28 Sep 2015

Gagging of detention staff at core of UN's postponed Australia visit

5:13 pm on 28 September 2015

A leading human rights lawyer has described as appalling Australian government conditions which forced the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants to postpone a fact-finding mission.

Francois Crépeau was scheduled to visit Australia to gather first-hand information about the situation of asylum seekers detained in immigration detention centres, including in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

But he said the new Border Force Act, which sanctions detention centre staff who disclose information about the centres with up to two years in prison, would impact his visit.

Julian Burnside QC says the law has had a chilling effect on those who could reveal the abuse going on in the detention centres.

"It's so crazy that while in ordinary civil society, it's a criminal offence not to report a known incidence of child sex abuse, in the detention system in Australia, it is a criminal offence to report a known case of child sex abuse."

Construction at the Manus Island centre.

Photo: AAP / Department of Immigration and Citizenship

Mr Burnside says Canberra's offshore detention arrangements contravene human rights conventions to which Australia is party.

"There is no doubt that what we're doing in Nauru and Manus is illegal and how long it will take to change it, I just don't know. Ostensibly, the Australian public are concerned about boat people because they're concerned about them drowning in their attempts to reach Australia. That really is very odd when you consider that as an expression of our concern about them drowning, we punish them if they don't drown."

There were signs in recent days of a possible softening of attitude on asylum seeker policy from Australia's new prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

But Mr Burnside says Mr Turnbull reiterated that people held in offshore detention will never be resettled in Australia.

This conjurs potential difficulties because Papua New Guinea is not keen on holding refugees for more than a few years and Nauru, being small and nearly bankrupt, is struggling to keep refugees for more than a few years.

Mr Burnside says the question then is: where will these people go? Around 80 percent of them are found to be genuine refugees.

Only four refugees took up resettlement in Cambodia under the US$38 million deal that Canberra forged with the Asian country to resettle some of the offshore-processed refugees.

The lawyer suggests that it's possible that if the Australian public knew about what goes on in the offshore asylum seeker detention centres, they would want these people to instead be resettled safely in Australia.

no caption

Photo: supplied

A government spokesman called the postponement unfortunate.

He says the government accommodated the requests of the rapporteur to the fullest extent possible, including helping facilitate meetings with government officials and service providers, and visits to the detention network, including offshore asylum seeker processing facilities.

However the spokesman said access to the centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru was a matter for these sovereign nations not Canberra.

This is despite the fact that Australia funds the offshore centres, commissions the contracts to the operators who manage the centres and controls the flow of people in and out of them.

However, while the spokesman says the rapporteur's postponement is disappointing, Australia remains ready to arrange a future visit.

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