Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced a new “long-term” strategy for dealing with asylum seekers, including releasing children from detention.
The government also will open two new detention facilities to cater for up to 1,500 single men and 400 other people, consisting of family groups, and prepare two other sites as a contingency measure.
Other sites that have been used as temporary accommodation will be either decommissioned or their use reduced, including on Christmas Island where tents have been used to house asylum seekers.
The announcement delivers on a commitment to balance the government’s policy of mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals with the humane treatment of those fleeing persecution, Ms Gillard said.
“This is especially important for children, for whom protracted detention can have negative impacts on their development and mental health,” she told reporters in Canberra on Monday.
There are more than 700 children in immigration detention in Australia.
Ms Gillard denied the decision had been made in consultation with the Australian Greens as some reports suggested over the weekend.
“These decisions have been made by the government today,” she said.
“The decisions have been made by the government and the government alone.”
Part of her announcement was reported on Saturday by the West Australian newspaper.
Under the changes, the government will partner with community organisations to transfer unaccompanied minors and families who are awaiting decisions into community-based accommodation.
But it will also commission two new detention facilities – at Northam in Western Australia and Inverbrackie in South Australia – to cater for up to 1900 adult men.
A site near Darwin will be prepared as precaution to take overflow while the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre will also be expanded as part of a contingency plan.
As previously outlined, the Darwin Airport Lodge also will be expanded to enable accommodation for 400.
The government will finally decommission tents and marquees in use on Christmas Island months after they were erected as temporary accommodation.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the department would move more children and families into community facilities run by churches and charities under departmental supervision.
Priority would be given to vulnerable families assessed to have experienced torture and trauma, who were at risk of mental health problems, and where a mother was pregnant.
Children would be made to attend school to lead a more normal life.
“I’ve come to the view there’s a better way with dealing with detention for many children and families,” he told reporters.
This would be done on a case-by-case basis from now until June 2011.
Mr Bowen said there were security and logistical concerns the government had to consider before releasing the families.
“It would be imprudent to have a blanket release of all families without taking into account those security concerns,” he said.
The future welfare of children was important, no matter what their eventual visa outcome, Mr Bowen said.
“It will still be necessary to hold families and children in detention when they first arrive in Australia and of course while churches and charities and the department increase their capacity for community detention.”
The Northam site, consisting of three self-contained compounds about 80 kilometres north-east of Perth, would accommodate up to 1500 single adult males by June next year.
Should further space be needed, the government had a contingency site at the 11 Mile Antenna Farm outside Darwin.
The Inverbrackie facility, near the Woodside Army Barracks, 37 kilometres north of Adelaide, would accommodate up 400 people in family groups.
If further room for families was needed, the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation at Broadmeadows would be expanded.
Ms Gillard said keeping children in detention was not an appropriate way to send a message to people smugglers.
“I don’t think it’s the Australian way to have kids behind razor wire in the hope that may be a deterrent.”
Mr Bowen said it was the government’s hope that the churches and other organisations involved in potentially housing some of the refugees would not be building new facilities.
“In our discussions with churches and charities we will be ensuring wherever possible that existing facilities are used which are not currently being utilised.”
On the way refugees would be kept under control when living in the community, Mr Bowen suggested he would use his powers to issue curfews.
The groups involved in housing the asylum seekers would also need to remain in close communication with the government.
Mr Bowen said it was too early to say how many people would be in community detention by Christmas.
Many churches and charities had indicated they would utilise existing facilities which were no longer in use, such as former aged-care facilities, or former church facilities that were used for accommodating members of the clergy.
“There will be some who seek to utilise housing from private markets, but we are talking about a spread across the country,” he said.
The government envisaged having several hundred people in community detention by June 2011.
Mr Bowen rejected suggestions the Greens were running government policy, saying he had met with the party’s immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young just once.
“Of course the Greens’ position on detention is well known, that’s a matter of public record and that view has been expressed to me in that very early meeting,” he said.
There had been no further discussions with Senator Hanson-Young about the latest policy change.
The department consulted churches and charities before the announcement which may have led to media reports on the policy change, Mr Bowen said.
Mr Bowen called the accommodation an “appropriate form”, saying that it would not leave children behind razor wire.
“We assess that the cost of running these centres will be very similar to the costs we currently encounter in accommodating families and children,” he said.
Those costs would continue to be covered by the Department of Immigration.
As to the implementation of the plan and how it had been formed, all Ms Gillard would say is “government consults”.