Refugees, Security Risks, and ASIO

The Abbott Nightmare

There go the extremists again, with their assumptions of guilt in advance and embrace of the paranoid and fanciful. And they do not come any more extreme than Mr. Tony Abbott, leader of the Liberal National Coalition who is cruising, on latest polls, to victory on September 8. The problem here is that an Abbott-led government is going to take the scissors to the Refugee Convention with manic purpose while enforcing a regime of permanent detention.

The topic is tedious and unnecessarily vicious. Asylum seekers and the seeking of refuge, mocked and restricted for years in Australia, are now being taken into the next circle of a legal limbo. Unlike Kevin Rudd, who remains a husk of an individual, morally eviscerated and desperate, Abbott believes in what he is doing. Neither likes the obligations of international refugee law, but Rudd uses a bludgeon because he believes he has to steal votes from marginal seats. Abbott cuts because he knows he wants to. He violates laws because he feels he needs to.

We know what the opposition wishes to do on the subject of the humanitarian refugee intake when it gets into power. It will shrink it. It will stifle it. It will choke it. Australia remains privileged in the refugee scrap, distant, sharing no borders, affluent to the point of apathy and stingy indifference. Invariably, the person seeking refuge is immediately economic, an inconvenience, a nuisance.

Even more striking here is the promise of closing an independent review of ASIO security assessments. These broad brush assessments have condemned 50 refugees, including a mother and her three children, to indefinite detention. This is a form of cruelty by administration, the infliction of incarceration by other means. Importantly, it reeks, to some degree, of the legal limbo that extra-legal centres such as Guantanamo Bay offer.

The belief here resembles the more archaic, spluttering wing of the U.S. Republican party. Refugees are the cannon fodder of modern politics, a detritus the affluent world wishes did not exist. If they do arrive, they deserve punishment. If they are determined as genuine refugees, a “security threat” designation is effectively the kiss of death. Officials in the Coalition are deaf to international legal protocols.

The coalition statement in response to questions posed by the Law Council of Australia on various legal issues is striking. “ASIO rulings in relation to the security risk posed by a person in immigration detention will not be reviewable under the Coalition.” What the Abbott proposal does is to ensure the means of indefinite detention past the election date.

For the Coalition, such assessments by ASIO were of “extreme importance”. We should not be surprised by this, given the statements made in February by chief opposition whip Warren Entsch who claimed that he did not “believe that ASIO rulings should be reviewable.”

In the manner of the ignorant person who claims he knows everything, matters of judgment are to be left to the intelligence organisation as if it was intelligent. This assumption of omniscience on the part of ASIO is highly problematic, given that two adverse findings have been overturned after Labor set up a review process in October. It also denies ASIO’s own self-admitted sense of falling into error, the organisation itself having reversed its findings in two cases – one involving a mother and her child. Astonishingly, the other case involved a detainee who was detained for more than four year without any knowledge of the case against him.

The person entrusted with the review process – federal court judge Margaret Stone – will find herself with much less work on her hand, given that she is presiding over 40 cases. Eight adverse assessments have been upheld. One of the assessments would not have passed the rigour of a court, but no one seems particularly bothered. The law on refugees has gone into something of a hibernation in Australia.

The UN Human Rights Committee had little time for the indefinite dentation of “ASIO negative” refugees which was “cumulatively inflicting serious psychological harm” of the doomed subjects. For the baffled members of the committee, nothing short of a barbarism has been affected in Australia, given the “arbitrary” nature of the indefinite detention regime for those refugees who fall into the category of being a security risk. Those in such a position are not entitled to know the allegations of ASIO against them.

The High Court now finds itself reviewing the situation of Ranjini, mother of three, whose third child was born in detention in January this year. From a state of living in freedom in Victoria, she found herself in incarceration for reasons connected with her husband who was killed during the Sri Lankan civil war. The Tamil Tiger slur loomed large. We can only hope that the justices of the highest court in the land will attempt to shed light on the dark night of legal exceptionality that stalks refugees in Australia accused of being security risks. Under an Abbott government, it promises to get darker.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.