Concerns mount over Australian immigration bill
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, or ASRC, says a Bill which would allow force to be used in immigration detention would encourage a greater culture of abuse and mistreatment.
Australian legislators are considering changing the law to cope with repeated reports of violence and unrest at immigration detention facilities in Papua New Guinea, Nauru and onshore.
Amendments to the Migration Act would make immigration officers largely immune from liability for using force on detainees, if it is believed necessary to protect others in detention or maintain good order.
Mary Baines reports.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre chief executive officer Kon Karapanagiotidis says the powers in the Bill are excessive, allowing the use of force in a broad range of circumstances with virtually no oversight or recourse.
KON KARAPANAGIOTIDIS: Why would you want to give guards that are poorly trained in a poor culture the power to use force without oversight, unless you're wanting these guards in reality to torture asylum seekers, unless you're wanting to create a culture of abuse that was beyond the reach of law? These laws actually give these guards more power than prison guards do in Australian prisons. Why would you do that? Why would you treat refugees worse than criminals?
Mr Karapanagiotidis says there have already been incidents where officers have abused their powers and used excessive force on detainees, and broadening those powers could be dangerous.
He references the murder of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati and the injuring of about 70 others by officers during protests on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea in February last year.
And he says there is distressing evidence of physical and sexual abuse by guards against women and children in Nauru detention, as outlined in the Moss Report released in March.
KON KARAPANAGIOTIDIS: It's a recipe for disaster. Once you give those guards even more power against a community that's already in overcrowded situations, in limbo, without proper processing, without any safety guards and protections, you're just asking for trouble, and you're just asking for a greater culture of abuse and mistreatment.
A former Supreme Court judge in Australia, Stephen Charles, says the law would allow officers to beat asylum seekers to death with impunity.
Mr Charles says the amendments would make it harder to bring legal action against a guard who inflicted harm, and may even encourage it.
In his submission, he says the law would allow an officer to use lethal force without criminal charge if it is believed the force was used "in good faith" or if it was "reasonably believed" it was necessary.
He says that is a subjective standard, and would allow for excessive force to be used in almost any circumstance.
STEPHEN CHARLES: The Bill gives permission for an authorised officer to act in a way that could cause grievous bodily harm if the authorised officer "reasonably believes" that it is necessary to do so. A duty of care is owed to asylum seekers who are detained in Australian-funded detention centres. Allowing such officers to cause grievous bodily harm is unacceptable. It will cause similar human rights abuses to those which occurred at the Manus Island detention centre in February 2014.
The Human Rights Law Centre in Australia has raised concern about increasing powers to use force while decreasing checks and balances on the exercise of those powers.
Its director of legal advocacy, Daniel Webb, says Australia is the only country in the world that subjects asylum seekers to mandatory and indefinite detention as a first resort.
He says the average length of time people are spending in immigration centres is now more than 400 days.
Mr Webb says instead of creating excessive and unchecked powers to suppress unrest, its root causes should be addressed - the amount of time innocent people are being locked in limbo.
Children Out of Immigration Detention, or ChilOut, has also raised concern at the Bill.
Its campaign manager Claire Hammerton says under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Australia is obliged to ensure children are given special protection.
Ms Hammerton says the Bill would allow force to be used in situations such as peaceful protests, and does not rule out using force on children.
CLAIRE HAMMERTON : Children may very well be present at the time of there being some kind of disruption, protest, and what this Bill does is effectively mandates the use of very severe force that we would say is completely inappropriate in relation to children. And there are absolutely no safeguards in the Bill for protecting children in such circumstances.
But a contractor, International Health and Medical Services, or IHMS, is in support of the Bill.
In its submission, IHMS, which has about 260 staff at Australian-run detention centres, says it has seen an increase in violent and aggressive behaviour.
Its regional managing director Michael Gardner says that includes the damaging of furniture, walls and doors, throwing objects, and some isolated incidents of inappropriate touching and physical aggression.
He says there has been a small number of serious attempts to harm IHMS staff, in which individuals have had to be physically restrained by security staff.
MICHAEL GARDNER: In the majority of cases the common law right of self-defence has been sufficient to meet our needs. Given, however, the potential for serious repercussions should security personnel not have the capability to restrain an individual harming or threatening to harm himself or another person, IHMS supports the provision of resources to authorised officers to enable them to manage the safety, security and peace of the immigration detention facilities. The Commonwealth and Immigration Ombudsman Colin Neave says he is broadly comfortable that the measures included in the Bill are appropriate.
In his submission, he says he takes issue that the Bill only allows officers to use force in an immigration detention facility.
COLIN NEAVE : We suggest that these provisions should also apply in situations where detainees are in transit between facilities and other locations that are not considered to be alternative places of detention such as medical facilities. It is often the case that the use of force, particularly in relations to restraints, is necessary in these circumstances.
The Bill is the subject of a Senate inquiry that is due to report next month, of which about 100 submissions from individuals and organisations will be considered.
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