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    Detention centres: they won't easily go away in Australia

Chris Evans announces mandatory detention changes

Is this Labor's D-Day or are the changes just "smoke and mirrors"?

IMAGE: Villawood detention centre - thanks to ABC Online and Mick Tsikas, AAP

Tuesday July 29, 2008 - This morning Immigration Minister Chris Evans spoke at ANU in Canberra, and in the speech he announced some major changes to the mandatory jailing of asylum seekers. Evans said:

"Under Labor's reforms, in determining the ongoing detention of a person, the onus of proof will be reversed. A departmental decision-maker will have to justify why a person should be detained against these values that presume that that person should be in the community."

"In our view the critical and harsh aspect of the Howard government's mandatory detention policy was not the initial detention phase but the continued and indefinite detention that occurred while lengthy immigration processes and appeals were completed."

The Immigration Minister's speech was comprehensive and announced a shift from a blanket mandatory detention policy to a selective mandatory detention platform, welcome news indeed.

But, as confirmed by Evans during an ABC The World Today interview with Alexandra Kirk, the changes can be implemented without legislative change, just through administrative and regulatory review. Labor cannot or will not risk political upheaval by presenting legislation that requires an adjustment of the Migration Act.

Regrettably, while these changes in approach to detention are substantial, and on some level represent even a retreat from Labor's intent with its mandatory detention as introduced in 1992, Labor maintains its "underclass" of unannounced boat arrivals, the changes do not touch the massive 4,600 island excision zone, and while they suggest a mothballing of the Christmas Island detention centre, the keys for this John Howard Asylum Gulag will be available at a moment's notice.

For more comments see also our media releases below.

What's on this page

This page contains the Immigration Minister's full speech and his press release, followed by the media responses that followed thick and fast during the day.


1 August 2008: Petro Georgiou endorses Labor's detention softening - Project SafeCom's first reaction to Labor's announcement of major detention changes mentioned the notion of "smoke and mirrors", and now that the dust of initial reaction has settled, more in-depth reflections on the changes are what's needed. This page brings together some of these opinions, starting with Petro Georgiou, and then pieces by The Australian's Mike Steketee and Denis Shanahan.

Media releases

New Directions in Detention - Restoring Integrity to Australia's Immigration System

Senator Chris Evans
Minister for Immigration and Citizenship

Tuesday 29 July 2008, 9am
Phillipa Weeks Staff Library
Australian National University College of Law
Fellows Road
The Australian National University

Professor Kim Rubenstein, Director of the Centre for International and Public Law (CIPL), Mr Andrew Metcalfe, Secretary, Department of Immigration and Citizenship,

At my first meeting with Department officials as Minister for Immigration, I asked who was detained at the immigration detention centre on Nauru and at what stage were their claims for asylum.

I was told there were eight Burmese and 81 Sri Lankans there. Virtually all of this group had already been assessed as refugees but had been left languishing on Nauru.

When I asked why the eight Burmese had not been settled in Australia in accordance with international law there was an embarrassed silence.

Eventually the answer emerged. The Howard government had ordered they stay put. They had been left rotting on Nauru because the Howard government wanted to maintain the myth that third-country settlement was possible.

Sadly, Australia's treatment of asylum seekers had sunk this low.

The treatment of asylum seekers has been controversial in Australian political debate for many years. The length and conditions of their detention has been a particular focus of criticism.

The Rudd Labor Government was elected on a platform that included a commitment to reform and a more humane treatment of those seeking our protection.

We quickly ended the Pacific Solution - closing the offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island. We abolished temporary protection visas - the symbol of the former government's continued punishment of those found to be owed our protection.

We acted quickly to resolve the legacy cases. Cornelia Rau has finally been compensated for her treatment and Robert Jovicic - the man found destitute in Belgrade after being deported on character grounds - has been given a permanent visa to get on with his life in Australia.

The challenge for Labor, having tackled the worst excesses of the Howard immigration legacy, is to introduce a new set of values to immigration detention - values that seek to emphasise a risk-based approach to detention and prompt resolution of cases rather than punishment. The best deterrent is to ensure that people who have no right to remain in Australia are removed expeditiously.

The Labor Party went to the last election with a commitment to maintain a system of mandatory detention and the excision of certain places from the migration zone and both commitments will be honoured.

Control and management of our borders is integral to the nation's security. The extensive patrolling of our borders by Defence, Customs and other law enforcement agencies has been maintained at existing levels.

The Labor Government has reinvigorated efforts to work closely with countries to our north to combat people-smuggling and prevent attempts at dangerous sea journeys by people seeking to enter Australia unlawfully.

We look to extend assistance to those countries to develop their capacity and enhance projects in home and transit countries to assist people displaced by conflict who may be vulnerable targets of people-smugglers and traffickers.

An architecture of excision of offshore islands and non-statutory process