Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Jailed for seeking protection

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Labor sinks to new lows on refugees

On Tuesday January 15 a healthy baby boy was born in a Sydney hospital, welcomed by his mother, father and two brothers. But unlike all the other babies born in this hospital on this night, little Paartheepan faces a life in prison.

Paartheepan’s mother, Ranjini, is currently living in indefinite detention in one of Australia’s refugee prisons. Ranjini has been found to be a genuine refugee from Sri Lanka and has been granted refugee status by the Australian government. No charges of any kind have been laid against her. No evidence of any wrongdoing has been presented to justify her imprisonment. Yet she faces jail for life without the right of appeal.

Ranjini is one of over fifty refugees currently in indefinite detention after receiving negative ‘security assessments’ from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

A number of these refugees had been living in the community prior to their abrupt return to detention on the basis of negative ASIO assessments. Ranjini herself had begun to build a life in Australia, including getting married and becoming pregnant with her third child.

After being called in to a supposedly routine meeting with a caseworker from the Department of Immigration, Ranjini, accompanied by her two sons Pirai, 8, and Kathir, 6, was informed upon arrival that she had failed a security assessment and that herself and hers sons would be immediately sent to Villawood detention centre in Sydney.

To this day Ranjini has been given no information as to why she failed ASIO’s security assessment or what security threat she supposedly poses. Yet she cannot be deported back to Sri Lanka as the Australian Government acknowledges the genuine threat of persecution she would face if returned. However, she will never – under the current system – be released back into the community.

There have been a series of court challenges to this callous legal limbo imposed on refugees with so-called negative security assessments. In a 2011 Federal Court case, two refugees attempted to challenge their ASIO security assessments. In court, ASIO did not provide any evidence that these refugees were a risk to security in any way. In fact, ASIO argued that because the court had no knowledge of what evidence was used to determine negative security assessments in these cases, the court could not rule that ASIO had determined incorrectly!

In December, the Federal Court heard a case of an unaccompanied minor held in detention since his arrival in Australia at the age of 15. He has been given a negative security assessment by ASIO. He cannot be sent to his country of origin due to the genuine threat of persecution, yet he will not be released into the community.

In this case the Federal Court Judge ruled “The applicant will be a minor, in immigration detention, indefinitely and until he can be deported. That may be a very long time.”

Last October the High Court of Australia (the peak of the Australian judicial system) ruled that refugees could not lawfully be detained indefinitely on grounds of negative ASIO security assessments. However, none of the refugees with negative ASIO assessments have yet been released from detention, with ASIO still unilaterally deciding their fate with no process of appeal.

The Orwellian situation facing these refugees, whereby they are granted ‘protection’ by the Australian government on the grounds of persecution in their homeland, yet face life in prison without trial in Australia, is just one of the horrific absurdities that constitutes Labor’s refugee policies.

Offshore, but no ‘processing’

The Gillard government’s latest tactic in relation to refugees is to not process their claims at all. After re-establishing offshore ‘processing’ on Nauru and Manus Island (PNG), the Labor Party has sunk to lows not even former Prime Minister John Howard could reach.

Aside from the third-world conditions forced upon asylum seekers sent to these island jails, they have still been given no information as to if and when their claims for asylum will be processed. They are denied basic access to legal representation and are treated as prisoners despite committing no crime.

Further to this, Department of Immigration officials are enacting a policy of ‘screening out’ at these offshore facilities. The screening out applies to asylum seekers who are intercepted at sea or arrive in territories excised from the Australian migration zone. It consists of a short, informal interview with an official, after which asylum seekers are denied their right to formally claim asylum.

Refugee lawyer Michaela Byers explained: “At the entry interview, which is conducted by a Commonwealth officer, the [asylum seeker] is not provided with any advice about the purpose of the interview or, most importantly, not advised that they have the right to access independent legal advice…Screened-out [asylum seekers] are then put on a pathway for removal from Australia. This decision is not recorded nor are reasons given in writing for the decision…It is extremely concerning that ‘faceless’ officers in Canberra make ‘life and death’ decisions based on written interview summaries made by others, and that these same procedural rules are also applied to unaccompanied children.”

So far the Government has refused to provide details of the ‘screening out’ process, instead recently choosing to grant a group of Tamil asylum seekers another chance to claim asylum rather than defend the practice of ‘screening out’ before the courts.

No solutions from the major parties

In a federal election year we can expect an intensification – both ideological and systematic – of attacks on refugees. It has become the norm for both Labor and Liberal to use the issue of asylum seekers to distract and divide people, especially at election time. Rather than admit they share the same policies that have led to an increasing gap between rich and poor, the major parties prefer to pass blame onto the most vulnerable in society.

So too can we expect an increase in struggle from refugees themselves, so desperate has their situation become. The protests, hunger strikes, suicides and self harm that have so far characterised 2013 will continue.

In this environment refugee advocates must step-up our attempts to build a movement demanding an immediate end to the devastating policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing.

While the Greens claim to stand for a more humane approach towards refugees, this cannot be achieved under a system geared towards increasing the profits of a few at the expense of the many. A purely legalistic approach to refugee policy will always fail to address the fundamental cause of war and poverty asylum seekers flee. Nor can such an approach address the degradation of living standards that leads to racist or nationalist ideas amongst ordinary people.

Only a socialist programme based on bringing society’s wealth into collective public ownership can offer an alternative to war, poverty and racism. By using the immense wealth that exists to provide homes, services and employment to all, a democratic socialist society would ensure a decent standard of living for everyone, including refugees.

By Mel Gregson