Saturday, December 10, 2011

States in revolt on refugee burden


JULIA Gillard's plan to move thousands of asylum-seekers out of detention centres and into the community has triggered a war with the two largest states, as the NSW and Victorian governments attacked the policy as a blatant exercise in burden shifting that would stretch police resources and threaten social cohesion.

NSW Police Minister Mike Gallacher yesterday savaged the government's proposal to issue bridging visas to boatpeople, saying it had been undertaken without any consultation with the states, which would be expected to provide many of the services asylum-seekers would need.

In remarks Immigration Minister Chris Bowen described as a "pathetic scare campaign" by two Liberal state governments, Mr Gallacher said the policy compromised the welfare of asylum-seekers, who risked being dumped in the community without adequate support.

"No one picked up the phone; no one wrote to me," Mr Gallacher told The Weekend Australian.

"Some of these people, just simply by being released here, could find themselves either being the victims of crime, or indeed coming to police attention themselves. There's simply been no discussion between the state government and the federal government in terms of our preparedness to handle these matters."

The comments came as briefing papers obtained by The Weekend Australian revealed the breadth of those concerns.

In one document provided to the NSW Liberal government at the end of last month, the NSW Community Relations Commission warned that concerns had been expressed that some of the unaccompanied "minors" released into the community appeared to be "significantly older" than their declared age of 16 or 17.
"In some cases these students appear to be in their 20s," the commission reported.

The commission went on to note that schools had a duty of care to their students and that it "may not be appropriate for numbers of 20-something adults to be in the same classroom with younger children".
"It is essential that (the Immigration Department) take steps to more accurately determine the age of these students," the commission warned.

The commission also said it was likely the program would result in increased costs for health, translation services and transport, and warned of the added burden on police.

Mr Bowen's spokesman said the office was unaware of any claims that adults were attending NSW schools and would investigate any such claims brought to its attention.

In October Mr Bowen announced he would issue a minimum of 100 bridging visas a month to boatpeople whose refugee claims had not been finalised.

But the figure is expected to be higher as it will depend on the rate of boat arrivals, which have escalated rapidly since the failure of the major parties to strike a deal on offshore processing.
Most asylum-seekers will settle in Sydney and Melbourne.

The decision to release boatpeople followed the High Court ruling scuppering the government's refugee swap with Malaysia and the opposition's refusal to support laws circumventing the ruling. However, the decision was also a response to chronic overcrowding and disorder in Australia's detention centres and a recognition that the network simply could not cope with any more boat arrivals.

So far only 27 visas have been issued to asylum-seekers, although that figure does not include those already in the community as part of a longstanding policy to release vulnerable new arrivals into society.

Victorian Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship Nicholas Kotsiras said he was concerned that settling asylum-seekers in the community without additional funding for mental health, education, and housing services "may greatly disadvantage asylum-seekers by dumping them into communities without adequate support and without any concern for their welfare".

"Without providing additional support, the federal government will be working against the better interests of asylum-seekers themselves, the communities they will be placed in and social cohesion in Victoria," Mr Kotsiras told The Weekend Australian.

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell yesterday backed his Police Minister, saying he was "distressed" at the lack of consultation and the extra pressure it would place on state community services.

Mr O'Farrell said his objections had "nothing to do" with immigration generally, which he supported. "It has everything to do with a federal government that, even in this area, is prepared to shift the cost of its incompetent decisions on to the states," Mr O'Farrell said.

The attack drew an angry response from Mr Bowen's office, with a spokesman dismissing the criticisms as a political attack on Labor and accusing the O'Farrell and Baillieu governments of deliberately misleading voters.

The spokesman said the states had been told they would not incur any additional costs, with the Immigration Department funding basic assistance programs.

"These claims are misleading and a cynical political ploy typical of the Coalition," the spokesman said. He said there were 9000 people already on bridging visas, although he acknowledged that figure included other migrants, such as visa overstayers, and was spread across the country.

The policy has generated concern among the NSW and Victorian Coalition governments about the flow-on effects of housing thousands of asylum-seekers in the community.

None of the state government officials contacted by The Weekend Australian expressed any concern about taking more migrants. But they are angry at the manner in which the federal government's new policy has been implemented.

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