Howard legacy hangs over Villawood

AT THE end of May, Immigration minister Chris Evans announced a long awaited review of the cases of long term detainees. But the results fell far short of what the detainees and refugee supporters expected from the new Labor government-32 granted visas, 24 to be deported and another 17 yet to be determined.

Evans’ decisions revealed all the problems of the lack of transparency and the triumph of bloody-minded administration over humanitarian policy so much a feature of the Howard years. It was good news for the 32-among them, Ali Humayan, a gay Bangladeshi, over three years in Villawood, and a Chinese asylum seeker, Xiao Yan Zheng, held for three and a half years, although Evans had refused Zheng only a few weeks previously.

However, the immigration department didn’t even wait for the minister’s decisions to begin the deportations. By the time of the announcement, five people had been deported. A Falun Gong practioner was deported even though he was still vomiting blood after a suicide attempt.

Evans had said that he was committed to finding alternatives to immigration detention. But rather than use his discretionary powers to order the release of the 17 while their cases are determined, they still languish behind the razor wire.

Within days of receiving their deportation notice, two Chinese asylum seekers staged a courageous rooftop protest inside Villawood. Astonishingly, after three days, they won the right for legal assistance to re-submit their appeal to the Minister. Although this would seem to show up the flaws in both the refugee determination process and the use of Ministerial discretion, Evans has refused to call a halt to further deportations.

The deportations from Villawood are likely to be the tip of the iceberg as Evans’ rejection of asylum seekers on Bridging Visa E’s (people who live usually without work rights in the community while their claim is processed) is also increasing.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne recently protested that over five weeks, 41 of 42 of its asylum clients had been rejected by the Minister-the highest rejection rate since 2001.

Evans’ review of the long-term detainees has only highlighted the flaws in the whole refugee determination process and the need for a thorough-going inquiry into the Immigration department and refugee policy.

Evans has rejected the call for a Royal Commission saying he sees signs of cultural change in the Immigration department. But the real obstacle to cultural change lies in the Minister’s office. The new government has announced some welcome shifts in policy such as re-establishing permanent visas for refugees, but is too timid to break with Howard’s legacy and implement the root and branch change that is so badly needed.

By Ian Rintoul


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