Some reasons why Australia should abolish the detention of asylum seekers

by Jocelyn Lock, Malia Quenault and John Tomlinson

CPACS Occasional Paper No. 02/1, First published in March 2002 by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.

In an ideal world people would be as free as capital to move in and out of countries without restrictions. Australia incarcerates individuals who seek sanctuary from genocide, slavery, torture and intractable poverty when they arrive on our shores without valid entry visas. The paradox here is that Australian governments consistently claim Australia to be a liberal democracy, which is committed to humanitarianism and the protection of freedom (Hughes 1998, pp.138-139). This perception of the Australian State is not shared by many in need of asylum, having survived political, economic or social tyranny. The Minister in charge of migration matters whilst addressing the Young Liberals Conference in Melbourne in January 2002 said “In the main, people who have sought to come to Australia and make asylum claims do not come from a situation of persecution…. They may not be able to go back to their country of origin but they are making a lifestyle choice (cited in Crossweller and Saunders (p.2).” The Prime Minister reinforced Ruddock’s hard line in his campaign launch when he declared “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come (Howard 2001).” Such a stance is a considerable retreat from his pious hope in his Federation Address a year earlier when he said “I look to an Australia in 2010 in which our unmatched reputation for achievement, for tolerance, for understanding and compassion…. has been even further enhanced.”

It would seem that current Government is not responding to humanitarian compositions presented by organisations such as the Refugee Council of Australia. Rather, arguments that involve economics and guarantee strengthened foreign ties appear to be of primary importance. Bridgman and Davis (2000) discuss economic, social, and legal frameworks for policy analysis, and underscore the importance of politics. This paper will attempt to argue for changes to the treatment of asylum seekers through examination of these frameworks.

The Economic Framework

The essential feature of the capitalist world economy is production, for sale in the market, where the goal is the maximization of profit. According to Schuurman (1996), the restructuring of international capitalism from the mid 1970s effectively emasculated the state and created a global hierarchy in which exploitation of the periphery by the core economies escalated, rather than alleviated, many of the economic problems experienced in the Third World. Hoogvelt (2001, p.121) says that the consequences of globalisation in the Third World, including debt repayment and deregulation have only served to enmesh the wealth of the Third World elites into the global economy, while states remain impotent in endeavours to invigorate national redevelopment projects. Therefore, it should come as no surprise, that unlike any other period Australians are witnessing the movement en masse of people fleeing from countries ravaged by civil war, the resurgence of racialised state policies, environmental catastrophe and extreme poverty. There is a “new world order” where refugees and asylum seekers have faded into geo-political insignificance. Figures from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR 2001) estimate the number of displaced persons under their mandate to be currently around 22 million.

Hoogvelt (2001, p. 124) says the economic objective is the freedom to move capital wherever it is needed worldwide, to allow the capital-owning international bourgeoisie a decisive advantage over the mass of workers who are restricted in their movements and migrations by the passports they may or may not carry. Privatisation has left westernised countries with a reduced public sector, rising unemployment, and inadequate welfare systems, with far greater competition between workers in the labour market. In Australia, there has been a long-held tradition of blaming immigrants for unemployment and undermining an already overburdened welfare system.

During the Keating Labor Government the first major cutback in social security entitlement reflected such misperceptions of immigrants. Migrants arriving in Australia found they had to wait six months before they were able to claim social security. The Howard Government extended this waiting period to two years in its first term of office. In October 1999 unauthorised arrivals, successful in their applications for refugee status in Australia, were no longer granted permanent residence but instead given a three year temporary entry visa. After three years, they have to apply again for refugee status (Mares, 2001, p. 8). This creates two classes of refugees with differing entitlements. Permanent visa holders have much the same social service entitlements as other Australians. Temporary visa holders have only limited access to benefits paid through intermediaries such as the Red Cross. Temporary visa holders have:

  • to pay full overseas fees in universities,
  • no right to obtain English language classes,
  • no right of re-entry if they leave Australia,
  • no access to family reunion,
  • no access to most DIMA funded programs (Refugee Council of Australia, 2000).
  • Many of these lesser entitlements restrict the capacity of temporary visa holders to find employment and a place in Australian society, and
  • when released from detention asylum seekers are issued with a statement of account, at a rate of $ 147.50 per day of confinement (Burnside, 2002).

