Twenty years too long: the history of mandatory detention

Australia’s first waves of refugees were processed in the community, and a Labor government introduced the punitive regime we know today, explains James Supple

Mandatory detention of “unauthorised” asylum seekers did not exist in Australia until 1992. The first wave of refugee boat people, Vietnamese asylum seekers fleeing the Communist government at the end of the Vietnam War were not locked up.

The first refugee boat ever to arrive in Australia reached Darwin in 1976 carrying just five young men. Lam Binh, his 17-year-old brother and three friends had navigated the 2600 kilometres all the way from Vietnam in a fishing boat, finding their way from Timor with only a page torn from a school atlas. These first boat arrivals were given a one-month entry permit and granted refugee status three months later.

Around 2100 boat people from Vietnam followed them between 1976 and 1981, although the majority of Vietnamese refugees to come to Australia were selected by the government from refugee camps offshore.

The experience of Tan Thanh Lu, and the 31 refugees he brought on his boat, was typical, as a researcher at Sydney’s Maritime Museum explained: “After spending 10 days in a Darwin medical centre, they were transferred to the Waco Refugee Centre in Brisbane… after a stay of six months the family was granted asylum.”

Asylum seekers were housed in open migrant reception centres across the country, including centres next to where the Villawood detention centre in Sydney and the Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne now stand. Although they were not allowed to leave the centres during processing and there was a daily roll call, there were no fences or razor wire.

An elderly Chinese-Vietnamese businessman Thanh-Nam described his experience of the hostel: “When we arrived at the Eastbridge Hostel, the staff showed us to our flat. It was a small flat, but it had two bedrooms, a living room, and a bathroom… It was a beautiful flat.

“We were instructed in the language by the Department of Adult Migrant Education—a great opportunity to learn for which we were deeply thankful.”

Another refugee, Ngoc-Dien, remembered: “We were taken by bus to the Midway Hostel, in Maribyrnong, and for Vietnamese like us, who had suffered much from the ravages of war and change, the welcome and care shown by hostel staff moved us so that our life seemed full of happiness.”

Fraser’s plan

The Vietnamese were fleeing a Communist regime which was no friend of the Australian government, so it suited Australian foreign policy and Cold War propaganda to welcome the refugees. However contrary to more recent myth making, the Fraser government did not welcome the prospect of boat arrivals. With numbers of arrivals increasing, a backlash developed as the media talked of “invasion” by a “tide of human flotsam” in the north.

The Fraser Government were a part of this racist hysteria. When word arrived of voyages by larger “steel hulled vessels” carrying upwards of 2000 refugees each, the government took steps to stop the boats. Their solution was to make agreements with Malaysia and Thailand to resettle a larger number of Vietnamese refugees from the camps there, in exchange for their governments preventing further boats sailing on to Australia.

It was during this period that the idea there was a “right way” and a “wrong way” for refugees to arrive first entered into Australian political debate. According to research by Jack Smit, the Fraser Government was the first to describe refugees as “queue jumpers” in May 1978.

This period also saw the beginning of the demonisation of people smuggling and the idea that refugees who use smugglers are themselves criminals. Organisers of the steel hulled boats were denounced as “entrepreneurs of evil” and these large scale refugee operations were said to be “organised by unscrupulous traders in human suffering and misery”.

But despite all this, the treatment of the first refugees to arrive by boat shows that refugees can be welcomed without any need for mandatory detention.

Introduction of detention

A wave of refugees began arriving on Australia’s northern coast at the end of 1989. It had been more than eight years since the last boat from Vietnam when Cambodian refugees began arriving, followed later by small numbers of Vietnamese and Chinese asylum seekers. By 1992 just 654 people had arrived on 15 boats.1

But their arrival threatened to embarrass the Hawke Labor government and undermine a major foreign policy initiative. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans was at this time deeply involved in brokering a peace plan in Cambodia involving the repatriation of 300,000 Cambodians in camps along the Thai border. It was designed to both bring an end to the war in Cambodia triggered when Vietnam invaded and to ensure there were no further waves of refugees like that which followed the end of war in Vietnam.

