Australia to scrap mandatory detention for most asylum seekers

Changes wind back rules imposed by previous gov't that made detention mandatory for people who arrived in Australia illegally.

kevin rudd 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
kevin rudd 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Australia will scrap most of the country's tough rules on locking up asylum seekers, but retain the practice for potential refugees who may be a security threat, the Australian government announced Tuesday. The changes further wind back rules imposed by the previous conservative government that made detention mandatory for people who arrived illegally in Australia - a policy that drew heavy criticism from rights activists and sometimes gruesome protests by asylum seekers. Immigration Minister Chris Evans said a policy that locks away asylum seekers indefinitely while they go through the often complicated and time-consuming process of applying for refugee status was no longer acceptable. The new government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd "rejects the notion that dehumanizing and punishing unauthorized arrivals with long-term detention is an effective or civilized response," Evans said. "Desperate people are not deterred by the threat of harsh detention, they are often fleeing much worse circumstances," he said in a speech in the national capital, Canberra, that was distributed to media. Australia has long been a destination for people from poor, often war-torn countries wishing to start a new life. In recent years, many of them come from Iraq or Afghanistan. They typically fly to Indonesia before continuing to Australia aboard cramped, barely seaworthy boats. Former conservative Prime Minister John Howard introduced the mandatory detention policies in 2001 in response to a wave of asylum seekers arriving by boat. The policies were widely popular at the time because of a perception that newcomers were cheating the refugee system. But support for the program dwindled over the years, as asylum seekers languished in offshore prison camp-like facilities that the government paid impoverished island neighbor Nauru to host or were built at remote Outback sites. The camps were largely kept closed to outsiders, but images emerged of violent protests by detainees, who in some cases stitched their lips closed to symbolize their isolation. The scheme was also hit by scandals involving the wrongful deportation of at least one Australian citizen, and its large cost. Rudd's promise to dismantle the mandatory detention scheme was a minor issue at elections that ushered him to power in November. Rudd has said he will maintain a tough stance against human traffickers, who face between 12 and 25 years in prison.