Comment: Dutton's wordplay paints confusing picture about immigration

Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, May 3. Source: AAP

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton made headlines this year after announcing there were no children left in Australian immigration detention and, later, that 17 detention centres would be closed. But it’s worth reading the fine print.

Hours before the government handed down its 2016-2017 budget, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton announced the closure of 17 immigration detention facilities.

"I'm pleased to announce ahead of the budget tonight that we will close 17 detention centres, resulting in 17 detention centres having been open by Labor and 17 closed by this government," he said.

Media outlets across Australia reported the line but some people were left scratching their heads – according to a 2016 government report, there are only 14 Australian detention centres.

That 14 includes the three offshore detention centres on Nauru, Christmas and Manus Islands.

So how could 17 centres be closed down?

After the budget was delivered it was explained that the government would close four centres: Perth residential housing, Maribyrnong detention centre in Victoria, Blaxland compound at Villawood detention centre in Sydney, and Wickham Point detention centre in the Northern Territory, which would not have its lease renewed beyond November.

That would bring the number of detention centres closed since 2013 to 17.

Closing four centres is hardly the wide sweep indicated in Mr Dutton’s announcement.

The wording also played on people’s general ideas of what constitutes a "detention centre," without making clear how that is defined.

To many people, for example, "residential housing" isn't the same as the Manus Island facility. Nor is a compound within a detention centre. Yet they were all characterised as "detention centres" for the purposes of the government’s pre-budget announcement.

SBS has sought comment from the Department of Immigration to further clarify this point.

A tweet from Mr Dutton on Tuesday night made things clearer: 

But the tweet was sent out hours after most major news organisations, including SBS, ran with headlines along the lines of "Government to close 17 detention centres," based on the statement made in Parliament.

'No children in detention'

The delivery of this information echoed the government’s announcement in April 2016 that there were "no children left in Australian immigration detention".

"I'm very proud of the fact we've been able to stop the boats and get children out of detention," Mr Dutton said at the time. "I feel a great sense of achievement in doing this."

It sounded like a step forward, and likely played well with voters, but were all children out of Australian-run detention centres?

Well, no.

Firstly, the announcement referred only to detention facilities on the Australian mainland, meaning there were still 50 on Nauru and more could still be moved there.

Secondly, it turned out the department had reclassified sections of some detention centres in Australia as "community detention", to make the announcement technically true, but ignoring of the fact that children were still being held in Australian detention facilities.

The Guardian's Ben Doherty, who broke the story, wrote that "families with children in 'held detention' in the 'family compound' of Villawood detention centre were told by letter on Friday that their detention was now classified as ‘community detention'.

"They have been 'released' from detention without moving," he said.

The reclassification generated only a fraction of the media coverage of the initial announcement.

Self immolations

Australia's immigration policies have faced significant public backlash in recent months but amid protests, social media campaigns and a damning New York Times editorial, the government has sought to remind voters of the bigger picture – stopping the boats.

In February 2016, protests were held across Australia over the fate of the asylum-seeker baby known as Asha. The one year old was being treated for burns at Brisbane's Lady Cilento Children's Hospital, where doctors refused to release her until they could be assured she would go to a safe environment.

After a 10-day standoff with the government, it was agreed Asha would go into community detention and doctors released her. 

Last month, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea found holding of asylum seekers in the Manus Island detention centre was in breach of the country's Constitution.

PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill then announced the centre would be closed.

The Australian government said the 850 men housed at the centre would not be returned to Australia.

Related reading

That same month, a 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker set himself alight on Nauru during a visit from a United Nations mission. He later died of his injuries.

And only days later, 21-year-old Somali refugee Hodan Yasin also set herself alight on Nauru. She is now in a critical condition in a Brisbane hospital.

Providing an update on Ms Yasin’s condition yesterday, Mr Dutton appeared to accuse refugee advocates of contributing to instances of self-harm.

"I repeat the call to advocates today that their intentions may be honourable and they may be noble in their own minds but they are causing serious harm," he said.

Mr Dutton reiterated the government’s message that no detainees on Nauru or Manus Island would be resettled in Australia.

"We are going to make sure that the advocates hear that message very clearly," he said.

As refugees and asylum seekers in Australian immigration detention centres await news on their fate – some resorting to tragic acts – and the public searches for information, it seems there are more people than just advocates in need of clear messages.

It's time for the government to engage with the public and start a national conversation about immigration policy.

A conversation free of spin.

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