Limiting Refugees' Access To Justice


It’s been spun as a way to save money and increase the efficiency of the public service — but a Coalition plan to amalgamate a series of tribunals into a single entity is also likely to limit asylum seekers’ access to justice.

Earlier this month the Coalition announced the merger of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Refugee Review Tribunal, Migration Review Tribunal, Social Security Appeals Tribunal and Classification Review Tribunal, following up on a pre-election commitment from Tony Abbot to abolish the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) altogether.

Currently, the RRT deals exclusively with applications for protection visas and reviews negative assessments made by the Department of Immigration and Border Control (DIBC). This arrangement is set to expire on July 1 2015 after it is subsumed into a broad merits appeal body, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The grant of a protection visa allows an applicant to live and work in Australia as a permanent resident and entitles them to access Centrelink and Medicare services.

“The amalgamation is part of the Government’s overall aim to attain greater efficiencies in the Australian Public Service and to provide a single body for external merits review,” a spokesperson from the Refugee Review Tribunal said.

However, refugee groups have questioned the efficacy of the decision.

Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power contends that reevaluating mandatory detention would be a better way to rein in government spending. “The best way of saving money in detention is reassessing who actually needs to be detained and only detaining those for whom it's required”, he told SBS World News Radio.

Power’s comments are supported by the Commission of Audit, which found that processing a refugee offshore costs more than four times as much as community detention, and ten times as much as placing them on a bridging visa.

Refugee Advice and Casework Service’s principal solicitor Katie Wrigley told New Matilda that “merits based decision making bodies such as the MRT and RRT operate efficiently when they are properly resourced to do so. If [the proposed changes]took resources away, then I would query whether efficiency in decision making is likely to result.”

“The RRT as a whole does the best it can with limited resources to cope with a large amount of work,” Wrigley said.

Between July 2013 and April 2014, the RRT handed down 2,859 decisions relating to the provision of protection visas, out of 6,015 applications lodged. 47 per cent of these cases had been finalised with 53 per cent still under review. Though the number of decisions handed down by the RRT has fluctuated over the last couple of years, the number of review claims lodged has increased significantly from 3,202 in 2011-2012 to 4,229 in 2012-2013.

On average, applicants are kept waiting 250 days before the RRT reaches a decision. Held in detention until their claims are fully processed and a decision is handed down, asylum seekers are held at sites like Villawood and Christmas Island, where instances of self-harm, starvation, and assault have been reported as a regular occurrence.

Those intercepted at sea and sent to offshore centres like Nauru and Manus face similarly cruel conditions. It is in these administrative gaps — in this limbo of hope and despair — that anxieties are not only compounded, but relived.

Notwithstanding its lengthy review periods, the RRT has been lauded as a bulwark against ‘the culture of no’ that permeates and informs the Department of Immigration and Border Control’s attitude towards asylum seekers. Indeed, departmental figures, concerning the period July 2012 to March 2013, revealed that 74 per cent of applicants filed successful challenges against initial visa rejections.

Research previously undertaken by New Matilda into the RRT’s overturn rates further confirms the efficacy of the Tribunal as a powerful check against the department.

Significantly, it was found that application results were often coded across country-of-origin and method of arrival lines: in 2012, with respect to arrivals by boat, 90 per cent of rejected applications from Afghanistan were overturned at review, 79 per cent for Iran, 75 per cent for Iraq, 72 per cent for Pakistan and 82 per cent for Sri Lanka.

Treasurer Joe Hockey highlighted the primacy of border security in his budget night address.

“The first duty of a Government is to protect our people and strengthen our borders,” he said. “The Government has already taken strong and decisive action to restore the integrity of our borders.”

Like much else in the Abbott Government’s first budget, the decision to collapse the RRT into a broth of vaguely related government agencies appears a decision motivated by ideology and not some confected “budget emergency”. Instead, it reflects their broader border agenda: to further damn Australia’s refugee intake and sever asylum seekers’ access to justice.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.