ASIO creates asylum limbo
Exclusive: Paul Maley
From: The Australian
July 02, 2010 12:00AM
UP to 150 asylum-seekers are in a state of security limbo because ASIO is unable to decide whether they pose threats to the community.
The 120-150 boatpeople, many of whom are Sri Lankan or Burmese Rohingyas, have been “parked” by ASIO, leaving some in detention for more than 12 months.
The security logjam is contributing to serious overcrowding inside Australia's detention centres.
Senior Immigration officials are privately conceding Australia will be stuck with a detainee population in the hundreds for years to come, irrespective of whether either side of politics can stop the boats.
The Rudd government's freeze on Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum claims, soaring refugee refusal rates and a failure by ASIO to swiftly clear cases are badly clogging the system.
All told, there are more than 3800 boatpeople in Australian detention centres.
Migration agent Libby Hogarth acts for about 60 Tamil asylum-seekers who arrived on two boats in July last year. “They're just sitting up in Villawood or Christmas Island having been told that they're found to be refugees but they're waiting for security,” she said yesterday.
Rohingyas, a Muslim minority group persecuted in Burma, are proving problematic for security assessors.
According to the Immigration Department, 103 Rohingyas have arrived since September, only two of whom have been granted visas.
The president of the Burmese Rohingya community in Australia, Kyaw Maung Shamsul Islam, said security checks were the obstacle.
“(The lawyer) told me (it was) because they have been to many places once they left Burma; they went to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia – four countries,” he told The Australian. “The security clearances take time.”
ASIO declined to comment.
However, ASIO director-general David Irvine has acknowledged the burden refugee security checks had placed on the agency.
“We've had to rationalise our activities in other areas,” Mr Irvine told a Senate committee in May.
“There has been a drop in the number of security assessments completed in other areas.”
ASIO had to perform about 2028 security checks for boatpeople in the six months to March 31. That compared with just 21 checks in 2007-08.
Exacerbating the overcrowding is a review process that lawyers say is failing to cope with the massive volume of new cases.
Under changes instituted by the Howard government, asylum-seekers who arrive by boat do not have access to the courts.
However, in order to provide some oversight, the Rudd government established a so-called independent merits review system that effectively mirrors the refugee review tribunals available to onshore applicants. But as there are just nine reviewers, lawyers say the system is choking.
In March, the average processing time for a merits review hearing was 78 days, according to the Immigration Department.
Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre principal David Manne said that until recently, the review process had functioned efficiently. “But it appears that that process has hit a serious snag,” he told The Australian.
“That is, it appears we're now starting to see the emergence of the real possibility of significant delays in people having their review cases heard and decisions made on them.”
A spokesman for the Immigration Department refused to say yesterday how many cases were before merit reviewers.
The Australian has been told the figure is somewhere between 200 and 300.
The Immigration Department is understood to be recruiting more reviewers, with their numbers expected to at least double.
The question of where to incarcerate the crew members who sail the boats has also become a fraught issue.
Last month, the Liberal government of Colin Barnett protested at the burden placed on the West Australian prison system, which now reportedly holds more than 100 suspected or convicted people-smugglers.
The stoush has prompted authorities to look further afield.
The Australian believes that authorities in Queensland have been told to expect up to 40 prisoners suspected of people-smuggling offences within the next month, with the final figure likely to approach 60.
Related Coverage :
NORTHAM: Asylum support splits town
ASYLUM-SEEKERS: Refuge hope lost as luck runs out
BURMESE: Minority left to languish
Burmese minority left to languish The Australian, 3 days ago
Refugee policy a complex moral and practical issue The Australian, 7 Jun 2010
`Viking' Tamil to challenge ASIO'ssecurity threat ban The Australian, 20 Apr 2010
Burmese group escapes freeze The Australian, 11 Apr 2010
Sorting refugees from rorters Daily Telegraph, 29 Mar 2010