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Church groups pressure Government -
offer to look after detainees

Ten of Australia's leading welfare agencies have written a strong letter to Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock urging him to release Woomera detention centre inmates into their care to avoid possible deaths. Welfare organisations including the Centacare, St Vincent de Paul and the Brotherhood of St Laurence yesterday said the Government's policy was causing "unnecessary suffering" and that children were "incarcerated". "Woomera should be closed," the letter states. "We are highly concerned that there will be deaths soon in this . . . facility." The treatment of asylum seekers has been generating embarrassing coverage for the Australian government in the international media in the last 24 hours.

Following is the full text of the letter. Coverage from other media can be found in the links below:

24 January 2002

The Rt Hon Phillip Ruddock, MP
Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs
Fx: 026 273 4144

Re: Leading Welfare Organisations Offer to Care for Woomera Refugees in the Community

Dear Mr Ruddock,

We are writing regarding the crisis in Woomera Immigration Detention Centre seeking to assist the Federal Government in resolving the situation. We are aware that for the majority of the detainees, their protest action is not currently about obtaining visas but about their strong feeling that it is inhumane to incarcerate them in a harsh desert location for lengthy periods of time as if they are criminals. The merits of individual cases are not the issue here, their absolute despair and in many cases the profound trauma they are suffering is driving their determination to persist with this protest. We are highly concerned that there will be deaths soon in this DIMIA facility.

As you will be aware, Woomera is a facility that was never designed for long term detainees. The intention was for people to be held for three to four months rather than 12- 24 months or indefinitely. The high levels of self-harm preceding this latest crisis indicate profound systemic problems in this facility that are not resolvable in any permanent fashion. Similarly, the incarceration of approximately 250 children in any Australian Government facility is highly undesirable and is not in keeping with the UNHCR Guidelines on Detention of Asylum Seekers or Australia's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We trust that you would see it as Australia's responsibility and priority to adhere to these guidelines and human rights which are designed specifically to avoid such a humanitarian crisis.

We wish to work with your Department in resolving the current crisis. We offer the combined resources and networks of our respective organisations to assist in securing the release into the care of our community, of:

1. all children with their parents;
2. all single males and females not considered a threat to the Australian community or not awaiting immediate return to their country of origin (if possible).

Such release from Woomera should be phased with children and their families a priority for release into the care of community organisations.

This offer is consistent with discussions that some of our agencies have had with your Immigration Detention Advisory Group about community release. It is a viable option and many hundreds of refugees seeking asylum already live in the community and receive assistance from our organisations. Our organisations supported refugees living in the community in the 1980s and 1990s. We urge you to create a visa class for community release for long-term detainees who have failed in their claims but cannot be repatriated due to a lack of agreement with their countries.

We will assist in providing accommodation and community support for the refugees while their claims are processed. As you would be aware, the release of certain cases into the care of the community already occurs from some DIMIA facilities. As you will be aware, no unauthorised asylum seeker released on a bridging visa in Australia from 1996-1998 failed to meet their reporting obligations to DIMA. [i] We feel confident that with efforts by DIMA, coupled with cooperation of the refugees and our organisations, that similar compliance rates can be secured in 2002. We feel confident that, together with your Department, we can treat people in a humane way while their claims are assessed which would remove many of the causes of the ongoing crisis and humanitarian dilemmas that your Department and ACM are currently facing.

We are prepared to enter into negotiations with your Department immediately to discuss the logistics of such community release. There has been detailed work done on community release by the Justice for Asylum Seekers Alliance based on existing cases of community release in Australia and overseas experience. We do so in a spirit of humanitarianism and sense of decency of Australians gravely concerned at the systemic problems of Woomera and the unnecessary suffering caused under the current system. There is no further need for this particular institution which has become dysfunctional. Woomera should be closed.

We wish to work with you to resolve this crisis. We encourage you to embrace a spirit of reform and partnership. We would be grateful if your staff could make this letter available to Mr John Hodges, Chairman and Members of the Immigration Detention Advisory Group. We look forward to your earliest response.

Yours faithfully,

Marc Purcell, Executive Officer, Catholic Commission for Justice Development and Peace (Melb). On behalf of:
Rev. David Pargeter, Director Justice and World Mission, Uniting Church in Australia, Synod in Victoria
Fr Joe Caddy, Executive Director, Catholic Social Services
Fr. Nic Frances, Executive Director, Brotherhood of St Lawrence
Dale West, Executive Director, Centrecare Adelaide
Margaret Reynolds, President, United Nations Association of Australia
Brenda Hubber, Executive Secretary, Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office Melbourne
Sr. Margaret Fyfe, Brigidine Community for Justice
Mr Syd Tutton, State President, St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria
Mr Toby O'Connor, National Director, Catholic Welfare Australia, Curtin ACT
cc. John Hodges Chairman and Members of the Immigration Detention Advisory Group; Mr Bill Farmer, Secretary, DIMIA.
[i] Information provided by the Office of the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs in response to a question on notice by Natasha Stott-Despoja on September 1, 1997 -- Question 803. (Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee -- HREOC)

MEDIA COVERAGE - click on any to see latest
The Australian
The Age