Refugee Cases "Moving Quickly"

Refugee cases 'moving quickly'

Connie Levett
November 6, 2008

SURPRISED refugee lawyers have praised the Department of Immigration for moving swiftly and co-operatively to assess the protection claims of 26 Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers on Christmas Island.

Initiatives that include tree-planting proposals, tearing down fences and sending the kids to a local school have provided the first snapshot of immigration detention on Christmas Island under the Rudd Government, while the $396 million detention centre sits empty.

In the first test of how the Rudd Government would deal with asylum seekers arriving by boat, Steven Glass, a volunteer for the Refugee Advice and Casework Service who spent a week on Christmas Island, said he had never seen anything like the dramatic change in attitude of both Department of Immigration and Citizenship officers and the GSL guards.

“It was not exactly anything physical,” said Mr Glass, a legal casework veteran of mainland detention centres under the Howard government.

“It was all about 'How can we help?' I have to say it took a bit of adjustment.”

He cautioned that it was “so far, so good” but the government seemed committed to moving swiftly to resolving the cases.

“My sense is they are trying to avoid a repeat of the lengthy detentions of the past that went on for years and people went crazy.”

The asylum seekers are almost all Afghan men, with eight under the age of 18 and most of the interviews were conducted in Dhari. Mr Glass would not discuss specifics of their claims or the route they took to reach Australia. “The claims are not necessarily all the same, but do have some common themes. Most are Hazara or Shia.”

On Christmas Island, the asylum seekers are being held at the old detention centre, while the $396 million centre that looks like a high security prison built remains empty.

“The starting point is it is still a detention centre and no one wants to be in one. But a number of the asylum seekers are not behind fences and the kids are all going to the local school. My overall impression is DIAC and GSL are going to whatever lengths they can to make conditions as good as possible,” Mr Glass said. “They are looking at planting trees, tearing down fences.”

The asylum seekers have access to sporting facilities, television and the children go to the local school.

Susan Mayer, co-ordinator of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, a community legal centre specialising in refugee law, said the Department of Immigration approached her the day after the first boat landed on Ashmore Reef to assemble a team of volunteer lawyers.

“I think the Department of Immigration has done well in terms of the speed and commitment to getting a taskforce together, there was a sincerity with which they did it.”

Under Section 46A of the Migration Act, asylum seekers arriving on Christmas Island have no right to make an application for a protection visa in Australia except with the minister's consent.

Legally, this process is an application to the minister for consent to apply.

“There has never been a process for doing this before because the previous government didn't entertain such applications. The new minister is entertaining these applications,” Mr Glass said.

“Their wellbeing is absolutely fine. We have relatively good access to them, it would be better if they were in Villawood.”

He said the policy of keeping people offshore for processing depended on your political viewpoint on border security but so far it was proceeding swiftly.