According to journalist Peter Mares, “The federal government feared that confidence in the plan could be undermined if Cambodians in Australia were found to be refugees or if their personal stories were allowed to become public.”2

So the Cambodians were not granted refugee status but kept in detention.

This shows that the introduction of detention for asylum seekers was not driven by any concern about the numbers arriving or any real problem. It was simply a political decision by the government to save face.

Like John Howard after him, Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke justified detention through demonising boat arrivals as “queue jumpers”, and claimed they were “economic” not “political” refugees.

Immigration officers had possessed the power to detain arrivals from 1901 but it was only used indiscriminately after 1989 with the arrival of the Cambodians. From this date on immigrants were discriminated against based on the method of their arrival, with boat people mandatorily detained.

Initially this simply meant the Cambodians were kept at the migrant centre at Villawood like the Vietnamese before them. The fences around Villawood were still yet to go up. But many of the Cambodians spent years waiting for their refugee claims to be processed. In 1991 the government opened the first remote detention centre, at Port Hedland, on the north-west coast of Western Australia.

As the government’s stand against the Cambodian refugees hardened, the detention centres were turned into the prisons they are today. Protesters that visited Villawood in 1992 recorded that, “Despite being ordered to stay indoors a large group of refugees came out to greet us. Through the double cyclone fencing and barbed wire, they told us that their children currently had no schooling despite a local school being just across the road and that they were forced to eat food they find unfit while food brought in by friends and relatives is confiscated.”

Then in 1992, lawyers challenged the detention of 15 Cambodian asylum seekers who had been detained for over two years. The government rushed through new legislation days before the case was due in court.

So mandatory detention as we know it today was introduced in law by the Keating Labor Government in 1992.

Initially detention was limited to 273 days. But that year the Keating Labor Government also passed the Migration Reform Act, which allowed mandatory indefinite detention from 1 September 1994.3 That Act also made asylum seekers liable for their “detention debts”—the money it cost to kept them imprisoned.

The Labor Government thereby set in place the key principles that would underlie John Howard’s detention regime and developed many of the justifications for detention that the Liberals would later use. It was now mandatory for any “unlawful non-citizens” that arrived by boat to be held in detention until their refugee claim was assessed. This could be in a detention centre established under the Act, a prison or remand centre, a police station or any other place approved by the minister in writing.4

Boat arrivals were discriminated against compared to those who arrived by plane and applied for asylum, who were generally allowed to remain in the community while their claims were assessed. Remote detention was established at Port Hedland, with the aim of separating asylum seekers from easy access to lawyers and assistance from the community. The impact of long-term detention on mental health also became clear under Labor, witnessed in hunger strikes and self-harm by detainees. And asylum seekers were kept locked up for years on end, with a number of Cambodians held for over five years. The Labor Government even briefly introduced temporary visas in 1990.5

This history helps explain why Labor has been so unprepared to stand up to the Liberals’ racism against refugees. Right through the Howard years Labor in opposition went along with almost all of the Liberals’ anti-refugee policies. Today the Labor government is locked in a race to the bottom with Tony Abbott to demonise refugees. But recent history shows that detention and anti-refugee policies are not in any way necessary. Just 20 years ago refugees arriving by boat were not thrown into detention camps. This knowledge should strengthen the fight to free the refugees and have the camps dismantled again.

1. Peter Mares, “The fifth ripple: Australia’s place in the global refugee crisis” Inside Story, 15 November 2009

2. Peter Mares, “Australia’s sledgehammer” Australian Policy Online, 25 February 2004. 3. Janet Phillips and Harriet Spinks, Parliamentary Library Background Note: Immigration detention in Australia, 23 January 2012, p5.

4. Michael Grewcock, Border Crimes, p138

5. Border Crimes, p133


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