The OECD (2001) report on migration and growth equivocates about the macroeconomic impact of migration on systems of production, the labour market and the welfare system of host countries. The report suggests that as economies globally enjoy sustained recovery after a period of slow economic growth, some member countries are resorting to greater inflows of foreign labour in order to maintain growth. The report also states the proponents of migration point to the positive economic role that migrants can play because they fill shortages in the labour market, resulting from a lack of skill in the host country or the inability of an aging population to participate in the labour market. In addition, migrants also create a demand for goods and services produced by the host population, stimulating the labour market, rather than stultifying it. Figures from the report support this by highlighting small net gains for the US economy, equivalent to 0.1 percent of GDP or $10 billion per annum. The benefits are not necessarily evenly distributed and some groups are disadvantaged. This may have more to do with the general distribution of wealth in capitalist economies rather than as a result of shifting labour flows.

Australia’s policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers entering the country without visas cost taxpayers in the order of $104 per day per person, with the total annual cost in the 1999-2000 period being approximately $97 million (Purcell 2001, p. 15). In addition to these direct costs there have been recent policy initiatives undertaken by the Government which include financial assistance to countries of origin and first asylum; increasing the holding capacity of detention facilities, and an extensive information campaign to deter people from seeking asylum in Australia. These are all very costly initiatives. In late 2001 the Australian Government spent at least $148 million, in two months, setting up refugee processing camps on Pacific Islands (Personal communication with the Refugee Council of Australia). This did not include the cost of using the Navy to transport asylum seekers from the Tampa and subsequent vessels to these Pacific locations. Some estimates of the annual cost of the “pacific solution’ top $500 million (ABC 2002).

In addition to the direct costs of detention, the national economy also forgoes the productive capacity which asylum seekers could contribute were they free to work. Over the last few years, between 50% and 80% of asylum seekers arriving from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran have been granted temporary refugee visas and many may stay in the country permanently. If Australia is to maximise the economic utility of asylum seekers it is in Australia’s economic interests that the level of trauma they experience after arrival should be reduced to the lowest possible levels. Yet as we will show later in this article, many observers of asylum seekers’ treatment in Australian detention centres believe that the standard treatment of detainees induces trauma. At times of unrest in the camps even greater trauma is inflicted (O’Brien 2001). Even when released, the process of being granted temporary residency rather than permanent residence further exacerbates the uncertainty in such people’s lives (Rees 2001) and this further limits their productive capacity. The poor educational opportunities, particularly for older children in the camps, adversely affects asylum seekers academic and hence productive capacity.

If, as Morgan (1999) states, the market is a self-regulatory system that rewards economic efficiency, then the spiralling costs of deterring, detaining and processing asylum seekers would seem to undermine the goal of economic efficiency. The failure to maximise the economic potential of asylum seekers further weakens their potential economic efficiency. This suggest that short-term political rather than economic imperatives have inspired these initiatives.

The Political Framework

Hughes (1998, pp.138-139) notes that the Australian Government believes the Government should have minimal interference in people’s daily lives. This belief is violated by mandatory detention of asylum seekers. It could be argued that the Government’s responsibility extends solely to citizens or that the outsourcing the detention of asylum seekers means that the Government is not directly involved in the refugee’s daily lives. However, these are both weak arguments.

In addressing the argument of citizenship, one only has to look at Australia’s history of exclusion. The 1901 Immigration Restriction Act was clearly an attempt to maintain a “white” Australia (Capling, Considine, Crozier, 1998). In addition, until the 1960s, Aborigines were considered non-citizens (Capling et al., 1998). However, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA, 2001.b) boasts the abolition of the “white Australia” policy, and claims to “celebrate our cultural diversity”. DIMA’s claims need to be considered alongside the fact that “If you are a European refugee, your chances of being granted refugee status or a humanitarian visa in Australia are 14.7 times greater than if you are from the Middle East. (Stevens, S. 2002 p. 9, also Mares, 2001, p. 20).” Such claims of celebrating cultural diversity and the abolition of the white Australia policy are further thrown into doubt by the existing Australian practice of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, temporary visas for ‘boat people’ and the so called ‘Pacific solution’. The detention and, therefore, the interference in the daily lives of asylum seekers are consistent with the historical agenda of keeping Australia white. This is reinforced when one considers that 50,000 plus people are overstaying their visas in Australia at any one time yet they are not automatically detained when discovered; over-stayers are predominately white (Background Briefing 2002 February 3). The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs 2000 edition Protecting the Border Immigration Compliance which shows that citizens from the UK and the USA make up the largest group of overstayers, with 10.1% and 8.1% respectively (p.58).

