As the new Abbott government prepares to act on its policy promises, thousands of asylum seekers and refugees await the outcome with trepidation.
None more so than the group of about 50 ASIO-rejected refugees, most of whom have spent between three and four years locked away indefinitely because ASIO has determined they are threats to Australia’s national security.
They have good reason for their concern, given that the incoming Attorney-General, George Brandis, has already signalled that he will leave them locked away in their legal blackhole. He was unequivocal back in March, saying that “they had no-one to blame but themselves” because they had entered Australia “illegally”.
This, of course, ignores the fact that seeking haven from persecution is a legal right under the UN Refugee Convention, which Australia has signed.
Brandis said an Abbott government would toughen the policy by wiping out the review by retired Federal Court judge Margaret Stone. This was brought in last year by the Gillard government. It has been the only independent examination, albeit a limited one, of the ASIO assessments.
The new government also plans to ignore the verdict from the UN Human Rights Committee last month, which declared Australia guilty of 143 violations of human rights over its treatment of the ASIO-rejected refugees, and demanded it release them, and compensate them.
The incoming Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, was dismissive of the UN call for release when questioned on the ABC last month: “They are entitled to their view and Australia is entitled to protect its’ national security,” he said.
The fact that ASIO appears to have got it wrong on a number of occasions doesn’t appear to concern the new government.
This was highlighted last week in Melbourne when another Tamil refugee with a negative ASIO assessment was quietly released into the community after being incarcerated for almost four years.
One day this 26-year-old man, who has never been charged with a crime in his life, was termed as such a serious threat to the security of this country that he had to be locked away without hope of release.
The next day, without any proper explanation to him or the Australian public, his cell door was opened and he was free to head back out into the community — a community that was meant to be in such fear of him that he had to be treated worse that the worst of criminals.
The average sentence served for rapists in Victoria is four years 11 months so you can see that this man has been subjected to a severe penalty in the context of our justice system.
Worse, though, than any treatment given to a rapist or even mass murderer, this young Tamil man had to serve his time never knowing if he would ever be released, which mental health experts say is a cruel and damaging extra burden to carry, especially for someone who has never been charged with any crime, or given the chance to defend himself.
The presumption of innocence is a pillar of our democracy. He claims this was denied him at the outset, even though he was judged by the government to be a genuine refugee fleeing persecution and deserving of our protection under the Refugee Convention.
He claims he wasn’t told of any laws he may have broken when he was arrested and imprisoned indefinitely. He wasn’t told how long he would be imprisoned, only that it was to be indefinite, and he wasn’t allowed to see, let alone challenge, the full ASIO evidence against him.
When a person is wrongfully imprisoned, they usually have recourse to legal action to clear their name. At the very least, they are offered some form of compensation for the loss of liberty and the pain and suffering inflicted by a government that has now clearly admitted its mistake.
Yet, none of this has happened. A man lost four years of his life and suffered immense, psychological damage. He has to live the rest of his life with the taint of being an ASIO suspect, and, somehow, he has to find a way to rebuild his life with nothing after enduring a double-dose of terror, firstly in Sri Lanka and then in the country he hoped would protect him.
In May the former attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, declared the release of these people — when ASIO, without explanation, suddenly changed its view of them — was evidence that the system is working well. And the new government agrees.
As with at least two other Tamils who have been released in the same circumstances, and another 50 still held in Australian detention centres, this innocent man is a victim of a system that compares to Guantanamo Bay, where the US has incarcerated people without charge for years.
This month Australia took over the presidency of the Security Council at the United Nations; a month in which the Sri Lankan government was condemned for its violations of human rights by the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay.
During her visit there, she complained that villagers, priests and journalists she had spoken with were targeted by military intelligence. She also highlighted the military occupation in the north, sexual harassment of women and girls, "white van" disappearances, killing of protesters by the military in the south and violence against religious minorities. In summing up, she said Sri Lanka was an increasingly authoritarian country where democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded.
Yet, the previous Labor government has been helping prop up the brutal Sri Lankan regime through aid and active engagement. And this will continue under the Abbott government.
As will Australia’s treatment of the ASIO-rejected refugees, which the UN Human Rights Committee has labelled “cruel, inhumane and degrading” — as well as illegal.
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