Thursday, August 12, 2010

Defence Families Won’t Be Evicted For Asylum Seekers

A number of callers to radio shows, including mine, have been expressing their outrage about a story that Australian Defence Force personnel are going to be moved out of their accommodation to make way for asylum seekers. The allegation is that our military families will be forced to move to inferior accommodation while the asylum seekers take over their homes. In those terms it sounds absolutely outrageous, and people are right to be angry about it. The only problem is that it is just not true.

It seems that the story originated with a briefing paper which was prepared to examine a range of possible scenarios. The purpose of such a paper is to identify all possible options and then assess whether or not they are suitable. In that context, this particular briefing paper assessed possible accommodation arrangements for asylum seekers, and according to the Defence Personnel Minister Alan Griffin, recommended against any such use of Defence Department Housing. Complicating the matter however, was an ongoing program where old substandard military housing at Berrimah in Darwin is currently in the process of being replaced.

There was a suggestion that as Defence Force members and their families move out of the Berrimah facility into their new improved modern accommodation, asylum seekers could be placed into the old buildings. According to the Minister, that idea was also rejected, in part because the new accommodation isn’t ready yet and won’t be complete for a couple of years. The Minister has confirmed that the only Defence Department property which is currently accommodating asylum seekers is the old Curtin Air Force Base, which is not an operational base, and has not been for many years. In fact, it was also used by the Howard Government to house asylum seekers, so that is nothing new.

On the 17th of July, Dennis Shanahan wrote an article in the Australian which said this: “Overcrowding of boatpeople at Christmas Island has forced the federal government to consider shifting defence personnel families. Under the plan, the families of serving defence personnel could be moved into inferior housing to make way for asylum seekers at Darwin’s Berrimah defence base.” This story was the basis for the rumours and emails that have been circulating ever since. However, if you read the whole story, it is clear that the Defence Minister John Faulkner indicated that no defence families would be moved until their new housing was ready in 2013, and that the use of the Berrimah base for housing asylum seekers was “not supported”.

A subsequent article written by Mark Dodd in the Australian on the 23rd of July further reported that “A plan to house asylum-seekers alongside defence force families in a Top End military base has been scrapped by the federal government.” This is a classic case of beating up a news story out of nothing, because there never was any such plan in the first place, only a briefing paper outlining why such a plan would not be acceptable. Once again, if you take the time to read the whole article, you will find that Mr. Dodd also writes: “…the Minister for Defence Personnel, Alan Griffin, said yesterday that there never had been a plan to evict defence families to make way for refugees.” The trouble is that, even now, almost a month later, the story is still going around.

The fact is that the Christmas Island Immigration Detention facility is not big enough to cope with the numbers of asylum seekers currently arriving. Regardless of anyone’s view of how asylum seekers should be treated, the fact is that as long as we have a policy of detention there must be somewhere to actually detain them. At present, some asylum seekers who have already passed health and security checks are brought to the mainland and placed in a number of locations including hostels and other private accommodation, on a temporary basis. But none of them are being put up in Defence Housing, and no Australian Defence Force families have been thrown out of their homes.

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