The power to “play God” with the lives of asylum seekers was granted to Australia’s immigration minister by the passage of the most punitive refugee laws ever seen last December.
Former immigration minister Scott Morrison, who held refugee children to ransom to pressure recalcitrant senators to concede their votes, pushed through the laws.
Refugee law specialist and former Liberal Party staffer Greg Barns said at the time: “There is no other area of Australian law, whether at local, state or federal level, where a minister has so much power invested in his or her own personal discretion. No area. He can play God with their lives.”
This power was then promptly handed over to the “worst health minister in 35 years” — as voted by 1100 doctors — and the only Liberal frontbencher to refuse to attend the 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations, Peter Dutton.
He stepped into the shoes of his reviled predecessor Morrison as immigration minister soon after the laws passed. Arguably shoes that were too big and cruel to possibly be filled, but Dutton’s latest moves show he is more than willing to wear them, as he finds new ways to strip refugee rights and abuse those in Australia’s care.
Dutton began his reign by rejecting the Human Rights Commission’s report on children in detention. Despite the report revealing catastrophic levels of psychological trauma, and allegations of physical and sexual abuse among children in Australia’s detention centres, Dutton — the legal guardian of unaccompanied refugee children — deemed the report “mostly redundant” and ruled out a royal commission.
He also asserted that refugees owed “gratitude and respect” to the government and people on Nauru, despite recent mass arrests, mistreatment, and violent public assaults being carried out against them.
His contempt was similar for refugees facing transfer to Cambodia — where Australia plans to force families on Nauru to resettle — saying criticisms of the deal “have been lacking substance”. “I think they haven’t been based on fact,” he told the Phnom Penh Post.
Now, he is seeking to give the private security guards in Australian detention centres the power to use force against detained refugees and remove any legal ramifications for such use of force.
A Bill now before a Senate committee, the Migration Amendment (Maintaining the Good Order of Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2015 is now before a Senate committee. It would allow an “authorised officer” to use “reasonable force against any person or thing [to] protect the life, health or safety of any person … or maintain the good order, peace or security of an immigration detention facility”.
New Matilda’s Michael Brull said there was no elaboration on what might be included in “good order” or “peace” of a detention centre.
“Does a protest disrupt the good order of a detention centre?” he wrote. “What if detainees stage a sit-in? What if they chant loudly, at a time when the guards want the centre to be quiet? Good order is essentially a matter determined by the people in charge: the effect of this broad-ranging permission for the use of force is to permit it against those who are judged disobedient or uncooperative.”
The proposed amendments, and accompanying regulations and complaints, are so vague that they strip asylum seekers of any legal rights should they be assaulted in detention.
The Senate committee is receiving submissions on the Bill until April 7 and a report is due May 12.
Dutton is also launching a High Court challenge against a lower court ruling that would trigger Australia’s protection obligations if an asylum seeker was at risk of being detained in their home country.
Dutton wishes to challenge the ruling because it is undermining the government’s ability to return failed refugees. The Federal Court ruling in September last year has saved at least one Tamil asylum seeker from deportation.
In January, refugees on Manus Island begged Dutton to act and let them come to Australia. Such pleas fell on deaf ears, and the Coalition government has set him on a course to be ever more harsh and cruel.
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