Liberals Split Over Push To Move Boat People

Liberals split over push to move boat people

By Yuko Narushima
The Sydney Morning Herald, May 20, 2010

A plan to house asylum seekers in church accommodation and boarding houses has won support from human rights workers, health professionals and a Liberal MP.

The federal government has asked churches to suggest convents, monasteries and other privately-owned properties to house children and families overflowing from Christmas Island.

Yesterday, the Liberal MP Petro Georgiou said the plan was ''eminently sensible and humane''. Earlier, the party's immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, said all refugee claims should be processed offshore.

''It's imperative that children and families should not be housed in detention centres,'' Mr Georgiou said.

Though children have not been held behind razor wire since 2005, they are detained in lower grade facilities on Christmas Island, described by the Human Rights Commission in its last report as ''a concerning regression'' to that time.

Another boat, intercepted off Ashmore Islands late on Tuesday with 42 people on board, will add pressure on the splintering detention facilities at Christmas Island. It is the 60th such boat this year and evidence of the government's ''inept immigration and border protection policies'', Mr Morrison said.

Associate Professor Jon Jureidini, a child psychologist at the University of Adelaide, said moving children and families closer to community services was a positive step. ''The less locked up you are, the better it is. It's not too sophisticated,'' he said. ''People would appreciate living in more normal circumstances.''

Properties under discussion include a former agricultural college and a residential student hostel in Western Australia, owned by church groups.

The Greens, who want to end the processing on Christmas Island, were concerned churches would carry an unfair burden to do the work of the government.

''It is not appropriate for the government to shirk its responsibilities. They need to step up and make the policy changes required,' Senator Hanson Young said.

However, a spokesman for the Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, denied the search for more space signalled a change in policy. It was a more ''stable and appropriate'' alternative to hotels.

Any contract would determine whether immigration guards would patrol church-owned properties, he said.

According to a human rights lawyer, Marion Le, transfers into church and community care had happened before. When she organised for 160 people to be moved off Nauru, community groups rallied to welcome refugees who were told they would never step foot on Australian soil, she said.

The director of the Edmund Rice Centre, Phil Glendenning, wanted Australian policies to match comparable countries such as Canada and Britain.