DURING A VISIT to Washington this week, Australian Prime Minister John Howard expressed satisfaction that the United States would expedite the process of bringing the only Australian citizen held at Guantanamo Bay to a military trial. Since David Hicks was captured in Afghanistan in December 2001, Australians have been annoyed by the idea that one of their own is being detained indefinitely, with no clear indication of when his case will be resolved. As it happens, Mr. Howard himself has faced a barrage of criticism in recent weeks -- including within his own party -- over his government's policies concerning indefinite detention. The detainees in question, however, are not suspected of involvement in terrorism; they are simply refugees seeking asylum in Australia.
Australian immigration policy mandates detention for all asylum-seekers who arrive without the proper documentation -- even children. Australian immigration law has been interpreted to require asylum-seekers be detained until their cases are decided; because there are no defined time constraints, this process can take months and sometimes years. By contrast, U.S. immigration policy, while by no means perfect, sets out timetables for parts of the process and limits indefinite detention to exceptional circumstances. If authorities decide that the asylum-seeker could be eligible for refugee status in the United States, immigration officials have discretion over whether detention is necessary.
A recent inquiry on the detentions included the disturbing but believable finding that immigration officers responsible for verifying identities "seem to lack even basic investigative and management skills." The report further faulted inadequate training and oversight of immigration employees and a lack of communication between officers and detainees. These systematic failings have led to some egregious cases, such as that of Peter Qasim. Mr. Qasim finally received a visa last weekend after nearly seven years in Australia's immigration detention centers, including the most notorious one, Woomera, closed in 2003 after allegations of grave mistreatment of detainees. It is true that those darkest days appear to be over. But when Mr. Howard talks about a "speedy adjudication" for Mr. Hicks at Guantanamo, he should also consider the hundreds of asylum-seekers languishing in Australia's own barbed wire-enclosed detention facilities, their cases still unresolved.