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Last Updated: Friday, 27 May, 2005, 19:31 GMT 20:31 UK
Australian migrant policy under scrutiny
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

It has been an uncomfortable week for Australia's conservative government, which is facing growing pressure to relax its tough stance on illegal immigration.

Vivian Alvarez, an Australian of Filipino descent, who was wrongfully deported by Australian immigration officials in 2001.
Vivian Alvarez was wrongfully deported to the Philippines in 2001
It has been embarrassed by the wrongful deportation of an Australian citizen, and other bungles by officials.

Now some of its own MPs are plotting a rebellion over the mandatory detention of all illegal immigrants.

The policy was inherited from a previous Labor government, but has been part of a vote-winning border protection package adopted by the current administration.

Most detainees are held for a few months, but some can spend many years locked away.

The Australian government has argued that mandatory detention is necessary to allow immigration officials to carry out essential health, security, and character checks on detainees before they are released into the community.

Ministers also believe that the policy has been a powerful deterrent to illegal immigrants, and that the prospect of automatic incarceration has made them think twice before heading to Australia.

David Manne, co-ordinator at the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre in Melbourne
There is undeniable evidence that the current indefinite mandatory detention system has perpetuated the most scandalous abuse of individuals
David Manne
Refugee legal adviser

A small group of backbenchers plans to introduce two private member's bills that would see a significant softening of Australia's rules on asylum.

Rebel MP and former government minister Judy Moylan told ABC television that a more compassionate way forward was needed.

"I'm doing it... because the policy has caused a lot of heartache and it doesn't promote human dignity," she said.

The proposed changes would not see an end to mandatory detention, but would set a limit of 12 months behind bars for most asylum seekers. The dissenting MPs also want women and child detainees to be allowed to live in the community while their claims for refugee status are investigated.

Refugee advocates say this is "a most significant and welcome step in the right direction".

Prime Minister John Howard is said to be furious at this public challenge to his authority. But Mr Howard is a wily campaigner, whose astute political instincts could well be telling him that a grand gesture is needed.

Asylum seekers hold signs stand on the refugee detention centres roof in protest at Woomera in Australia's Outback, Saturday, Jan. 26, 2002.
Detainees regularly protest against their incarceration
There are signs he understands that his asylum policy needs to be altered, though perhaps not radically, in order to move into line with the shifting views of many ordinary Australians.

There are those who consider that the battle to stop boatloads of asylum seekers arriving from Indonesia has been won.

Numbers of unauthorised arrivals have fallen sharply, and there are indications that this has allowed the government to gradually soften its hard line.

Earlier this year, Canberra unexpectedly released a small number of failed asylum seekers from indefinite detention, pending their eventual deportation.

In another surprise move, 50 East Timorese refugees facing expulsion from Australia are to have their cases reviewed.

More needed

Campaigners have said these changes, although welcome, are inadequate and piece-meal. But David Manne, the co-ordinator of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre in Melbourne, believes that momentum for significant reform has become unstoppable.

"There is undeniable and concrete evidence that the current indefinite mandatory detention system has failed, is in crisis, and has perpetuated the most scandalous abuse of individuals," he said.

I don't believe that stealing people's lives is a way of solving this issue
Steve Fielding
Family First party

"It appears there really is no alternative for the government but to respond to what has become a real tidal wave of concern within the community and within their own ranks," Mr Manne added.

Anglican bishops in Melbourne have supported the private member's bills that seek to reform the rules of detention.

In an open letter, the bishops said they found it "greatly encouraging that some [government] parliamentarians are now giving voice to these ethical concerns".

Steve Fielding, senator-elect for the conservative Family First party, also believes that the time is right for a more humane approach.

"We don't want to compromise our security, and we need strong border protection, but I don't believe that stealing people's lives is a way of solving this issue, so we do need a compassionate response," he said.

Amanda Wise, a research fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, said that while there may be some light tinkering with asylum laws, fundamental reform was a long way off.

"It [the government] will soften the edges of the politically sensitive stuff of detaining women and children, but only those policies will change," she predicted.

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Country profile: Australia
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