With respect to the argument that outsourcing means the Government is not involved in the daily lives of refugees; it is clear that, though the Government stands one step removed from the day to day interactions with refugees, it retains ultimate responsibility for the actions of its contractors. The proposition that the Government is not then interfering in the lives of asylum seekers really amounts to a semantic loophole which conveniently provides the Government with power over refugees lives and the claim of little responsibility (Paton, 1998).

The quest for a just and humane society is not realised by detaining refugee applicants. A humane society does not violate human rights. Australia’s mandatory detention of asylum seekers would seem to violate several of the freedoms outlined by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948). Article nine of the declaration states “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile”. The government may argue that detainment is not arbitrary, as all “queue jumpers” are detained. However, the Cambridge Dictionary (2001) defines arbitrary not only as “based on chance”, but also as “disapproving, based on personal power without considering people’s wishes”. Arguably, mandatory detention is arbitrary. Human Rights Watch (2002 p.11) deplored the treatment of the Tampa asylum seekers and others who were removed from Australian waters on an Australian warship and subsequently landed on Nauru or Manus Islands for refugee processing. The Australian Government has recently resorted to retrospective legislation in an attempt to justify its actions in relation to the Pacific solution. This organisation is also critical of Australia’s turning away refugee boats nearing the Australian coast. Much of Australia’s current asylum seeker policy would seem to be in breach of a number of international instruments Australia has signed and ratified.

Throughout December 2001 the Australian media was filled with reports of Australian Government’s support for America’s attack on the Taliban, whom it viewed as oppressive and as actively supporting terrorist action. In early January 2002 the Migration Minister called on the UN Refugee Agency to delay announcing the refugee status of Afghani asylum seekers it was processing on Nauru. On the one hand, the Government supports the notion that the Taliban is an unjust, tyrannical government, yet on the other hand, it refuses to accept asylum seekers attempting to escape this tyranny. Whilst asylum seekers are processed in Australia they are held in mandatory detention.

The Australian Government’s actions are at variance with Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948), which states that:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

The Australian Government’s automatic detention of those who come on boats without valid entry permits is hardly a recognition of their dignity or rights, nor is it treating them in the spirit of ‘brotherhood’.

Bridgman & Davis (2000, p.63) note the importance of asking, “How this would look in tomorrow’s headline?” In today’s global world, it is important to look at this both in terms of national and international responses. Headlines that show a government acting in a tyrannical manner toward those who are desperate, impoverished, exiled as a result of brutalities in their home lands does not paint the picture of a government that cares about people. Rather, it paints a picture of a government that does not honour Conventions Australia freely signed and ratified. Such international instruments commit it to provide protection and support for people however they arrive in Australia who are in need of resettlement due to persecution in their home country or are subjected to “gross violation of human rights in their home country” (DIMA, 2001,a). All Australian ex- Prime Ministers, since 1973, have criticised the current Australian asylum seeker policy as has the Pope ( Daley 2002), Oxfam Community Aid Abroad (2002) and the International Secretariat of Amnesty International (2002). Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, had her request to send an investigator to visit the Woomera Detention delayed for between 4 and six months because in the words of Foreign Minister Downer “We don’t want ….a procession of people from the United Nations, and all its instrumentalities, wandering through the detention centres followed by a mass of media. But we have nothing to hide (Lewis and Patrick 2002, p.4)”.

