Government refugee secrecy fails

Forty-eight hours to send newly arrived refugees back the way they came and a plan to conceal when boats are “turned around” at sea, were among immigration minister Scott Morrison's statements at his first weekly briefing under “Operation Sovereign Borders” on September 23.

Morrison said the government would aim to speed up the transfer of asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and Nauru, aiming for a 48-hour turnaround. The details of these procedures would be revealed only at a weekly briefing, which means countless people would be detained and shipped out again with no public or legal scrutiny.

Morrison said “more than half” of the refugees that had arrived since the election have already gone. Eight vessels carrying about 500 people, including crew, have arrived since Prime Minister Tony Abbott took office.

The government has already trashed Labor's protocols of having customs record when a new boat arrives.

In response to the Coalition government's attempts to shut down information about boat arrivals, Christmas Island shire president Gordon Thomson set up a Twitter account.

“State secret #3: 30 on Refugee boat escorted to Christmas Is by HMAS Maitland [and one other]. Unloading 3.30pm [Christmas Island] time,” he wrote on September 22. This was confirmed by Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell who is heading up Operation Sovereign Borders.

Thomson told ABC radio: “We can tell the world, which is what we're doing … The government should be not trying to keep secrets, and we'll doing everything we can to provide the information.”

He said the Australian residents on Christmas Island would make every effort to maintain public awareness and thwart the government's attempts to cover up the issue.

Similar efforts are underway in Darwin, where local refugees advocates have been fighting to prevent the covert deportation of several Vietnamese families. Calls from the Wickham Point detention centre on September 24 reported that a family including two children and a teenager were taken from the compound with their parents.

This followed news last month that Vietnamese security officials were permitted access to Australia's detention centres in Sydney, Darwin and Yongah Hill near Perth. About 100 Vietnamese detainees were interrogated by the officials at Yongah Hill alone, the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN) said.

This means Australia has willfully exposed the identities and records of people subjected to state-sanctioned political persecution in Vietnam.

Most Vietnamese refugees in Australian detention are Catholics from Nghe An Province, where abductions, arrests and a recent violent crackdown have taken place. Many Catholic Vietnamese people are blacklisted for political reasons.

The family from Wickham Point have reportedly won a brief reprieve pending legal review. But DASSAN says more than 100 Vietnamese people have been forcibly deported since August last year. This includes a father and two children who were deported from Villawood detention centre in Sydney on September 11, soon after the Vietnamese officials' visit.

The local news has also taken up the fight to make boat arrivals public. In a “shroud of secrecy”, a boat carrying 19 probable asylum seekers arrived in Darwin's harbour days after Morrison's press conference. Nine News Darwin said a customs officials answered questions of the passengers' status by saying: "I don't have the ability to say anything on that as you know from the policy announced a few days ago.”

Nine's reporter said that while the government “tried to stop the boats, it's not going to stop the cameras of Nine News Darwin”.

The website Refugee Rights Watch is also taking the initiative to form a public record of arrivals, as well as events in detention centres, deportation alerts and when boats are in distress at sea. A Facebook page, "Boat Leaks", has also been established to collate citizen reporting of boat arrivals.

The Coalition has instigated a full-scale assault on not only refugees, but also on the ability of Australian advocates, lawyers and the media to challenge its policy.

Its unprecedented suppression of information, axing legal aid for refugees and permitting immigration to process and deport refugees in a 48-hour period makes the need to fight the government more urgent — and difficult — than ever.

Sydney campaigners will show opposition to the government's bid to force refugee arrivals into secrecy by protesting outside Morrison's office on October 19. Plans are also underway to convergence on Canberra when parliament resumes in November.

But small pockets of resistance are already underway, from the online fight to leak information to the ongoing protests around the country. A nationally united campaign would allow the refugee movement to build its numbers and take the fight to the next level.