One man freed, the detention agony continues

EDITORIAL   July 19, 2005

Peter Qasim is free at last, but the mandatory detention policy remains a national disgrace.

Peter Qasim is a master of understatement. He greeted his release from immigration detention by noting: "I have been living for almost seven years in a very hard situation." Mr Qasim holds the unenviable distinction of having been Australia's longest-serving immigration detainee, spending six years and 10 months locked up since he landed on Thursday Island in September 1998 from Papua New Guinea. He was held in the Baxter detention centre in South Australia, finally ending up in an Adelaide psychiatric hospital. Mr Qasim asserts he is a Kashmiri who fled the region after becoming involved in the Kashmir Liberation Front. No government will accept him as a citizen. He is, in effect, stateless. The Australian Government rejected his bid for asylum. Nonetheless, his release, after a prolonged campaign by refugee advocates, public figures and even some members of conscience within the Federal Government, is welcome.

Mr Qasim's release for humanitarian reasons is also important because it signals the Government has finally recognised that indefinite incarceration of asylum seekers is not an acceptable solution to the problem of illegal immigration. The Government has already moved to ensure that detainees locked up for more than two years will have their cases reviewed by the Ombudsman. It would be even better if the policy of mandatory detention was abandoned. Seeking asylum is a human right, not a crime. People cannot be kept locked up merely because a solution to their case cannot be found.

The system of mandatory detention implemented in Australia has in effect used a sledgehammer to crack a nut in terms of the damage it has done to the fundamental principles associated with the rule of law and the financial costs incurred by the community. Cases such as those of Mr Qasim and Cornelia Rau are just the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that at least 10,000 unauthorised arrivals have passed through the detention regime since July 1999, including 3899 children. Thirteen people have died in detention, four others were killed upon being returned to their country of origin. At least 35 people, including Ms Rau, have been wrongfully detained. Others such as Vivian Alvarez Solon were wrongfully deported. Most recent is the Iranian mother whose human rights were violated while in the Curtin detention centre. It is estimated the cost of the exercise has exceeded $1.1 billion. This is an obscene price to pay to enforce an odious policy that has brought great suffering and injustice. These people are not criminals. Some are genuine refugees. At worst, they are guilty of breaking administrative laws in pursuit of a better life.

The release of Peter Qasim is not the end of the matter. There are still more than 700 people in detention, including 45 children. According to refugee advocates, 168 of these detainees have been seeking asylum for more than two years. The solution to illegal immigration does not lie in an uncompromising policy rooted in detention. It lies in processing those who come expeditiously, with justice and compassion.