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Issue #1549      30 May 2012

ASIO secrecy compounds refugee disgrace

Australia’s cruel and unaccountable asylum seeker regime is back in the headlines. It has taken another personal tragedy to do it but pressure is growing for the Gillard government to allow review of adverse ASIO assessments of application for refuge in Australia. It is also being pressed to find alternatives to indefinite detention behind the razor wire surrounding the country’s privately run camps. So far, the Prime Minister has resisted demands flooding in from the public, a resolution from her own party’s National Conference held in Sydney last December and the recommendations of a Labour-chaired parliamentary inquiry released in March.

Young asylum seekers in detention in Malaysia.

The case that has cut through the media-generated xenophobia and strengthened the call for compassion, procedural fairness and natural justice is that of 33-year-old Sri Lankan woman Ranjini and her two sons Pirai ,8, and Kathir, 6. Ranjini had been living with her second husband Ganesh in Melbourne for over a year after her release from immigration detention. She and her sons had done the rounds of several detention centres before the family’s release, impressing everyone with their positive and generous attitude. They were making steady progress in putting the trauma of their homeland’s civil war behind them.

That was until ASIO decided that Ranjini posed a threat to Australia’s national security. A scheduled interview with the Immigration Department was brought forward and the news of the adverse assessment was dropped on Ranjini and her sons. Half a dozen security officers entered the room. She and the boys were given five minutes to say farewell to Ganesh before they were rushed off to Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. She had only recently discovered that she was pregnant.

Fifty-one asylum seekers to Australia now live in an outrageous legal limbo. They can never be released into the community. They could go to a third country if such a haven could be found for a “security threat”. They could return to their homeland but that would spell danger for them. ASIO confirmed that Ranjini, for example, holds a genuine fear of persecution should she return to Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers are not allowed to know the reasoning behind ASIO’s effective life sentence. There is no review procedure available.

“The treatment of Ranjini and her two young boys is nothing short of shameful,” Greens immigration spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young told the media. “Ripping a young mother who has been found to be a refugee needing protection out of the community and her sons out of school to be thrown into indefinite detention with no explanations or ability to challenge their incarceration seems simply unbelievable in Australia.”

Refugee rights advocate Julian Burnside noted that an adverse assessment might have nothing to do with activities threatening national security. “They may have had a cousin who was involved in people smuggling or some other relatively minor thing,” he said. The consequences of the assessment are dire. Self-harm among detainees is on the rise again. The atmosphere in detentions centres is tense. Up to 70 percent of detainees are taking prescribed anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication or sleeping pills.

The government no doubt feels itself to be between a rock and a hard place. It opportunistically sought to capture ground from the Coalition by being “tough” on people smugglers, “queue jumpers” and “illegal immigrants”. It sought to do a deal with Malaysia to take Australia-bound boat arrivals and is still under pressure from the Opposition to adopt the Howard era option of a concentration camp on the Pacific island of Nauru.

From the other side, Gillard is being inundated with complaints about the heartless treatment of asylum seekers. Amnesty International recently released its assessment of the world’s human rights situation and Australia was marked down heavily for the policy-driven disaster overtaking remote Aboriginal communities and the government’s punitive approach to asylum seekers:

“Amnesty International has witnessed the devastating effects of this system on the mental health of already-traumatised asylum seekers first hand and seen how keeping people in limbo behind barbed wire is having a traumatising effect.

“The Parliamentary Committee’s recommendations into the detention network released earlier this year mirrored many of the calls we have echoed for years. There must be a time limit on detention, transparency around ASIO decisions and an independent guardian for unaccompanied children.”

The Labor-chaired committee referred to exposed growing unease in ALP ranks about the government’s politicking with people’s lives. Committee chair Daryl Melham was emphatic in his opposition to ASIO’s current secret and unaccountable role. “I’m not trying to jeopardise national security, but I do not accept the argument that there is no one in the whole of Australia who can adequately review an assessment of ASIO when somebody’s liberty is deprived,” he said.

The question may be taken out of the government’s hands. The same legal team that had the Malaysian solution overturned in the High Court is taking the issue of ASIO assessments there for judgement. In 2004, the Court found by a narrow majority that the government does have the “right” to detain asylum seekers indefinitely but the outrages that have flowed from that decision have shifted public attitudes. There is growing disquiet about the build-up of secret police powers.

David Mann, the head of the legal team mounting the challenge, summed up the situation succinctly in the media. “It’s like a secret trial. We don’t know the process or the rules. All we know is the negative outcome and the cruel consequences,” he said.  

Next article – Editorial – Wage rises depend on struggle

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