25 July 2012

Australian immigration record broken as detention centres approach capacity

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The latest asylum seeking boat to arrive in Australian waters carried 160 people onboard, pushing the yearly total to a record number and threatening to break the monthly total set just last month.

Australia immigration

The number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia has reached record levels.

The 160 people intercepted north of Christmas Island yesterday took the total intercepted in July to over 1,400, raising concern that the record level set in June - which broke a decade-old record itself - could be broken again immediately. However, it is the fact that 6,557 asylum seekers, excluding crew members, have arrived on 92 boats in 2012, breaking the previous annual record of 6,555 set in 2010 that has raised the most eyebrows, and there are still over four months left of the year.

A Never-ending Argument

The argument to find a suitable deterrent to the asylum seeker problem continues to rage on in Australia, even threatening the prime minister's position, yet without a solution all three major parties can agree on in place, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen expects more records to be broken.

"As the government has made clear countless times, without a real deterrent in place more boats will arrive and more lives will be put at risk on the high seas," said a spokesperson for Mr Bowen, referring to the deaths of 94 people when two boats capsized in a week last month.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has convened an expert panel headed by former Defence Chief Angus Houston to find a solution all parties can agree on but opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison says the suitable deterrent is already available.

The previous Coalition-led Howard government implemented a policy known as the Pacific Solution which saw boat arrivals drop to practically zero and Mr Morrison has criticised the government for refusing to reinstate the policy the abolished upon taking government.

"Labor's decision to abolish the Howard government's proven measures at the urging of the [Australian] Greens and other advocates has led to the cost, chaos and tragedy that we see on our borders today," Mr Morrison said in a statement.

"Labor is in a deadlock of their own making and can act today to restore the proven policies they abolished. Instead, the committees continue to convene, resolving only to met again and take further advice."

Ms Gillard instructed the committee to have a solution by the time the parliament reconvenes in August. Whether or not a solution will be found is one matter, whether parties will agree is another; the Coalition has already refused, claiming their policies are the only solution that is effective, the Greens are opposed to any solution which involves processing asylum claims anywhere but Australia and even Ms Gillard has previously said she will not adopt the committee's policies blindly.

However, while boats continue to arrive in Australia at record rates, a new concern has emerged: over capacity in detention centres.


All arrivals including crew members are immediately detained upon arrival in Australia while asylum claims are processed, some are eventually released into community detention and some are deported but many remain in detention for extended periods of time, some even indefinitely.

This controversial policy has proved disastrous before for the Australian government: in April last year riots erupted at Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre and large parts of the facility were burned to the crowd amid complaints of overcrowding.

Since then, new centres have been built and old ones reopened but with boats arriving at rates never before seen, concern has been raised that a repeat of last year's events could happen. However, Mr Bowen has remained confident that the detention centre network can cope with the added strain.

"The government has capacity in the detention network, with new accommodation recently coming online, regular transfers of asylum seekers throughout the network and more people being processed in the community," said the spokeswoman.

There are currently an estimated 5,700 people in Australia's detention centres and many are approaching or at capacity. The Sherger Detention Centre in Queensland has a 'contingency capacity' of 1,000 people; there are currently 1,359 asylum seekers detained at the centre.

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