Dutton is yet again gunning to punish. And as the international borders are shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the home affairs minister hasn’t been able to wield his fist in the air of late, as he orders the deportation of foreigners.
So, he’s come up with a solution – reopen Christmas Island.
With lashings of embellishment, Peter stated on 2GB radio that “the vast majority” of immigration detainees are now “bikies, drug dealers and paedophiles”. And these “criminals”, after having served their time in prison, need to be deported, despite many being long-term residents of Australia.
“They need to be deported but we can’t deport them at the moment because of COVID,” the minister despaired, unable to get his regular fix.
The story so far
The Australian Border Force confirmed on Tuesday that it will be removing “unlawful noncitizens” and placing them in the notorious Christmas Island facility: the North West Point Immigration Detention Centre (NWPIDC).
An initial report in the West Australian suggested that asylum seekers would be sent to the island. However, the ABF was quick to tweet that no refugees will be sent over there. While Dutton explained that 250 noncitizens will be sent from WA’s Yongah Hill facility over to the island.
The stated aim for this is freeing up space in mainland immigration facilities, as they’re filling up with noncitizens who’ve served their time in prison but can’t be deported due to border closures. And once room is available in Yongah Hill, detainees from the eastern states will be sent over there.
However, around 180 Medevac asylum-seeking detainees are being held in hotels in Melbourne and Brisbane, and refugee advocates warn this could be a move to silence them, as they’ve been gaining public support calling for their release into the community, which the authorities don’t appreciate.
And nothing guarantees the transfers to either Christmas Island or Yongah Hill won’t eventually involve them.
“Reopening the North West Point Immigration Detention Centre is a short-sighted, costly, and counterproductive response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Australia OPCAT Network coordinator Steven Caruana told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
Caruana points out that recently updated Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA) guidelines – which the ABF consult – recommend early release should be considered for vulnerable detainees, which reflects that detention populations need to be lowered for the pandemic.
UNODC has “pointed out that the transmission of COVID-19 in closed environments… will have an amplifying effect on the epidemic within the public,” Caruana continued. “This has been evident in the United States whose current top ten clusters are all within correctional facilities.”
According to the former immigration detention inspector, the ABF are acting upon the updated CDNA guidelines to “relieve capacity pressure”. However, Caruana posits that the NWPIDC option ignores that WHO has just affirmed that “this pandemic will be with us for ‘a lengthy duration’”.
Short-term is no solution
As the coordinator of the Australia OPCAT Network, Caruana promotes the approaching implementation in this country of a UN-coordinated system that involves independent inspections of places of detention with the aim of upholding detainees’ rights and preventing their abuse.
The Christmas Island facility was able to safely hold about 300 Wuhan COVID-19 evacuees back in February, Caruana explained, but the chief medical officer said that was it. And Dutton’s already transferring 250 detainees in the coming weeks.
“If the Immigration Detention Network continues to then receive former prisoners at a rate of about forty per month, it will reach its capacity again in eight months’ time,” Caruana makes clear.
“What then? Will a sufficient number of international flights have reopened? I doubt it and evidently, the WHO does to.”
“There is an easy and safe solution to the threat posed by COVID-19,” said refugee rights advocate Jane Salmon, “Dutton could today release the women and men held unnecessarily in immigration detention centres into housing in the community, where they can socially distance.”
“The Morrison government needs to put politics aside, listen to the medical experts and protect the people currently held in detention, the staff working there, and the community.”
The “unlawful noncitizens” that Dutton wants to turf out can be deported due to changes the Abbott government made in November 2014 to the character test contained in section 501 of Migration Act 1958 (Cth). For this reason, detainees that failed the test are often referred to as 501ers.
The changes meant that a noncitizen is automatically deported for any number of sentences that amount to 12 months or more, rather than the previous 24 months. The 12 month prison time is cumulative, so it means people can have their visas cancelled over multiple offences.
This has led to many long-term citizens being deported – often to New Zealand – over a number of minor offences. However, Mr Dutton prefers to maintain that these people – who’ve already been through the criminal justice system and served their time – are all paedophiles.
Silencing the vulnerable
But Salmon has raised the possibility that the opening of Christmas Island could have dire consequences for the 180-odd former offshore asylum-seeking detainees that came to Australia under the Medevac laws and are now being held in hotels in Melbourne and Brisbane.
And if they’re not, as the ABF has assured, taken to Christmas Island, there will be a vacancy at Yongah Hill out in remote WA.
Currently held in the Melbourne hotel, refugee Mostafa Azimitabar said that while the detainees are afraid of COVID, they’re also afraid of “being isolated and punished” at Yongah Hill. The Kurdish man added that they need to be safe in the community and part of the nation’s pandemic response.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the hotel detainees, who have compromised health, have continued to be held in what are now termed alternative places of detention (APODs), with no protective measures being taken and guards coming and going on a daily basis.
There’s been a sustained and widely recognised campaign calling for the release of these men throughout the pandemic. And all of them have people in the community ready to house them, but the stubborn Morrison government will not hear of it.
“It seems likely to many advocates in the refugee sector that this is also a ploy to reduce the profile of Medevac detainees and to pressure them to leave Australia,” Ms Salmon concluded.
“The slippery slope of government led immigration detention trauma seems to have no bottom.”
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.