News / Asia

Resentment Festers as Detainees Await Australian Security Clearance

A man walks past the smoldering remains of burnt out buildings at Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre, April 21, 2011
A man walks past the smoldering remains of burnt out buildings at Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre, April 21, 2011

Refugee groups say a backlog of asylum claims continues to foment unrest in Australia's immigration detention centers.  Earlier this year the federal government said intelligence agencies would speed up security checks of asylum seekers whose claims for refugee status have been approved.  However, hundreds of refugees are still being held in detention while they wait for their security clearance.

The Australian government promised earlier this year that all asylum seekers granted refugee status would have their cases finalized by the intelligence agencies by the end of April.

That has not happened and while 70 percent of the backlog has now been cleared, the delay has left about 900 detainees still locked up in immigration facilities while security checks are carried out.  Most of those detained are from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq.

Refugee groups say that their frustrations are in part responsible for a wave of unrest inside Australia’s detention centers in recent weeks, including the camp at Villawood in suburban Sydney, where several buildings were torched by protesters.  Last week there were two attempted suicides by inmates at a facility in the northern city of Darwin, which campaigners say are further examples of a system in crisis.

Among those still being detained despite being granted a refugee visa by Australia four months ago is a 17-year old Hazara from Afghanistan.

He has asked that his identity not be disclosed and says that his feelings of despair grow with each passing day.

"I do not like to talk about my past life because it make me crazy, makes me sad.  A lot of bad happened.  And since I came to Australia for now I miss my family.  Every night I have bad dreams about them," he said. " I would like to study law because I want to be [a] lawyer and when I be lawyer I want to [offer] help to some people like myself."

Australia’s immigration department says some security checks take longer than others and that such investigations must be thorough.  Officials say the process usually takes about two months to complete, almost twice as long as it did two years ago.

A steady flow of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat in recent months has put the issue of border protection at the top of the political agenda.  A surge in unauthorized arrivals has put pressure on the network of detention camps, including the largest at Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean.  Overcrowding there has forced the government to send detainees to the mainland.

However, most asylum seekers who ask Australia for protection arrive by air.

Each year Australia grants visas to about 13,000 refugees under various humanitarian resettlement programs.  

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