In today’s global community, international relationships are important. The answer to the question “how would this look in tomorrow’s headlines?” is revealed in recent articles in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and China Daily. For example, the New York Times (Lyall, 2001) reported that the High Court ruled Britain to be in violation of the law with respect to the detention of four Kurdish asylum seekers in Oakington. Its portrayal of Britain was not positive, and foreign media’s response to Australia’s refugee treatment has not been any better. One day later, the Boston Globe (Carney, 2001) condemned Australia’s mandatory detention of asylum seekers as being “profoundly destructive” to the asylum seekers’ well-being. Asia Today has been following the treatment of the ‘boat people’ closely. The world’s eyes are on the treatment of asylum seekers. There has been widespread criticism of detention centres. Australia was roundly condemned by much of the European press in the wake of the Tampa crisis. Human Rights Watch (2002) roundly criticised the recent actions of the Australian Government for turning away boatloads of asylum seekers, the Pacific solution and its mandatory detention policy towards asylum seekers. Several Australian organisations and writers reinforce such criticisms (De Jong et al, 2001; Manne, 2002; Mares, 2001; Oxfam, 2002; Refugee Council of Australia, 2000).

The Legal Framework

When considering social policy, it is also necessary to consider whether the government is acting in accordance with the law (Bridgman & Davis, 2000). While the Migration Act gives the Government the power to detain refugees under specific circumstances, it also ensures the rights of detainees (North, 2001). However, even when asylum seekers are “legally” detained, there are often aspects of their detention which seem in conflict with the intent of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act of 1986. This Act when it was drafted was designed to give effect to much of the intent of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”. Silove, Steel, Mollica, and Sultan (2001) argue that the abuses, psychological trauma and physical trauma that detained refugees endure are in violation of Article 10. In addition, Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees says “the state shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees, provided they present themselves without delay to authorities.” But Australia does discriminate between applicants for refugee status on the basis of their manner of arrival. Human Rights Watch (2002) condemns the policy of mandatory detention of refugees, but points to the global trend of xenophobic and anti-refugee sentiment, as states buckle under economic strain and perceived threats to national security.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report entitled , Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas: Detention of Unauthorised Arrivals (1998, p. 229) states that detention is detrimental to the mental, physical and social well-being of detainees, particularly for people incarcerated for long periods of time. The report confirms the high incidence of psychological problems such as depression, self-harm and suicide attempts, as well as physical ailments and disorders. The act of self- immolation by Shahraz Kayani in April, 2001, as well as incidences of self-mutilation by detainees, are desperate cries for help, and not, as Mr Ruddock and Mr Howard seem to suggest, bizarre practices peculiar to alien cultures (Taylor & Forbes, 2001, p.1).

Although refugees and asylum seekers are not citizens, much Commonwealth law is still applicable. Perusal of court decisions demonstrates cases where non-citizens are convicted under criminal law. If the Crimes Act and the Migration Act are applicable to asylum seekers, then surely the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Act is too. Lastly, it is important to note that legal treatment is not equivalent to ethical treatment of asylum seekers.

The Social Framework

Jamrozik (2001, p. 71) states the development of migration policies has been characterised by the perception of Australia as a competing duality of “migrants” and “Australians”. Kapferer (1996, p. 258) suggests that in the same way assimilationist policies failed, so too will multiculturalism policies fail, because they promote national identity, rather than human identity. In trying to appreciate the diversity of national and ethnic uniqueness, policy makers face the very antagonism that nationalism produces by encouraging a commitment to homogeneity and monoculturalism. However, Huntington cited in Hoogvelt (2001, p. 198) says that economic modernisation and social change throughout the world means that people are being separated from long-standing local identities, and the nation-state itself is becoming diluted as a source of identity.

At the heart of the issue, according Paul Kelly, cited in Dixson (1999, p. 76) is reconciling the Asianisation of Australia with the maintenance of the dominant Anglo-Saxon Judeo-Christian identity. In the early part of the 20th century, it was viewed as necessary for white Australians to promulgate nationalist ideology, based on the principle of protecting white Australia within an Asian region, exemplified in the passing of the Immigration Restriction Act (1901), or as it is more commonly called the White Australia Policy. The Australian Government has recently been able to resurrect this ideology which has been given credence by the events of 11 September 2001 in the United States of America. The outcome of the Australian election of 2001 would seem to indicate the Australian people were convinced that the stereotypical Middle Eastern asylum seeker is precisely the type of undesirable alien influence they need to guard against.

