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Issue #1692      July 8, 2015

Repressive Border Force Act

Govt gag for detention centre workers

Last year the Abbott government passed the Australian Border Force Act, prohibiting “entrusted persons” from unauthorised recording or disclosure of information concerning asylum seeker detention centres.

Last Friday 40 doctors, nurses, teachers, psychologists and other humanitarian workers challenged the government to arrest them after they published an open letter to the Prime Minister concerning conditions in the centres.

The letter states that the government has not dealt with “many issues which constitute a serious threat to the health of those in detention for whom we have a duty of care”, that the law adds to “the wall of secrecy that prevents proper public scrutiny” and that “… standing by and watching sub-standard and harmful care, child abuse and gross violations of human rights is not ethically justifiable.”

Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton claims the Border Force Act does not prevent people from discussing the detention centres. However, the Act specifically requires immigration or border protection personnel to make an oath or affirmation to abide by its secrecy provisions, with a penalty of two years imprisonment for offenders.

To gain authorisation to record or disclose information, detention centre workers must go through “appropriate channels”, i.e. they must seek permission, which the government can simply deny. The only exceptions are when disclosure is authorised by law, or when a court or tribunal orders disclosure.

The open letter signatories acknowledge they’ve already disobeyed the Act by publishing the letter, and they challenge the government to arrest them “… so that these issues may be discussed in open court and in the full view of the Australian public”.

Concealing nightmare conditions

Last Wednesday Abbott met newly-appointed Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg with the bizarre salutation: “May God bless you, may God bless your work, may God bless the country you are helping to protect and prosper”!

Quaedvlieg claims the Border Protection law merely aims to protect classified information and wouldn’t override existing whistleblower legislation. But classified information could mean anything the government wants to keep secret, including information about the abuse of detainees. The Australian Human Rights Commission has reported 44 cases of the sexual abuse of children, including rape, in detention centres between January 2013 and July 2014.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has sought information on the allegations, but can’t investigate the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres because they’re not on Australian territory.

However, if the government prosecutes the open letter signatories, the truth about the centres will be revealed during cross examination. The letter is doubly important because the Border Force Act violates the professional commitment of detention centre workers.

The letter states, “If we witness child abuse in Australia we are legally obliged to report it to child protection authorities. [But] if we witness child abuse in detention centres we can go to prison for attempting to advocate for them effectively.”

Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesman Greg Barnes commented: “If, for example, a psychologist … comes back from [a detention] centre and writes an article for the ABC or a newspaper documenting – in that person’s clinical opinion – the long term physical or mental harm that’s being meted out to asylum seekers, that person could go to jail.”

On the other hand, by obeying the Act doctors are likely to contravene the Medical Board of Australia’s codes of conduct, putting them in a position where they could be sued or charged with professional misconduct.

Psychiatrist Peter Young maintains that under the Act health professionals will not even be able to discuss conditions at the centres with each other, hold peer reviews or conduct clinical supervision.

Dr Andrew Morrison from the Australian Lawyers’ Alliance has warned: “The government’s new Border Force Act leaves doctors in an impossible position. It is basically asking doctors to choose between themselves and their patients.”

Moreover, according to on-line journalist Ben Eltham under the Act “the evidentiary burden falls on the defendant”, i.e. those accused of breaking the Act will have to prove their innocence, rather than the government having to prove their guilt.

The militarisation of immigration

Last Thursday the departments dealing with immigration and customs were merged to form the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, which will operate the paramilitary, fully-armed Australian Border Force.

Dutton claimed proudly: “…secrecy provisions in the department are in line with partner and like agencies such as the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Defence Force”. However, Greg Barns says the Border Force Act “effectively turns the [former] Department of Immigration into a secret security organisation with police powers”.

Despite Australia’s ratification of the UN Refugee Convention, the government bans asylum seekers who arrive by boat from entering Australia. Julian Burnside, barrister and human rights activist, claims the secrecy about whatever happens to them in the detention centres resembles the secrecy surrounding US prisoners in Guantánamo Bay.

Meanwhile the government is implementing “boat turn-back” policies, which include the bribing of boat crews to take refugees back to Indonesia, enraging the Indonesian government. Those who criticise government policy, such as Human Rights commissioner Gillian Triggs, are subjected to vicious personal attacks.

The Abbott government’s arrogance, duplicity, obsessive secrecy, callous disregard for human rights, and highly dangerous drift towards dictatorial rule is nowhere more apparent than in immigration policy.

But the Labor opposition, which voted for the Border Force Act, doesn’t seem concerned. When asked about its impact last week, ALP leader Bill Shorten didn’t seem aware that it was already in operation.

Neither of the two major parties will amend Australia’s appalling immigration policies. The Australian public must look elsewhere to achieve that vital objective.

Next article – Citizenship – Rights jettisoned

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