Australian Govt to lessen numbers of immigrants detained indefinitely

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Australian Government today announced terms of a new class of visa which is aimed at reducing the number of immigration detainees locked up indefinitely, after years of criticism by human rights watchdogs.

The new Return Pending Bridging Visa allows for release of detainees held for over three years and who have exhausted all rights for appeal, but who cannot be removed from Australia. In the community they will be provided income support, Medicare, maternity and child benefits, rent assistance and permission to work, and will be required to periodically report to authorities.

Senator Amanda Vanstone, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs said, "The new Bridging visa will only be granted to a relatively small number of detainees where ... it is not reasonably practicable to achieve removal in the short term and where the detainee undertakes to cooperate fully with removal from Australia, once that becomes practicable."

"The new bridging visa will not be available to detainees with current visa applications, or who are challenging decisions, either through review or courts," the Minister said.

"The new bridging visa category does not apply to failed asylum seekers on Nauru. Management of that caseload remains completely separate from onshore cases."

And the visa applies only at the Minister's discretion.

A recent High Court decision has left it in the Government's hands to resolve the issue of indefinite detention, maintaining that under the law there was nothing to prevent immigrants who could not be sent to another country and are not accepted by the Australian Government, from being imprisoned forever.

The change is thought to allow release of up to 100 detainees currently held, although it is not a blanket release for all detainees held over three years, for example the longest-serving detainee, Peter Qasim who has been held for seven years, will not be eligible.

Ms Vanstone claims Mr Qasim has not co-operated with the department's attempts to establish his identity. India will only take him if it can be proven that he is Indian - and without any evidence available except his language, he has been unable to return. But according to Ms Vanstone, all it requires is "further co-operation from Mr Qasim" - therefore he remains in detention.

Qasim wrote in an open letter in September: “I have asked 80 countries to take me but all have refused. I have committed no crime but I have a life sentence. Please give me freedom. I would work hard with a grateful heart. But I cannot live imprisoned forever without hope.”