Thinking outside the boxes

Where people are detained

A protest flag is displayed at Villawood detention centre last year.
The Gillard government has been quietly increasing the number of asylum seekers in community detention. Is this the way of the future? Russell Skelton reports.
IT'S a fact seldom referred to in the bitter debate over refugee policy, but some 1200 men, women and children - more than 25 per cent of all the nation's asylum seekers - live in the community as they wait for their claims for refugee status to be processed. And that number is likely to jump substantially: Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has approved 1880 detainees for community detention since the scheme was reintroduced 18 months ago.
The figures appear inexact because some asylum seekers have been given visas and others are waiting to move into the community as soon as suitable accommodation is found. Also, recent boat arrivals include significant numbers of women and children who will qualify automatically for community detention after health, identity and security checks are completed.
Unlike the remaining 3110 people being held in detention centres scattered around the nation and watched over by private security guards, asylum seekers placed in community detention enjoy comparative freedom in the suburbs of middle Australia, although their movements are restricted and closely monitored and unaccompanied minors are supervised around the clock.
But their lives appear to be largely trouble-free and without rancour or protest from surrounding communities. Children attend school and TAFE, and adults, even though they cannot work, learn English and social skills that prepare them for mainstream society in Australia.
Fewer than 10 people have had their community detention withdrawn because of ''behavioural issues'' and a small group of Vietnamese unaccompanied minors absconded without trace into local communities.
And history, in the form of a long-running program at the Hotham Mission asylum seeker project in North Melbourne, suggests asylum seekers living in the community are more willing to accept an adverse finding on their status should one be handed down. In the case of a positive outcome - and the present rate of approval is about 48 per cent - they are well placed to find work.
According to Michael Raper, director of services and international operations for the Red Cross, asylum seekers in community detention are in better shape emotionally to make decisions. Free from the group mentality that can take hold in the ''hothouse'' atmosphere of detention facilities such as Christmas Island, Curtin, Villawood and Darwin, they are less likely to suffer from mental illness or inflict self-harm.
Raper, whose organisation is contracted by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to oversee community detention placement, believes mandatory detention, the cornerstone of refugee policy for the past 20 years, has been highly counter-productive, being neither a deterrent nor a safe and coherent system for processing refugees.
''The overcrowding, the lack of facilities and poor access to services, combined with the prison-like adversarial atmosphere, create enormous problems and inefficiencies. In remote facilities, there are too many people staying for too long in places with no proper communications. It's a cauldron of despair. The hidden costs in dealing with damaged people are profound,'' he said.
In what must be one of the most significant and least publicised policy achievements of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Bowen, the number of people approved for community detention has soared without administrative trauma from about 30 in October last year to more than 1880. The figure includes a significant number of unaccompanied minors, mostly teenage boys. The expansion followed the government's pledge to remove women, children and families from facilities plagued by riots, self-harm and suicide. Ironically, the concept of community-based detention was pioneered by the Howard government and then virtually abandoned by former prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Despite the bluster and posturing in Parliament this week between the government and the opposition over offshore processing of asylum seekers, community detention for families remains a key aspect of refugee policy endorsed by all political parties.
Asked this week if the government would consider expanding community detention if the opposition rejected legislation to allow offshore processing in the wake of the High Court decision on the Malaysia solution, Bowen declined to rule this out. Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison was unavailable for comment.
But Bowen indicated he would expand community detention, which he regards as an extraordinary success, provided an effective offshore processing system could be put in place. ''We think mandatory detention is appropriate, but we continue to look at it on a case-by-case basis. If and when you see reductions in boat arrivals … then you could have more flexibility in terms of letting people live in the community.''
The Age understands that Bowen has been privately inquiring about the limits of community detention and the capacity in the system for greater numbers. ''We are beginning to pick up signs that this might be one of the options in the mix given the current dilemma with the High Court ruling,'' says a non-government official.
Pressure is also mounting on the government to expand its community detention program because of the decision to process asylum seekers destined for Malaysia onshore and a spate of recent boat arrivals that included 400 family members and 100 unaccompanied minors.
