LAWYERS for refugees have praised the Department of Immigration for moving swiftly to assess the protection claims of 26 Afghan and Iranian asylum-seekers on Christmas Island.
Initiatives that include tree-planting proposals, tearing down fences and sending children to a local school figure in a snapshot of immigration detention on Christmas Island under the Rudd Government.
The $396 million detention centre is empty.
In the first check on how the Rudd Government would deal with asylum-seekers arriving by boat, Steven Glass, a volunteer for the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, spent a week on Christmas Island. He described dramatic changes in attitude of Department of Immigration and Citizenship officers and guards employed by GSL, the company operating detention centres.
"It was not exactly anything physical," said Mr Glass, a legal casework veteran of mainland detention centres under the Howard Government. "It was all about, ‘How can we help?’ I have to say it took a bit of adjustment."
He cautioned that it was "so far, so good" but the Government seemed committed to moving swiftly to resolving the cases. "My sense is they are trying to avoid a repeat of the lengthy detentions of the past [when] people went crazy."
The asylum seekers are almost all Afghan men, with eight under the age of 18. Most interviews were conducted in the Dhari dialect. Mr Glass would not discuss specifics of their claims or the route they took to reach Australia. "The claims are not necessarily all the same but do have some common themes. Most are [ethnic minority] Hazara or Shia."
On Christmas Island, the asylum-seekers are being held at the old detention centre – while the later centre, resembling a high-security prison, remains empty. "It is still a detention centre and no one wants to be in one," Mr Glass said. "But a number of the asylum-seekers are not behind fences and the kids are all going to the local school. My overall impression is [the department] and GSL are going to whatever lengths they can to make conditions as good as possible. They are looking at planting trees, tearing down fences."
The asylum-seekers have access to sporting facilities and television and the quality of food served seems good.
Susan Mayer, co-ordinator of the community legal centre Refugee Advice and Casework Service, said the department approached her the day after the first boat landed on Ashmore Reef to assemble a team of volunteer lawyers. "[It] has done well in terms of the speed and commitment to getting a taskforce together. There was a sincerity with which they did it."
Asylum-seekers arriving on Christmas Island cannot apply for a protection visa in Australia except with the consent of the minister.
"There has never been a process for doing this before because the previous government didn’t entertain such applications. The new minister is entertaining these applications," Mr Glass said.