Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Matters of Public Interest
Today I want to talk about an important situation concerning many vulnerable refugees, people who have been found to need Australia's protection. They are in genuine need of Australia's protection and we have said that we owe them that protection, and yet they remain in indefinite detention. They are, of course, the 60 men, women and children who have been caught up because they have adverse security assessments.
On Friday last week there was the case before the High Court where the High Court ruled that indeed the indefinite detention, the keeping of these people in detention and not giving them their protection visas, was unlawful. Once again we see the Australian government acting outside Australian law. These people are refugees. Many of them have fled the war in Sri Lanka, some have fled the war in Afghanistan, and some are persecuted Burmese living here in Australia.
Australia is meant to be the land of opportunity. There are many things that make our country great and chief among them is the fact that no matter where you come from, what you look like or who you are, you have the right to a fair trial and a right to a fair go. You have the right to build a life for yourself and to work as hard as you can to build a life for your family, and you have the right in doing all these things to become part of the Australian community and a proud Australian. At the core we are a compassionately minded people here in Australia. This fairness is evident throughout the community. It stretches all the way from our judicial system to the conversations we have around the dinner table in our home. One of the many reasons that I love this country is that the notion of a fair go is so entrenched in our psyche.
An essential part of this fairness is the belief that people must also be accountable for their actions and that if you break the law you have the right to have your day in court. You may be found guilty or you may not be found guilty, but you have the right to have that day in court and to have a trial before being sentenced if found guilty. You are not necessarily guaranteed a favourable outcome, but you are guaranteed the ability to see the evidence before you and the right to plead your case. This is the basic rule of law.
Yet this very essence of the Australian fair go that underpins our legal system and stretches throughout the various parts of our community is being denied to 60 refugees who have arrived here in Australia. They have been given the right to seek protection and they have been found to be owed protection, and yet because ASIO has given them an adverse assessment they have to remain in immigration detention indefinitely and they will not be given visas.
The unfortunate thing about this is that these people have no idea of the case against them. They have not been allowed to see the evidence. They have not been given a statement of reasons why ASIO has made this decision against them. They are not even able to argue whether that information is correct, or to explain it. As a result, the Australian government under the immigration minister keeps these people locked up, imprisoned, despite their already being found to be people who genuinely need our help after fleeing war, torture and persecution, and some of the most brutal experiences in our region.
It is this exact case that the High Court ruled on last Friday, stating that the government could not continue to deny these people their freedom simply because of this ASIO assessment. The government now have an opportunity and there is a choice that they have to make. We can fix this problem. We can put in a fair process and bring Australia back in line with other comparable countries to ensure that, regardless of who you are, what you may look like or what torturous situations you may have fled, you too have a right to a fair go.
If an Australian citizen were found to have an adverse security assessment, they would have a right to a merits review of the case against them. They would be able to understand why ASIO believes they may be a risk. They would be able to argue their case. They would have their day in court, effectively. Currently, under this government and these laws, we are not allowing the same access to justice to a small handful of very vulnerable refugees. The government now has a choice. The High Court has said that the current situation is unlawful. The government needs to amend the ASIO Act to ensure that people do have the right to have their assessments reviewed. People must be able to have the right to know what the findings are against them to understand the reasons why these assessments are being made. They must be offered the same rights of a fair go as everybody else to argue their case.
All of this can be done within the need—I absolutely agree: the important and essential need—to uphold the security of our nation. In other countries this is done through tribunals, with special advocates who can look at the evidence on behalf of the refugee and have the case out with the security agency. This is precisely what Australia should be doing. It is done in the United Kingdom, Canada and various European countries and, indeed, by one of our closest neighbours, New Zealand. This afternoon I will be tabling a bill in this place to address exactly these issues. I urge the government to consider the bill and to consider working with the Greens to ensure we can fix this mess and bring Australia back in line with comparable countries. The High Court has said that the rules have to change because the rules are wrong. The government have a choice: they can either work with the coalition in circumventing the High Court's decision and entrenching what the High Court has said is a bad practice into a bad law, or they can work with the Greens to put in place a fair, just and common-sense system.
As it stands, these people remain in a legal black hole, in indefinite detention with no access to the reasons and no access to information. It has taken the ruling of the highest court in the land to make the government realise that perhaps something is not quite right. That is despite the numbers of these people who have been traumatised further by indefinite detention after they have been found to be genuine refugees. As people who have suffered persecution, brutality and torture and fled war, they are refugees—there is no argument about that—but we have kept them locked up as prisoners, including their children. Amongst the 60 refugees who are caught in this legal black hole there are eight children, one as young as two who was born in the Villawood detention centre. Only last month that child celebrated—if you can use that word; I am not sure what kind of celebration you can have in an immigration detention centre when you have never seen the outside world—turning two.
There are other children who are caught up in this circumstance who, despite being able to go to school, are accompanied there by security officers. There is an eight-year-old girl in Villawood detention centre who has to go to school with a security guard by her side, day in and day out. Her mother said to me that when she gets home from school she asks why can't she have her friends over to stay. Well, of course, you cannot have friends stay with you in an immigration detention centre when you are kept prisoner by the Commonwealth government. She asks her mother why her mother and father are not allowed to work and have jobs. Well, you cannot have a job if the government has decided that, despite your being a refugee who had to flee for your life, you must remain locked up in an immigration prison.
The indefinite nature of these people's circumstance is driving many of them to deep levels of depression, anxiety, self-harm and attempted suicide. The man whose case was before the High Court has attempted suicide several times because he cannot stomach the indefinite nature of his circumstance. There must be a solution to this cruel and damaging circumstance. The government must amend the practices to allow these security assessments to be reviewed and to give people the ability to apply for other means of residence, even if they do end up still being found to pose a level of risk. Australian citizens who have adverse security assessments are not all locked up in prison. In fact, many of them are put on control orders. We do not do even that for these people. The bill that I will introduce into parliament this afternoon will give the ability to have the ASIO assessments reviewed, to have a special advocate, to have a statement of reasons, to have each case tested before a tribunal and to force the immigration minister not to leave these people rotting in indefinite detention. There has to be a mechanism to ensure these people can continue to live their lives.
A young mother, Ranjini, was ripped out of the Melbourne community with her two primary-school-aged children when ASIO decided she was now a risk, despite her having lived in the community as a refugee for five months. Her two boys are terrified. They now live in an immigration prison in Sydney and have no understanding of why that is the case. This poor young mother, who lost her husband in the war in Sri Lanka, came to Australia and was found to be a refugee. She had just started to put her life back together again when the immigration department cut short her hopes. She now remains with her sons in immigration detention indefinitely—until the government does something to fix this.
The High Court has said that this is illegal. The government has acted outside the law. Rather than circumventing the High Court's decision, the government should do the right thing to fix this problem for the long term. It should bring Australia back in line with comparable countries, reinstate the rule of law and insist on a fair process and an end to indefinite detention. This is an opportunity for the government to bring us back in line with the Australian fair go. It should not matter whether you are Australian or not; the fair go extends to all.