Rohingya refugee Harun had been in Australian detention for more than two years when he was told by letter that he would never be a free man in Australia.
Despite being a recognised refugee under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Australian immigration system, Australia’s secret security organisation had decided he was a “threat” and should not be given a protection visa.
Speaking through an interpreter, he told Green Left Weekly from inside the Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin that he feels he is “being punished”. Harun fled Burma and lived in Malaysia for more than 15 years before he took a boat to Australia to try to win protection for his family.
The department of immigration found Harun to be a genuine refugee in April 2010, only a few months after he arrived. But, as with most refugee applications from those who have arrived by boat, the department referred Harun’s case to the Australia Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) for a “security assessment”.
In November, ASIO returned an “adverse assessment” against Harun. The immigration department will use this to deny him a permanent protection visa, without which he cannot be released from detention.
As he has already been proven a genuine refugee, the Australian government cannot deport him back to Burma, where Rohingya people are a persecuted minority.
Resettlement in a different country is a distant possibility, made more difficult now that ASIO has branded him a threat.
This is the case for more than 50 refugees in Australia’s detention centres, who face indefinite detention as a result of an arbitrary process which has come under fire from numerous human rights groups.
One such refugee is 17-year-old Ali Abbas, a Kuwaiti detained for more than a year who has made several suicide attempts. He was told on December 15 that “ASIO had in effect blocked his protection visa application — and his lawyers’ request to move him into the community on medical grounds — by labelling him a security risk”, The Age said on January 7.
Abbas was granted refugee status in April, but like all refugees going through this system he was kept in detention while being investigated by ASIO.
The Darwin Asylum Seekers Advocacy and Support Network said Abbas tried to hang himself shortly after hearing the news ASIO had failed him, and had “scratched ‘freedom’ into his arm with a razor”.
The federal court ruled in late December that he should be released from detention into supervised community accommodation where he can receive better care for “mental trauma”, ABC Online said. But the immigration department has not acted. The Greens have also called for an immediate end to ASIO’s security checks on those under 18 because of potential breaches of human rights. ASIO said it had issued 304 “non-adverse security assessment” rulings to unaccompanied minors between 16 and 18. Abbas was the first to be given a negative check.
ASIO is not obliged to be transparent or accountable in the security assessment process. Harun and Abbas have not been told what information or sources were used in their assessments. And ASIO does not need to provide proof because, under the act, the agency can refuse to disclose any information that may “in the opinion of the Director-General, be contrary to the requirements of security”.
They were never able to give any evidence in their defence. Harun said he tried to submit a letter of recommendation from a lawyer he worked for in Malaysia, “but they refused it”.
As “non-citizens”, refugees cannot challenge or appeal ASIO’s decision.
Harun has considered taking his case to court to seek a judicial review. But for refugees who can rely on only legal aid or pro bono support, this is another drawn out process. He said it would take six to nine months to even have his application to be heard in court accepted.
During questioning by the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network, ASIO director-general David Irvine said assessments were categorised according to Section 4 of the ASIO Act. “That includes espionage, sabotage, threats to our defence systems, promotion of communal violence, and protection of border integrity”, he said.
“Here, the particularly relevant one is an issue of politically motivated violence, which of course, contains within it the whole question of terrorism.”
This taps into heavily stoked fears in Australia that terrorists will enter Australia disguised as refugees in boats, despite the fact that this has never happened.
Irvine also told the committee that between January 2010 and November last year, of the roughly 7000 refugees arriving by boat that ASIO assessed, 54 were labelled a security threat (11 of these have been in the last three months).
This includes a Tamil couple held in Villawood detention centre with their three young children, many other Tamils, Afghans, Pakistanis, Rohingyas from Burma and Kurdish Iranians.
Irvine said 66,000 security checks on asylum seekers not arriving by boat were completed in the last two financial years resulting in only 24 “adverse assessments”.
Harun said he has no interest in remaining in Australia after being locked up, demonised and ignored. He now hopes to return to Malaysia. He relies on sleeping pills and anti-depressants to cope with the despair and isolation.
Refugees advocates hold strong fears for Abbas, who was continuing to self-harm after being moved from detention in Darwin to Melbourne.