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Refugee reforms end dark era

RUTH SNELLEMAN

The Uniting Church has applauded the Rudd government’s recent changes to mandatory detention laws for asylum seekers, saying it is an end to a bleak time in Australian political history.

National spokesperson on justice issues, the Rev Elenie Poulos, said it was an end to “a really dark part” of the Australian story.

“For years, people were held in really shocking conditions that were at best like prison and at worst worse than our prisons,” she said.
Similarly, the head of the Uniting Church’s Hotham Mission, Ms Caz Coleman, said, “We are really pleased that indefinite detention will be removed [as policy].”

The Hotham Mission asylum seeker project supports hundreds of people previously affected under the Howard government system.

“We are also pleased to hear that the government has introduced a set of values that will inform detention policies. We hope these will apply across the whole protection application process,” Coleman said.

The Rudd government was elected last November on a platform that included improving the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia.

The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, announced the reforms in July.

But Coleman noted the lack of detail on provision of care under this new policy.

“If there aren’t funded options for people being released from detention, our work could increase,” she told Crosslight.

“The government must fund community care for these people.

“They need a minimum income. They must be able to buy basic food and clothing and must have access to some form of health care. They need support in finding housing.

“And they must have case management support to assist with navigating the immigration process and transition into the community.”

Social justice consultant for the Western Australia synod, Rosemary Hudson-Miller, also expressed delight that the Howard government’s shameful policies have finally ended.

“We have had people discharged into our care who can’t see any hope or resolution after being detained,” she told Crosslight.

“Indefinite detention has been a cruel policy which has created groups of people who will need ongoing support for so much longer.

“The matter of stateless people is an absolute tragedy.

“We have had people from totally dysfunctional regions with records that don’t make any sense in our bureaucratic processes – places like Kashmir and Palestine.

“We have done enormous damage to people who are persecuted and stateless.”
Poulos, who has campaigned on the issue of asylum seekers at the Assembly level, reminded UC people “these people [asylum seekers] were already traumatised when they arrived in Australia.
They have done nothing wrong. They have left violence and torture and are fleeing for their life. To lock them away indefinitely has been incredibly inhumane.”

Poulos believes there are “still other things that we would like to see done”, but these initial changes symbolise a major step forward.

“Once people have gone through the necessary checks, the government will release them into the community,” she explained.

“If they are not released into the community on a bridging visa – which allows access to support services, work and Medicare – we have a problem.

“We have been pressing for an end to these ‘visas without rights’. We certainly want the government to make that happen.”

Director of the justice and international mission unit at the synod of Victoria and Tasmania, Dr Mark Zirnsak, also affirms the changes.

“We accept there is a need to ensure asylum seekers are not a threat to the health and safety of the community,” he said.

“But after that they should be placed into the community while their claims for asylum are assessed.

“So it is very pleasing that the minister has announced that children and, where possible, their families will not be held in detention, as required under the UN convention on the rights of the child.”

“It is also good that the onus will shift to the immigration department to prove the need for someone to be detained, rather than detention being the default position.

“But we are deeply concerned that the federal Opposition has publicly said it may block these changes in the Senate.”

“If this is the case, the government’s ability to get all the reforms through will depend on senators Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding.”

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