Meanwhile, The Age understands that up to 450 single men have been identified with acute mental and emotional issues in several detention centres including Curtin in Western Australia. Some have documented histories of torture and trauma, others of self-harm. Most have been recommended for placement in community detention.
Unlike some government programs, the silent roll-out of community detention has from most accounts appeared seamless given the complexities involved.
''It has been a unique and outstanding achievement by the department and the Red Cross, put together in a very tight framework,'' says Paris Aristotle, director of the Survivors of Torture Foundation and an outspoken adviser on detention issues to the Immigration Department.
Aristotle says Hotham's 10-year history as a provider of alternative places of detention dispels the myth that asylum seekers living in the community are likely to abscond en masse. Hotham handles a caseload of 350 asylum seekers and, on average, facilitates the return of almost half who have their claims for refugee status rejected.
Hotham's co-ordinator and co-director, Stephanie Mendis, says the asylum seekers, who are located in 20 properties throughout Melbourne, live a largely subsistence existence. ''People do not abscond even when they know their appeal has been rejected. They understand the process, they know why they have failed even though they may disagree with the outcome.''
According to Kate Pope, the department's first assistant secretary in charge of community programs and children, the expansion of community detention has been a complex logistical exercise involving many strategic decisions including the choice of housing, maintaining an even spread of asylum seekers through the community and the establishment of support systems including the recruitment of caseworkers.
POPE, who has been overseeing the roll-out, says steps were taken to avoid creating ''hot spots'' by placing families in one apartment block or street. Public housing was avoided, with most accommodation sourced from private housing and church properties, including convents and disused offices. ''A decision was made not to use publicly funded housing that could be used for the homeless or disadvantaged people,'' she says.
Candidates for community detention are evaluated by a caseworker and then approved by the minister. Priority is given to pregnant women with young children. Assessments, including psychological evaluations, are also made on which unaccompanied minors should live together. ''We look at language and vulnerability issues. We avoid placing vulnerable children with dominant ones,'' she says.
In terms of financial support, the asylum seekers do not qualify for family benefits or rental assistance. The government pays the rent on properties at a commercial rate and provides a payment of about $100 a week per person to live on, which, says Pope, is just enough to survive on.
Community detention for all asylum seekers is viewed by the non-government sector as a sensible and logical alternative to mandatory detention, especially if the Gillard government fails to secure opposition support to allow offshore processing.
Bowen says the costs of holding an asylum seeker in a security facility or in community detention are comparable. It's an assessment Raper and Pope agree with. ''We do not know the true costs yet, the capital costs are far less, but then you don't have the economies of scale,'' says Pope. ''It will be 12 months before we have an exact idea.''
Raper believes the cost of community detention may work out to be slightly less. ''Why would you hold people in what appears to be a more expensive immigration detention arrangement that damages people's health and retards their education prospects and work prospects? Most are granted refugee status anyway.''
But the experience of community-based detention confirms what many working in the sector have maintained for years. Grant Mitchell, director of the International Detention Coalition and a member of the US government's homeland security NGO working group on asylum seeker issues, believes Australia's ''unique system'' of holding asylum seekers in security facilities until their claims are fully processed is financially wasteful and mentally damaging, and does not work as a deterrent.
Mitchell, who pioneered the Hotham model of alternative detention, says no other Western democracy where security concerns are a major consideration, including the US and the UK, has anything similar to Australia's processing regime. In the US, 85 per cent of asylum seeker cases are assessed within 30 days and people are ''paroled'' into the community.
''Most countries have mandatory screening but not mandatory detention, and that is where the difference is. The US no longer detains asylum seekers in maximum security. That ended last year. They have adopted a more open approach for the 100,000 people who arrive each year.''
US authorities make decisions about identity, health, flight risk and security, but, unlike in Australia, they do not presume everybody is a high-risk security threat until proven otherwise. The vast majority of asylum seekers are released into the community, and that is also the case in Spain, South Africa and Canada.
Mitchell says UNHCR research confirms that mandatory detention does not stop people jumping on boats. ''After 20 years we can say that with absolute certainty. Most Western countries do not detain people for the entire process. Australia does because it wants to appear tough.''
The big issue facing the Gillard government is just how many asylum seekers can be processed in community detention in the short term, especially if the option of offshore processing is ruled out. Both the Red Cross and the department believe the system could handle up to 2000 people before the limits on accommodation and caseworkers are reached.


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