Most asylum seeker rioters turned out to be refugees

Kirsty Needham
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MOST asylum seekers detained during the Christmas Island and Villawood riots were later found to be refugees, new data shows, challenging an inquiry finding that blamed the unrest on increasing numbers of rejected detainees who would not accept the umpire’s decision.

Happy to be here … Malaysia deal asylum seekers arrive on Christmas Island. Photo: Nic Ellis

Department of Immigration data shows 88 per cent of asylum seekers who arrived by boat in 2009-10, including those who were initially rejected, have been found to be refugees and now have a visa. Sixty-eight per cent of those arriving in 2010-11, including those initially rejected, also have a visa. Final approvals are expected to be higher as half of these people are awaiting review.

The Hawke report into riots that broke out during March and April last year said 80 of 100 detainees involved in the Christmas Island riots had received initial rejections, and blamed the disturbances, and self-harm, on detainees ”receiving the wrong outcome in their eyes”.

The report’s author, Allan Hawke, told a parliamentary committee last week: ”The conclusion we were coming to was that these were not genuine refugees and they were reacting to the fact that they had paid a people smuggler to come to Australia … [and] they were going to vent their anger on the system”.

The government has repeatedly blamed the riots on large numbers of detainees being on ”a negative pathway”, rather than detention conditions.

But the Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, has questioned Dr Hawke’s findings. “These statistics prove that the government’s rhetoric – that people who have been in detention long-term are not refugees and are on negative pathways – is simply not true. Most, in fact, are genuine refugees who have been unnecessarily detained for far too long while the government played politics with their lives,” she said.

Xenophobic … Scott Morrison. Photo: Vikky Wilkes

The rate at which initial rejections are overturned has soared in the past six months. In the December 2011 quarter, 72 per cent of refugees won a visa after review. This was up from 63 per cent in the September quarter, and 48 per cent in June. Senator Hanson-Young said: ”The figures show roughly nine in 10 claims for protection are validated.”

A spokesman for the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said riot ringleaders still faced having refugee visas refused by the minister if they were sentenced.

Overall refugee approval data should not be linked to specific individuals involved in the riots, ”many of whom have been charged, remain on a negative pathway and are still subject to new tougher character requirements”, he said. The Hawke inquiry ”made clear the incidents were largely the result of the frustrations of a group of people on a ‘negative pathway’ not being regarded as refugees”.

Only 9 per cent of Iranian asylum seekers and 26 per cent of Afghans were recognised as refugees at first interview in the three months before the riots. By last December, half of Iranians and 57 per cent of Afghans were winning protection at the first interview. The director of the Centre for Policy Development, John Menadue, criticised the opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, for xenophobia, and said it was shameful Mr Morrison had suggested asylum seekers spread disease.

Mr Morrison responded today that Mr Menadue’s “attempts to vilify and misrepresent my remarks and the Coalition’s policies have become increasingly intemperate and betray a strong political bias”.

❏ The federal government closed the Pontville detention centre in Tasmania yesterday.

2 comments

  1. Robert Lawrence

    Is it any wonder that, by far that the greatest majority of the refugees seeking asylum are genuine? The dangers of attempting such a perilous journey would only be undertaken by the most desperate of people i.e. refugees.

  2. Having undergone such challenges and dangers and being treated like criminals on arrival and incarcerated for a year or two and then told that they are not acceptable asylum seekers, how can they not resort to a violent reaction. They are only human.