In a major attack on human rights, the federal parliament passed amendments to the Migration Act making it legal to keep people, who have not committed any crime, locked up for their entire lives.
While Australia has signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, the Migration Amendment (Clarifying International Obligations for Removal) Bill 2021 effectively tears it up.
Greens Senator Nick McKim condemned the new law. It passed on May 13 with the support of the Labor Party.
It seems that hardly anyone knew the bill was going to be debated, precluding a public discussion. There has been virtual silence since from the corporate media.
The law allows the immigration minister to strip a person’s refugee status on a whim — even if their refugee status has been determined by international law.
There is no right of appeal against a minister who uses this power.
This change means continuous uncertainty for refugees whose visas have been cancelled on character grounds.
The immigration minister has the power to grant refugee status and release refugees from detention but, as Alison Battisson of Human Rights for All (HR4A) pointed out, these powers are rarely used.
Battisson denounced the new bill saying that, in Australia, refugees are now detained for 11 years or longer. They are “continually rejected for ministerial intervention,” she told The Guardian, even when “they have no criminal record or behavioural issues”.
A key reason the government introduced the amendments is because it lost a Federal Court case last year involving a refugee who is in long-term detention. That person, identified only as AJL20, could not be returned to his birth country because he faced persecution.
The Federal Court ruled that AJL20’s detention was unlawful and ordered the government to release him on a writ of habeas corpus.
The court also found that the government couldn’t detain refugees without a specific “purpose”, for example to process a claim for asylum, or in the case of deportation.
The AJL20 ruling led to other refugees being released from detention, including many who had been brought to Australia under the now defunct Medevac law.
The new amendments hand the government its aim — to make indefinite detention legal to prevent other court cases from being successful.
Several other legal challenges to the indefinite detention of refugees have come before the courts. But every time the government loses a refugee case, it changes the law.
The changes to the Migration Act have not only legalised the inhumane treatment of refugees, they have also legitimised lengthy detention times.
The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) said less than 3% of people in immigration detention in 2012 were detained for more than two years. That figure has now grown to almost 30%.
Refugees are often held in detention for five years or more; by contrast, on average Canada and Britain hold people for a finite number of days or weeks.
Most refugees in detention for two years or longer cannot return to their country of origin because of a very real threat of persecution. Some of these people are stateless.
Refugees are forced “into an unthinkable choice between spending potentially decades in immigration detention, or agreeing to go back to a country where the federal government recognises they will be persecuted,” said David Burke from the Human Rights Law Centre.
“These new laws allow the Morrison government to warehouse people who have nowhere else to go,” he continued.
We should all be alarmed by this latest attack on civil rights and liberties. While refugees are the main target, once a system of indefinite, unlimited detention becomes established, the government can easily apply such unjust laws to other groups.
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