During the run-up to the 2001 Federal election, Australians were exhorted to imagine asylum seekers and refugees, not as individuals, but as a group with identifiable, ineradicable features. Some were demonised as “terrorists (The Age, 2001, p. 23)”. Most were described as “queue jumpers”. This portrayal of asylum seekers became a carefully constructed idiom that confers on a mass audience, ideas and values that perpetuate inequality and oppression. As Althusser (cited in Dixon, 1999, pp. 128- 138) says, these identities are illusions that serve to perpetuate prevailing ideologies, in particular, racism, and legitimise the existing political, social and economic milieu. These false images of “queue jumpers” provide “potent and marketable justification for the government’s tough asylum policies (Mares, 2001. p.149).” In addition, these images of asylum seekers and refugees crowd out other images of refugees as mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, who are willing to risk upheaval, incarceration and even death – as occurred in October 2001 with the drowning deaths of 350 refugees on an Indonesian boat bringing asylum seekers to Australia (Head, 2001), just to experience the life that Australians take for granted.

One of the most oppressive aspects of the policy of granting 3 year temporary visas to people arriving without a valid entry visa is they can’t leave Australia and subsequently return. This forces some people, judged to be refugees, to choose between being with their families and staying in Australia. One survivor of the Indonesian shipwreck who lost children in the disaster had a husband, with a temporary visa, in Australia who was prevented from being with her in this time of crisis. The failure to find a way to avoid such an outcome could not be described as a humane or compassionate response.

A poll, reported in Migration News (2001) reported that 77 percent of Australians concur with the Prime Minister and his position on refugees, with only 9 percent in support of allowing all would-be migrants to land. However, conservative rhetoric is being challenged, and not just by those whose tradition it is to confront and resist, but also from those within establishment ranks, suggesting that for even the most ardent adherent, there are potential problems with the current line of policy. Mike Steketee (2001), lists several former prominent Liberals, including Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson, all of whom who have voiced their concern at Australia’s current refugee policies and the lack of true political will and leadership in dealing with a global phenomenon .

Dixson (1999) says that it is necessary to analyse Australia’s history before it is possible to understand the extent of racism in Australia. A nation builds its identity on its past but it is argued that history is largely a man-made configuration that pays little heed to the subjective experiences of its protagonists. Australia’s identity is a melange of metaphors and symbols that validate that which is seen as quintessentially ‘Australian’, most notably perceptions of heroism, anti-authority and egalitarianism.

However, women who have experienced institutionalised oppression in historical structures such as the political and economic systems, which are hierarchical and patriarchal, would question the authenticity of these images (Dixson 1999). Similarly, the experience of Indigenous Australians who have been dispossessed of their land and subjected to policies of genocide and assimilation are a seldom acknowledged part of white man’s history (Reynolds 1999). The recent debates about Mabo, Wik, The Native Title Act, the 10 Point Plan, Hindmarsh Bridge (Bell 1998), the Stolen Generations (HREOC 1997), Indigenous sovereignty and a treaty reveal a reluctance by the Government to come to terms with Indigenous Australians’ perceptions of these issues. Kapferer (1996, p. 206) says that to romanticise Australia’s heritage and conceive of Australia’s past in reverence, delimits our knowledge of institutions, practices and policies as they really are.

Australia aspires to be seen as a liberal and humanitarian State. It is frequently asserted that in this country all have equality before the law. The frequency of such claims seems unaffected by the reality of cutbacks in legal aid, the disproportionate representation of Indigenous people in custody (Cunneen 2001), the frequent harassment of young and poor people in public space (White and Perrone 1997) and mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Parekh (2000, p. 263) says, the liberal, who insists on equal rights, hesitates when it is suggested that positive discrimination favours minority groups or the marginalised. Before Australia can truly be regarded as fully liberal and humanitarian it will need to develop enforceable legal mechanisms which are capable of respecting the human value and worth of each person, most importantly in relation to those who have suffered the most from discriminatory practices and dispossession.

Ethical Framework

Although Bridgman & Davis (2000) do not include a ethical framework in their paradigm, we feel that it is important to consider this additional dimension. A society’s moral strength is reflected in the humane treatment of its most vulnerable individuals (Silove et al, 2001). Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers demonstrates that there is some distance to go before the Government can claim an “unmatched reputation for achievement, for tolerance, for understanding and compassion (Howard 2000)”. De Jong et al (2001) demonstrated that many people seeking refugee status suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. In addition, Swan (2001) reports “high rates of major depression, untreated psychosis, attempted suicides, and repeated self mutilation.” Lastly, there have been allegations of brutality, excessive discipline including forced sedation via injection and injuries from the use of physical constraints (Silove et al, 2001). This treatment represents a further abuse of those who are vulnerable and those who have been severely persecuted and traumatized in their homeland.

