Riot fans flames of asylum debate
On an issue that commonly attracts overblown rhetoric and shrill commentary, it is no longer an exaggeration to say that Australia's immigration detention system is in a state of crisis. The past five weeks have seen a mass break-out and riot at Christmas Island, Australia's high security offshore processing facility for asylum seekers, and now another violent protest at the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney thought to involve men from Kurdish Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.
What began as a small rooftop protest involving just two detainees escalated into a full-blown riot involving 100 men - a quarter of the 400 detainees held at Villawood. A number of buildings were destroyed, including a medical facility, a computer centre, a laundry and a kitchen. The authorities were powerless to stop a modern, high security detention facility from being torched. Given the scale of the damage, the ferocity of the protests and the intensity of the flames - which leapt over 10m (30ft) at the height of the overnight disturbances - it is a wonder that nobody was killed.
Protagonists on both sides of the asylum seeker debate will seize upon the riots. Critics of the government will claim the detention centres are overcrowded because the softening of border protection policies and the end of the Howard government's Pacific Solution has encouraged more asylum seekers to head for Australia.
It will also contribute to the ongoing process through which asylum seekers have been criminalised and portrayed as "illegals" - even though they have a legal right to claim asylum under the UN Refugeee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory. Many will cast the rioters as violent trouble-makers who have no place in the wider Australian community - a line taken by both the Department of Immigration and the conservative opposition.
For critics of Australia's mandatory detention system - which was brought in by the government of Paul Keating - the riots will be seen as an act of desperation men who have been kept under lock and key for too long in detention centres that are far too crowded. In the past seven months, there have been five suicides in Australian detention centres, which refugee groups say is "worryingly high".
The Department of Immigration claims that Australia has the highest level of care in immigration detention in the world, but concedes that the system is under strain because of "capacity" issues - which is shorthand for overcrowding. New detention centres are being opened up to temporarily relieve the problem. The government also says that the anger of detainees is often the result of them having their applications rejected rather than the long wait for those applications to be processed.
Critics of the Labor government will see in the ruins of the burnt-out buildings at Villawood a landmark for a failed policy. Opponents of the system of mandatory detention system will see a group of desperate men, kept too long in detention, whose pent-up frustrations erupted into violent fury.
PS: PeterD and Greg Warner. Gentleman, I think it is time for a truce, to swap emails or to take your argument elsewhere.