How the last security scare over refugees came to nothing

In response to the medical evacuations bill, the Liberals are using every opportunity to scaremonger about asylum seekers posing a threat to national security.

Scott Morrison has announced a plan to transfer sick refugees that the government considers “a risk” to “high security detention facilities” on Christmas Island. The government is claiming there are 57 refugees of “adverse character” on Manus and Nauru it has identified.

This is despite Labor having conceded to Morrison’s scaremongering by introducing an amendment to deny medical transfers to those with a criminal record as well as anyone given ASIO negative security assessments.

But we have heard the same scaremongering about refugees being a risk to “national security” many times before. These claims almost never stack up. ASIO’s national security assessments of refugees are notoriously shaky.

There were 50,000 asylum seekers who arrived by boat over six years after 2009. A total of 57 refugees were given negative security assessments by ASIO in this period.

By 2017, independent reviewers had contradicted ASIO’s negative assessments in all 57 cases reviewed. All 57 of these negative assessments have since been revised by ASIO. This raises questions about the validity of ASIO assessments to this day.

Under the ASIO act, “security” refers to protection from matters including “sabotage”, “espionage”, “politically motivated violence” and “the protection of Australia’s territorial and border integrity from serious threats”. The act also extends to “the carrying out of Australia’s responsibilities to any foreign country in relation to” these matters.

There is a deep problem with the lack of transparency of these assessments. Refugees deemed ASIO-negative are not provided with reasons for the negative assessment, and there is no process that compels ASIO to make this information available, or for refugees to challenge it.

In any case, it is worth examining what the grounds for negative assessments can be. The inclusion of “border integrity” means that links to people smugglers can be a reason for a negative clearance. This presents a telling conflation of “border security” and “national security”. Someone can be considered a threat just for helping to crew a vessel carrying refugees.

Many of the refugees who have had their negative assessments overturned since 2012 were allegedly involved with the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil Tigers pose no realistic threat in the Australian context: they are not classed as a terrorist organisation by the Attorney-General’s Department, and have never been involved in acts of political violence in Australia. That casts serious doubt upon ASIO’s assessment of a person’s capacity for political violence.

ASIO has admitted to relying on information from foreign security services in the past. The Sri Lankan state is accused of genocide against Tamil people and should not be a source of information for such assessments.

Indefinite detention

A High Court decision in 2012 ruled that the government could not deny a person refugee status based on a negative security assessment. Having been deemed a refugee, they then cannot be forcibly sent back to their country of origin under international law. In these cases the government could allow them into the community despite an ASIO assessment, but has instead opted to keep people in detention indefinitely.

One such case was that of Ranjini, a former member of the Tamil Tigers detained in Villawood until 2012. After more than three years in detention, ASIO withdrew her negative assessment and she was released. At no point did ASIO provide her with any reasoning for the negative assessment or what had changed to cause it to be withdrawn.

Needless to say, the devastating impact of indefinite detention is brought into sharp focus by the deaths by suicide of two men detained in Villawood in the last six weeks.

Mistaken identity

One case revealed in the 2017-2018 ASIO annual report is particularly damning evidence as to the validity of ASIO’s assessments. The asylum seeker in this case was assessed to be a member of the Islamic State because his name was similar to that of another person. That negative assessment was overturned in court.

With very little left to run on, it is quite clear that the Liberals will continue to rely on rhetoric about national security in the lead up to the election. Amid this, it is useful to keep in mind that ASIO has proven itself entirely untrustworthy in assessing any supposed threat posed by asylum seekers.

It is as clear now as ever that the government’s scaremongering around “national security” has absolutely nothing to do with concern for peoples’ safety and has everything to do with racist scapegoating of asylum seekers.

By Matilda Fay

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