Ashmore Reef, immigration and detention debates
The name Ashmore Reef immediately brings to mind controversial political and
human rights issues surrounding Australian immigration law and border protection
policies. In a time when terrorism in our region is increasing, political focus
on such things has continued to grow.
More recently the argument has been around the ‘Pacific Solution’ (involving
offshore detention centres) and the mandatory detention of children. As the
issues involved are so complex and ever-changing, you will need to look at this
update’s Web Links and Internet Investigation for ways to keep
up with the latest issues.
A description of Ashmore Reef (Ashmore Islands)
To locate Ashmore Reef, refer to page 13 of the Heinemann Atlas 3rd edn, grid square C4.
Ashmore Reef is a group of three islands lying approximately 320 kilometres off the northwest coast of Australia. Although the islands lie just 144 kilometres south south east of the Indonesian island of Roti, they are a part of Australian territory.
The islands of Ashmore Reef are composed mostly of coral reef and some sand. Uninhabited and sparsely covered by grasses, this group of islands nevertheless has a very important geographical location.
Population movements and the Reef
Australia has had a long history of unauthorised immigrant arrivals by boat. The map of population movements in the 1990s on page 200 of the Heinemann Atlas 3rd edn shows how this regional migration pattern fits into a much larger global pattern. Some of the source areas of these immigrants, most notably from zones of conflict such as the Middle East, are identified.
With the advent of organised people trafficking, Ashmore Reef became a target-landing
zone of many unauthorised immigrants. It was the scene of more unauthorised
landfalls than any other point on the Australian coast.
People traffickers took advantage of the geographical location of Ashmore Reef. The islands provide them with the chance to disembark their human cargo on Australian territory and into the hands of the Australian authorities at a ‘safe’ distance from the Australian mainland.
In the past this allowed traffickers to avoid being arrested or perhaps to
avoid Australia’s coastal surveillance. Another reason may have been that it
made the long, arduous journey to our shores shorter and less dangerous for
all on board.
Things change: the Tampa affair and its consequences
Around the time of August 2001, and shortly before a federal election, the
captain of the Norwegian vessel the Tampa rescued asylum seekers from a sinking boat after a request to do this by the
Australian government. The Prime Minister then tried to stop the Tampa
from entering Australian waters, using troops to control the ship and take its
passengers to off-shore detention centres.
This was part of what was to be a sustained effort by the government to reduce
unauthorised arrivals. In the Immigration Department’s own words (DIMIA Annual
Report 2002–3), the Howard Coalition government set out on a campaign of concentrated
‘deterrence strategies’ and ‘engaging other countries in efforts to deal effectively
with irregular flows of people’. After much parliamentary and social debate,
this led to a new Border Protection Act.
In reality this has meant:
- the exemption of parts of Australia from its own immigration laws
- increased interception of boats on their way to Australia
- the establishment of ‘offshore and border operations to identify and detect
and … prevent … entry’ of unauthorised persons wishing to enter Australia
- the enforcement of Federal Australian immigration laws.
Results of government policy
By the end of 2003, unauthorised landfalls in their entirety had greatly decreased, as can see if you visit the Department of Immigration’s site (see Web Links for this Atlas Update).
But what has happened to those who have been classed as unauthorised arrivals and detained?
The response of the Federal Government has been to house unauthorised immigrants
of in various centres located around Australia. There are Immigration Detention
Centres (IDCs). They house people who have been refused entry into Australia
or those who have breached the conditions of their visa. They are located at:
- Villawood (Sydney),
- Maribyrnong (Melbourne)
There is also an Immigration Reception and Processing Centre located at Christmas Island. This one, and an Immigration Detention Facility (IDF) at Baxter, near Port Augusta in South Australia, both deal with unauthorised immigrants who have arrived by boat.
Emergency detention facilities are located at Woomera (South Australia), Darwin
(Northern Territory) and near Singleton (New South Wales). Nauru and Manus Island
(PNG) have been used as offshore detention and processing centres.
Who is detained?
According to the Dept of Immigration, ‘the main nationalities of detainees
since 2000 are: Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian, Chinese, Indonesian, Sri Lankan, Palestinian,
Korean, Vietnamese and Bangladeshi.’
Criticism of mandatory detention
Amnesty International, the Refugee Action Collective, the Greens (see Web
Links for their websites) and many individuals within and outside Australia
have voiced strong criticism of the mandatory detention system and the practice
of detaining whole families – including young children. They have spoken
out strongly against the conditions under which people are detained, and the
length of detention. As well, they argue, a ‘Fortress Australia’ mentality denies
basic human rights to some of the most afflicted people in the world, and that
Australia is denying its obligations under the 1951 United Nations Convention
Response to criticism
The Coalition’s response to much of this criticism of the immigration detention
process has generally been to dismiss it, saying that Amnesty and other critics
do not understand the nature of Australia’s situation. It has also argued that,
now more than ever, we need to keep our shores safe from terrorists and criminals,
vetting them closely before they are released into the community. Health checks
are also cited as another reason for detention. For the government's arguments,
see Web Links and the Department of Immigration sites listed there.
The Howard government has made some changes, particularly in relation to the
detention of women and children, allocating money towards the establishment
of residential housing facilities at Perth and Sydney for these groups. Further
improvements have also been planned for the detention facilities at Maribyrnong
and Villawood. Arguments about the unfairness of the Temporary Protection Visas
have also brought some changes to it, though not its disappearance. See Web
Links for more on this.
One thing is certain, issues of human rights, nations’ responsibilities, immigration
and border protection will continue to stimulate fierce political and general
social debate well into the future.