It’s a rare day in the Australian political discourse when asylum seekers in one way or another are not mentioned. Sometimes it’s to do with where or how to detain them or whether they should actually be detained in the first place. Sometimes it’s about whether the policy of the day is said to be “working”. Most of the time, unfortunately, the discussion is not about how locking them up is cruel and effectively criminalises seeking asylum which, newsflash, is not a crime.
Asylum seekers are again in detention on offshore locations. Nauru was re-established a matter of weeks ago and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea has just taken its first detainees, nineteen of them. The expert panel headed by former Chief of the Australian Defence Force saw to that, effectively making offshore processing the only option.
Over 7,500 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia since the government agreed to implement the recommendations of the Houston panel back in August. The immigration detention system is under huge stress and that includes both the domestic facilities and the offshore centres on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.
Domestically, the government will re-open the Pontville immigration detention facility in Tasmania to try and cope with the influx of asylum seekers.
In this lies the first inkling of the smallest of silver linings. More asylum seekers than expected will be processed onshore and less out of sight, out of mind than if increasing offshore processing was the only way to go. It is always a lot easier to get access to information about issues facing asylum seekers onshore than it is for those on Nauru and Manus Island, so far away from Australia.
However, that is as far as the positive goes in relation to onshore processing of refugee claims. It is still cruel and degrading to lock up asylum seekers, no matter where they are.
They will and have harmed themselves both onshore and offshore. Trauma does not discriminate between Australian and overseas processing centres. All immigration detention locations are hotbeds for either creating or accelerating mental health issues that are costly to both diagnose and treat.
The second positive out of the massive numbers of people seeking asylum is that it has now led to the Gillard Government, through Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, announcing that some asylum seekers will be moved into the community for processing.
This is a big win for a small number of asylum seekers. They will enjoy what most refugee advocates have been calling for and that is relative freedom.
Community detention means less prospect of mental health issues as a result of being locked up for a crime that does not exist, though of course, many may already, through what they have been through, have trauma based disorders.
However, the plus side is that any pre-existing conditions will not be exacerbated by cruelty, nor will new mental health issues be created for those being processed in the general community.
Who knows, if processing the claims of asylum seekers in the community works well it might actually be expanded, but do not hold your breath. The only likely reason for either side of politics increasing the use of community detention is not because it will work well and be much safer to the health of asylum seekers, but because there are simply no more places to put asylum seekers behind bars.
Many might also say that there’s a silver lining in the failure of the politics of being cruel to be kind and that can only be a good thing. The trouble is, both sides of politics will be too pig-headed to realise that and change their ways on this issue.
Perhaps now our politicians might realise that there is a lot more to asylum seeker policy than domestic actions.
The scenario is too difficult to ever resolve fully, but we really need to try. To try requires stronger regional and international co-operation. Unfortunately, that too will be lost on many politicians.