Australia to stop detaining most asylum seekers


Wed, Jul 30, 2008 - Page 5

Australia will scrap most of the country’s tough rules on locking up asylum seekers, but retain the practice for potential refugees who may be a security threat, the government announced yesterday.

The changes further wind back rules imposed by the previous government that made detention mandatory for people who arrived illegally in Australia — a policy that drew heavy criticism from rights activists and protests by asylum seekers.

Australian Immigration Minister Chris Evans said a policy that locks away asylum seekers while they go through the often complicated and time-consuming process of applying for refugee status had caused “enormous damage” to Australia’s international reputation.

The government of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd “rejects the notion that dehumanizing and punishing unauthorized arrivals with long-term detention is an effective or civilized response,” Evans said.

“Desperate people are not deterred by the threat of harsh detention, they are often fleeing much worse circumstances,” he said in a speech in Canberra that was distributed to media.

The changes were cautiously welcomed by refugee advocates.

Australia has long been a destination for people from poor, often war-torn countries wishing to start a new life. In recent years, many of them have come from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Former Australian prime minister John Howard introduced the mandatory detention policies in 2001 in response to a wave of asylum seekers arriving by boat. The policies were widely popular at the time because of a perception that newcomers were cheating the refugee system.

But support for the program dwindled over the years, as asylum seekers languished in prison camp-like facilities that the government paid impoverished Nauru to host or were built at remote Outback sites. The camps were largely kept closed to outsiders, but images emerged of violent protests by detainees, who in some cases stitched their lips closed to symbolize their isolation.