SYDNEY, July 29 – Australia on Tuesday unveiled a "more humane" policy towards refugees, scrapping a widely criticised system of automatically locking up asylum seekers on arrival.
The move by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s centre-left Labor government, which won power last November, overturns a mandatory detention policy which saw some asylum seekers held in camps for several years.
"A person who poses no danger to the community will be able to remain in the community while their visa status is resolved," Immigration Minister Chris Evans said.
The immigration department would have to justify the detention of any refugee every three months and an ombudsman would review cases of anyone held for more than six months, Evans told reporters.
Children and their families will not be held in detention centres, he said, formally ditching one of the most reviled aspects of the former policy which fell into disuse about three years ago.
"This isn’t about a mass opening of the gates, this is about a more humane treatment of asylum seekers, a more humane detention policy," Evans said.
"We think this will allow us to maintain strong border security but also treat people with human dignity."
Evans said he would soon receive a departmental review of the cases of about 380 people who are now in detention and that the new policy would apply when deciding their fate.
Since taking over the immigration portfolio last year, Evans said, he had already reviewed the cases of 72 detainees who had been held for more than two years.
Of those, 31 should not have been detained and were on the way to obtaining visas, 24 would be deported and 17 people were still subject to legal proceedings.
Evans said the previous conservative government of prime minister John Howard believed that locking up asylum seekers on arrival would deter others from attempting to enter Australia.
"Labor rejects the notion that dehumanising and punishing unauthorised arrivals with long-term detention is an effective or civilised response," he said.
Asylum seekers arriving by boat will still be held at Australia’s Christmas Island detention centre off the northwest coast but with the aim of resolving their cases in the shortest time possible, he said.
The new government has already scrapped the "Pacific Solution" under which boat people were sent to special detention centres in the tiny island nation of Nauru or the Papua New Guinea island of Manus.
The Howard government credited the policy with stopping the flow of mainly Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers from arriving on often dilapidated boats from Southeast Asia.
Rights group Amnesty International described the reforms as "a welcome step forward" which had finally brought Australia’s immigration detention system in line with those in other Western democracies.
Under the previous policy "prolonged detention caused irreparable damage to both the physical and mental health of those detained," said spokesman Graham Thom.
But Amnesty, like other activist groups which broadly welcomed the reforms, called for the closure of the Christmas Island detention centre and for all asylum seekers to be treated equally.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, a government body which was a fierce critic of the mandatory detention policy, said the reforms would help repair Australia’s "shameful reputation" over the treatment of refugees.
However, the opposition Liberal-National coalition which introduced mandatory detention when it was in power said the reforms sent a message that Australia had softened its approach to border protection.
"I think the weakening of Australia’s strong immigration detention policy will send a clear message to the region that we are relaxing border control," said immigration spokesman Chris Ellison.