Troublemakers in immigration detention centres could still have a chance of getting permanent residency in Australia, the government says.
On Christmas Island, six detainees are currently holding rooftop protests and a separate group is on hunger strike.
Three male protesters have started their second week on top of Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.
And a group of 50 Afghan detainees at the Curtin facility in WA has just ended a hunger strike.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen on Tuesday announced legal changes to deter violent unrest.
Under the proposed changes to migration law, refugees found guilty of a crime while in detention would automatically fail a character test and may be denied a permanent visa.
But he is adamant the Labor government will not go backto the much-criticised Howard government system of temporary protection visas (TPVs).
Mr Bowen said the Labor government’s temporary visa would have two classes, and under one class detainees would not necessarily lose all hope of staying in Australia permanently.
It would be a case of “A) we will return you when we can, or B) if you become a good community resident, a good resident of Australia, and you have a good behaviour track record over a period of time, then we will consider other arrangements for you”, Mr Bowen told ABC radio.
Former immigration minister Philip Ruddock – a key figure behind the previous government’s “Pacific solution” for offshore detention – said the TPV policy should be revived to deter boat arrivals.
“This minister is simply fiddling with behavioural issues in relation to those who are being detained,” Mr Ruddock told Macquarie radio on Wednesday.
The government needed to “strip away the expectation” of people who arrive illegally by boat by re-opening the Nauru processing facility and restoring the TPV laws, he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t see how the problem can be addressed unless you adopt all of those measures,” Mr Ruddock said.
Amnesty International refugee spokesman Dr Graham Thom said Labor’s new policy was a knee-jerk reaction to the detention centre riots.
The TPV system, scrapped by Labor in 2008, left people living in fear that they could be sent home at any time and could not sponsor family members to join them, he said.
Dr Thom disagreed with the view that detainees convicted of an offence should automatically fail the character test, making it almost impossible to access a permanent protection visa. “I’ve seen it time and time again with my work.
Asylum seekers arrive at detention centres grateful and optimistic, but as the months or years go by they break, becoming depressed, resorting to self harm or lashing out,” he said.
“The recent violence at Villawood and Christmas Island is not excusable – but it’s not surprising, either.”
Mr Bowen received the backing of federal Labor’s left factional convenor Senator Doug Cameron – a staunch critic of the Howard government policy – who said it was unacceptable for people to destroy public property.
However, he said more effort should be put into speeding up processing of the 6800 detainees.
“I do believe that we need to reduce the pressures within the system, and we should be doing as much as we possibly can to get people out of detention and into the community as quickly as possible,” Senator Cameron said.