Immigration's culture war

2 Nov 2008

IN AUGUST 2000 Australian officials deported Karim Tchoylak to his home country, Algeria. Human rights organisations were warning against deportations to Algeria and Tchoylak’s appeal for asylum was due to be heard by the Federal Court in Perth, but the deportation went ahead. The court was appalled when it learnt of the forced departure and announced that it would decide on further steps if it heard from Tchoylak within six months. By May 2001, when this time was up, nothing had been heard. The case was closed. We don’t know what happened to Karim Tchoylak. But we do know about the circumstances that allowed his deportation to occur. He was in Australia for three years, every moment of them in immigration detention. He was detained at Port Hedland, a long way from legal assistance. He had no contacts in the Australian community and no one to tell that he was being deported. In other words, he was deported because of the policy of mandatory, indefinite detention.

Tchoylak’s case is one that springs to mind when people say, “This should never happen again.” And the chances of that sequence of events occurring in the future has been significantly reduced by the federal government’s recent changes to mandatory detention. In late July the immigration minister, Chris Evans, announced that asylum seekers will generally be held in immigration detention only as long as it takes to conduct identity, health and security checks. If they satisfy these checks they will be released. The government is also committed to increasing asylum seekers’ access to legal advice and to the Commonwealth Ombudsman. According to the minister, federal cabinet believes that “detention that is indefinite or otherwise arbitrary is not acceptable.” He acknowledged that, after sixteen years of experience, policy makers know beyond doubt that mandatory detention has “dehumanised” and “damaged desperate people.” This is not the end of immigration detention, but it is a seismic shift. After Evans’ statement, any policy maker who again ramps up large scale mandatory detention will stand accused of knowingly setting out to harm innocent people ... 

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