Last Friday the Parliamentary Inquiry into Australia’s Detention Network finally released its report. The three most important recommendations - a time limit on detention, transparency around ASIO decisions, and an independent guardian for unaccompanied children - are also the most controversial.

Unfortunately, this controversy is entirely fabricated and not at all based in reality.

Enshrining these recommendations in Australian law would:

  • a) bring us closer to treating refugees the way a humane country should
  • b) save Australia tens of millions of dollars in detention costs, and;
  • c) stop us destroying the mental health of thousands of people, 90 per cent of whom will end up as Australian citizens.

Sensible asylum seeker policy? Everybody wins. Seriously, everybody wins. Following these recommendations should be a no-brainer for Australia’s politicians. Let me illustrate how through the stories of some of the people I recently met in detention.

1. There should be a time-limit on detention

Meet Ali*. He is a 24-year-old Iraqi Arab from Iran who sought asylum in Australia in December 2010. He has a nice smile but is stooped over like an old man and his hands don’t stop shaking. He wants to be a hairdresser.

If there was a time limit on detention, Ali would have been living in the Australian community since the beginning of 2011.

"If there was a time limit on detention, Ali would have been living in the Australian community since the beginning of 2011."

He would have spent the last year learning English instead of being broken so badly by detention that he struggled to form a sentence in his native tongue.

He would have found friends and started settling into the Australian way of life instead of needing sleeping pills to survive each day, and attempting to kill himself twice.

He would have found a job and paying taxes, instead of costing Australia tens of thousands of dollars in detention expenses.

Ali was recently granted refugee status and a permanent protection visa and is now living in the Australian community. He will no doubt become an Australian citizen.

So what has Australia achieved by locking Ali up for a year? Nothing, except a hefty bill and a new Australian who will need years of help to recover from his time in a detention centre.

2. There should be more transparency around ASIO decisions

Meet Ramesh*. He is a 27-year-old Tamil from Sri Lanka. He has torture scars on his arm. He has been locked up for nearly three years.

Ramesh has refugee status, but has been given a negative security clearance from ASIO.

As the law currently stands, Ramesh will be locked up in Australia for the rest of his life. His refugee status means he can never be returned to Sri Lanka, but his ASIO status means he will not be released into the Australian community.

"As the law currently stands, Ramesh will be locked up in Australia for the rest of his life."

The Parliamentary report recommends that a small trusted group of people are allowed to review ASIO decisions. Ramesh would be able to plead his case to them. They could review the evidence and decide if he a violent criminal mastermind, or if ASIO made the decision based on evidence that Ramesh can disprove.

Ramesh has not been charged with anything, he has not even been told what he is accused of. This is not what justice looks like in Australia, people in this county have the right to see the evidence against them and mount a defence.

3. Children should have an independent guardian

Meet Salam*. He is 16 years old. His parents sent him away from Afghanistan over year ago and he sought asylum in Australia in December. He is a sweet kid with black floppy hair falling across his face.

He misses his mum, he can’t go to school, and he doesn’t understand why he is locked up or the process around getting refugee status.

So who is responsible for protecting Salam in the way a legal guardian or parent should protect a child in their care? In Australia unaccompanied asylum seeker children are under the guardianship of the Minster for Immigration, the person responsible for locking them up in the first place.

You’d think in Australia that the bare minimum we could offer Salam and other parentless children who have fled war and torture, is a guardian whose only responsibility was to care for Salam. Someone removed from the complicated politics of boat arrivals, and with a background in child protection.

"Unaccompanied asylum seeker children are under the guardianship of the Minster for Immigration, the person responsible for locking them up in the first place."

There is no excuse to not take these recommendations seriously. The facts are clear.

Detention without a time limit has been proven to destroy the mental health of asylum seekers, 90 per cent of whom will end up becoming Australians.

Australia cannot lock people up forever without charging them with a crime, but negative security clearances from ASIO must be addressed, so a just and balanced compromise must be found.

Children without parents must be under the care of an independent guardian whose only concern is their best interest.

Whatever your opinion on "the boats", surely we can agree on these three things?

*Names have been changed to protect identities

This blog was originally published on The Punch on 4 April 2012.