle, 'Australia faces the quandary of locking people up'
2/12/00 page 1 analysis by John MacGregor and Gary Tippet, 'witnesses from the 'gulag' of Woomera'
2/12/00 page 5 news item by Karen Kissane, 'Neglect and abuse at Woomera'
4/12/00 page 14 letter from Grant Mitchell, project co-ordinator, Asylum Seeker Project, 'Try the Swedish approach to detention'
4/12/00 page 15 comment by Robert Manne, 'Shame, Ruddock, shame'
10/12/00 page 3 news item by Brendan Nicholson, 'Jail threat over refugee report'
11/12/00 page 3 news report by Allison Jackson, 'Woomera must go, Fraser'
13/12/00 page 14 editorial, 'Asylum seekers deserve better'
14/12/00 page 15 comment by Professor Alice Tay, 'A heartless welcome'
19/12/00 page 10, cartoon
21/12/00 page 11 comment by Gary Klintworth, 'The case for detention'
29/12/00 page 1 news item by Chloe Saltau, 'Death haunts a captive community'
2/1/01 page 1 news item by Chloe Saltau, 'Detainee "punished" for talking to police'
3/1/01 page 4 news item by Chloe Saltau, 'Dead detainee's family waits in vain at airport'
4/1/01 page 10 editorial, 'Detainees deserve better treatment'
5/1/01 page 4 news item by Kerry Taylor, 'Ruddock to look at Swedish scheme'
8/1/01 page 13 comment by Amin Saikal , 'What did the desperate do to deserve this?'
11/1/01 page 11 analysis/interview by Arnold Zable, 'I am detainee CA 120'
11/1/01 page 11 analysis by Peter Mares, 'How Sweden deals with the influx'
16/1/01 page 3 news item by Kerry Taylor, 'Police see illegal immigrants as boom racket'
18/1/01 page 14 letter from Elizabeth Kendal, 'Philip Ruddock's crock of crocodile tears'

The Herald Sun
13/1/01 page 1 news item by Jen Kelly, 'Go home'
15/1/01 page 13 news item by Jen Kelly, 'Gran too old to stay, family told'