The ethical imperative of government should be to protect the most vulnerable in society. Children who are refugees are children first; their classification as “refugee” or “illegal” and the particular connotations aroused from these labels does not overshadow this fact. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 37 [b]) states that the detention of a child should be for the shortest appropriate period of time. The Australian Government is encountering difficulty sustaining the argument that it is taking seriously its responsibility as a signatory to this Convention. Children are incarcerated for extended periods of time. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission estimated that, as of 23 November 2001, there were 582 children, including 53 unaccompanied minors, detained in remote and urban detention centres (HREOC, 2001).

The UNHCR (Refugee Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care) states that a child’s physical and psycho-social development can be adversely affected by the disruption and upheaval that forced migration causes. This is compounded when children have witnessed horrific acts of violence or other atrocities. Children placed in migration detention camps are often deprived of normal human relationships that guide social and cultural development and without such role models, become susceptible to identity crises and lose their continuity of experience that links them to their culture, and their sense of self.

Throughout 2001, in the face of wide spread pressure from progressive refugee advocacy groups, the Australian Government maintained and even hardened its line on mandatory detention of asylum seekers. The only small crack to appear in the policy was the release of a small group of mothers and children from the Woomera Detention Centre to be housed in the Woomera community as ‘an experiment’. In the wake of hunger strikes and a ‘lip sewing’ campaign, the Federal Government removed from detention some unaccompanied minors and threatened to remove some children from their parents claiming the children had been forced to sew their lips together. The Federal Government’s decision to remove the children of detainees, and place them in foster care, is highly controversial and reminiscent of the removal of Indigenous children from their families (HREOC, 1997). The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (2002) considers the Woomera detention facility

“places the Commonwealth in breach of its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, particularly (but not restricted to) Article 19(1) “State parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the children from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, whilst in the care of legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.”

A full ethical assessment of Australia’s asylum seeker policy would require much more space than is available here. But even this cursory glimpse at some of the ethical conundrums demonstrates a clear failure to act in line with accepted international human rights instruments. Australia has signed and ratified international instruments which oblige it to accept applications from asylum seekers who land on its shores. It has made a verbal commitment to provide refuge to those who meet the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees criteria (DIMA, 2001), and it has a responsibility to meet this commitment in a manner that is ethical, compassionate, and which does not violate human rights.


The authors of this article consider that the mandatory detention of people in jail-like centres demonstrates a lack of compassion for the suffering of other human beings but in this paper we have argued a number of propositions which go beyond the simple humanitarian argument. Kymlicka, cited in Parekh (2000, p.99) describing the basic principles of liberalism, says that human beings have an interest in leading a good life, in accordance with their beliefs about the value of life but they should also be free to question and revise this as they become more perceptive. Reiman (1997) makes the point that western philosophy depends on rationalism and liberalism and it is that which provides the capacity to be continually reflective. It is this liberal tradition that frees citizens to critique government, its ethnocentricity, its maleness and its whiteness. The prolongation of humanity depends on governments and citizens, to affirm each other’s sense of common humanity, to challenge cultural illogicality and historical residues which perpetuate polarity and inequality in society.

The extent to which a society provides sanctuary to an equitable share of the world’s stateless people and behaves towards all who request asylum in a manner which is in line with internationally accepted instruments on the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, the closer it is to becoming a genuine liberal and humane democracy.

In this paper we have provided some evidence of the gap between the Australian Government’s claim to be behaving towards asylum seeker in a humane and compassionate manner (Howard 2000, 2001) and the traumatising reality of its mandatory detention regimes, both in Australia and as part of its ‘Pacific solution’. We have provided an argument which suggests that there are a number of economic, legal, ethical, political and social cohesion reasons why a government, keen to be seen by its populous and the international community as a humane liberal democracy, might wish to dismantle policies which insist that asylum seekers are subject to mandatory detention.


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