‘Frauds’ granted refugee status
An asylum-seeker boat arrives at Christmas Island in April. One former Immigration Department official says many asylum-seekers are less interested in seeking protection than in gaining work
THE refugee determination process in Australia is a sick and dysfunctional farce. This is the verdict of people at its coalface. Their collective judgment is that you could get a blind donkey refugee status in Australia.
It is not that the system is run by bad people, certainly not by corrupt people. But the system is so loosely designed, so completely open to manipulation by asylum-seekers, people-smugglers and community groups emotionally committed to asylum-seekers, and then interacts inappropriately with the Australian legal system, that it has become a multi-billion-dollar joke that is more or less completely worthless.
This week I have spoken to a number of serving and former Immigration Department officials, members of the Refugee Review Tribunal, the independent assessments review body and workers at various detention centres.
I have obtained a copy of a written account by a former senior Immigration Department official. It is very depressing. The official writes: “In the case of boatpeople, most are flying to Indonesia or Malaysia and there has been a growing trend to effectively prebook their voyage. They are less interested in seeking protection than in gaining work and residence rights in Australia. These are people who would largely be ineligible for normal migration but by claiming to be in fear of persecution they are usually allowed to stay in Australia, even though many will later visit their homeland once they have an Australian passport.
“I can confidently say that we are approving large numbers of people who are fabricating claims, and indeed the current refugee determination system works in favour of those who are most adept at spinning a yarn.
“That is not to say that myself, and others, did not deal with people who had been badly affected by generalised violence in countries like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, but this is quite different from having a credible contemporary claim of persecution. It appeared to me the majority of people I was dealing with had been fed claims which were known to be the sort of statements that were being accepted for approval.
“I remember one young applicant saying to me that it is known in the detention centre that you had to say you had been kidnapped if you wanted to be approved, and it is this sort of enhancing and inventing of claims, no doubt aided by the communications facilities we provide to the detainees, which is contributing to the deluge of boat cases we are currently experiencing.
“There was a small number of claimants who were being honest and these people often told quite sad stories of poverty, owing money lenders, being involved in family disputes (or) being threatened because of a romantic involvement. Such claims were likely to be refused for being outside the (Refugee) Convention but if a vague story was presented involving threats by groups like the Taliban or the Sri Lankan military, such applications were more likely to be approved. As the Captain Emad episode showed, it is easy to hide your identity, and even your nationality, in the refugee process, so presenting a fabricated story is not a difficult undertaking.
“Unlike other visa classes there is no objective criteria …
“There is a benefit of the doubt test in the convention which weights the decision-making process towards the applicant and various court decisions have leant towards the view that if a claim cannot be disproved then it is difficult to refuse.
“While there is some public acknowledgment that many members of ethnic communities in Australia are paying and organising (at least in part) the travel of friends and relatives on the boats, much less attention is given to those who are monitoring the decision-making process and are identifying the type of claims that are having most success.
“From interviewing many asylum claimants the overwhelming primary objective is to obtain the right to work in Australia. This is so they can send money back to their families and repay loans which have been taken for their travel. There are other factors such as the welfare and houses we provide.”
This experienced immigration officer, like numerous others, refers to the new experience of middle-class Iranian asylum-seekers dissatisfied with social conditions in Iran. A former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal, who also participated in the independent review assessments of refugee claims, told me: “I was dealing with Iranians who had left Tehran a week before arriving at Christmas Island.”
He, like others, spoke of an aggressive entitlement mentality among Iranians. This was backed up by a health worker at a detention centre who said he had told an Iranian there was a three-week waiting list for an appointment with an optometrist. This was no good, the Iranian said. He had money and could pay to go private.
Another worker at the camps described assaults and intimidation of staff that are never reported or acted on and for which asylum-seekers suffer no penalty.
The senior immigration officer says that if the refugee convention is interpreted the way the UN High Commissioner for Refugees wants it to be interpreted, then there is absolutely no limit to the “literally millions” of people who could claim asylum so long as they get to Australia.
The former RRT member says his work was demoralising and meaningless. He was charged with reviewing departmental decisions not to award refugee status to an individual. If he upheld the department’s decision – that is, said no to an asylum claimant – he might have to write 20 to 40 pages of argument justifying his decision as it was certain to be appealed in the courts.
If he overturned the department and recommended granting refugee status, he need only write one page and no one would ever review or question the decision.
While no one told him to decide in favour of asylum claimants, there was an overwhelming pressure to clear numbers as quickly as possible.
This will get worse in the future, as processing is temporarily suspended and a huge backlog is building up.
Refugee acceptance rates after all levels of review are now 95 per cent and above. Any quasi-judicial process that achieves a result like that has to be questioned, he says.
“I would sometimes receive a completely compelling story that was impossible to refuse.
“The problem is I would receive exactly the identical story a hundred times over, with only the names changed. People on Christmas Island would tell me to my face they had copied their story from someone else.”
All the cases that went to court resulted in transcripts produced by the courts. These transcripts, with key winning testimony highlighted, were widely circulated among claimants, and their advocates, at Christmas Island.
What the officials describe is a process degenerated into farce, which costs billions of dollars. Even those who are refused refugee status are not sent back. This system has nothing to do with fairly determining refugee status and nothing to do with protecting Australia’s national interests. It is folly, futility and charade