Asylum-seeker policy at its worst

January 5, 2012

Opinion (From Pamela Curr, ASRC, Melbourne)

WHEN some future historian tells the story of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers since the introduction of mandatory detention in 1992, one of the saddest and cruellest elements of that story will be the plight of Ali Abbas. Ali, who turned 18 on December 31, was accepted as a genuine refugee by the Immigration Department last April. Yet he has also received a negative security assessment from ASIO, so he is denied the resettlement that, as a refugee, he is entitled to receive. As a refugee, he cannot forcibly be repatriated to his country of origin, Kuwait. Yet as a declared security risk, he must remain in detention or be deported. It is Catch-22 in its most perverse form.

ASIO has not explained its negative assessment of Ali, presumably for security reasons. Reasonable people will wonder, therefore, just what someone so young could have done to be deemed a threat. Ali was only 13 when he and his family fled from Kuwait to Indonesia. He was 16 when he arrived at Christmas Island by boat, travelling unaccompanied. He has lived in detention for more than a year, during which time his mental health has deteriorated and he has repeatedly attempted suicide.

According to Professor Jon Jureidini, professor of psychiatry at the University of Adelaide, who conducted two assessments of Ali by video link, his “significant psychological impairment” is “a reaction to being in immigration detention exacerbated by what he must experience as the cruelty of having refugee status but being denied a visa”. A Federal Court judge who is hearing a case challenging the long-term detention of recognised refugees has urged the Immigration Department to move Ali out of the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre to a “supportive residential or family-based environment”.

It is not only Ali’s youthfulness that makes the ASIO assessment a puzzle. Ali was officially informed of the assessment on December 15, the day his lawyers began the Federal Court challenge and when he had not yet turned 18. Yet on December 16 ASIO told a parliamentary inquiry that “as of 22 November” it had not refused security clearance to a minor. Did ASIO’s evidence simply rely on outdated information? Or was the agency trying to mislead?

Ali and his lawyers deserve to know answers to these questions, and so do the Australian people, in whose name both ASIO and the Immigration Department act. The adverse security assessment strains credulity, and Ali’s continued detention shames the nation.

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