SYDNEY Jan 14 Australia will shut four mainland
immigration detention centres, the government said on Tuesday,
as it pushes ahead with controversial policies to turn back
refugee boats and detain asylum seekers in remote centres
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement the
decision to shutter the facilities, which are run by British
outsourcing company Serco Group Plc, would save at least
A$88.8 million ($80.41 million) a year.
"These sites are remote, relatively small and expensive,"
Morrison's statement said. "These facilities were never
envisaged as being permanent and due to the rationalisation of
the immigration detention network they are no longer required."
Australia's conservative government routinely does not
answer questions about its immigration policy, which was a
central plank of its election victory last year, saying it does
not comment on "operational matters".
The number of would-be refugees reaching Australia pales in
comparison with other countries but it remains a polarising
political issue that also stokes tensions with neighbour
Indonesia over border policies criticised by the United Nations.
Tuesday's announcement comes amid growing scrutiny of Prime
Minister Tony Abbott's asylum seeker policies.
The government has refused to confirm widespread reports
that the Australian Navy has started implementing a
controversial policy of returning intercepted vessels carrying
asylum seekers to Indonesia.
Asylum seekers hoping to reach Australia often transit
through Indonesia, many paying people-smugglers thousands of
dollars to make the perilous journey in unsafe boats.
Despite a shift towards processing asylum seeker claims in
other countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea, there were
more than 6,000 people in immigration detention facilities in
Australia by Nov. 30, 2013, according to government figures.
Most of those held in offshore centres have fled conflict
zones such as Afghanistan, Darfur, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria.
The mainland centres will be closed by the end of February,
Morrison said, and any remaining detainees will be moved to one
of another 16 facilities.
Morrison did not provide details on the numbers of detainees
to be transferred but Australian media reported that there were
about 250 people in two of the centres to be closed and that a
third had been empty since September.
Richard di Natale, acting leader of the small but
influential Greens Party, said he feared the government's
policies would exacerbate an already overtaxed system.
"We've got a situation where all of our detention centres
are under huge strain," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported on
Tuesday that a hunger strike was underway at a Serco-run
detention centre on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in
the Indian Ocean closer to Indonesia than the mainland.
Several prisoners had sewn their lips shut as part of their
protest, the ABC reported without citing sources. Human rights
reports have for years chronicled incidents of self-harm, hunger
strikes and riots in Australia's detention centres.
Serco is investigating the escape of three detainees from
another detention centre at the weekend, the third breakout from
one of its facilities in six months.