Five minutes after yesterday’s Crikey story about the Rudd Government’s rejection of asylum seekers was published, a client of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne was told that his application for ministerial intervention had been refused.

He had come into the Centre to see his lawyer. He went downstairs and attempted suicide. An ambulance took him to hospital.

This is the front line of the experiences under the present push to clear a backlog of requests for ministerial intervention in asylum seeker cases. We run more reports from the front line today here.

Our story yesterday was about an analysis of the use of Ministerial discretions for asylum seekers under the new Rudd Government. Figures from the Victorian-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre suggested that new Minister Chris Evans was being tougher than his predecessors, rejecting more than 97% of cases.

After deadline yesterday the Minister’s office got back to us with a response. Read the whole media release here.

The heart of the Minister’s reply is a claim that the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s figures are not representative of the way in which he is using his discretion.

Evans claims to have considered using his powers in “some 730 cases”, of which he has intervened in 170 cases.

These figures have caused puzzlement in refugee advocacy organisations this morning, because this number of decisions is “nowhere” on their books.

A ring around has established that the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has the largest number of decisions, with the 42 cases on which their analysis was based. Precise figures are not yet available, but it is clear that the totals of decisions received around the nation don’t come anywhere near 730.

It is possible that many decisions are still in the pipeline and the applicants have not yet been notified.

But refugee advocates suspect the Minister’s figuring includes decisions made under the quite different Section 351 of the Migration Act, which concerns ministerial intervention for people who are not refugees, as well as the more contentious Section 417 decisions, which are about asylum seekers.

Crikey has sent questions to the Minister to try and clarify this point, but has not received a response by deadline. It should be taken into account that Evans and his staff are presently in Perth and several hours behind us in time, and our deadlines are punishing for all concerned. We will run his response in full when we receive it.

What we do know is that in New South Wales, there have recently been Ministerial decisions concerning 62 long-term detainees in Villawood detention centre. All the requests for Ministerial intervention have been rejected.

Figures for asylum seekers presently in the community are harder to obtain.

The Minister’s media release also repeats a view he has expressed previously – that Ministerial discretions are overused.

“The industry which has developed around Ministerial intervention is detrimental to the entire immigration system. Many now see Ministerial intervention as a third tier of review, rather than as a check on the system,” Senator Evans says. “Thousands of requests for Ministerial intervention are received each year, most of which are not the unique and exceptional cases that the relevant powers were intended to address.”

This may well be right. It was former Minister Philip Ruddock who caused the big spike in use of the ministerial discretion in refugee cases, and there was lots of controversy about how he used it. It is also true that those who come to the Minister for a decision have already been rejected by the department, the tribunals and often the courts.

And yet refugee advocacy groups claim the present rush of rejections include people who have suffered torture in their home lands, and who fear harm if they are returned to their countries of origin.

Advocates admit that not all applications to the Minister are strong cases – but they say many of those being rejected are compelling.

Evans’ media release also points out the good things the new Government plans to do for refugees – such as ending the Temporary Protection Visa regime.

Here are the questions Crikey has today sent to the Minister. We will run his response in full when received.

  1. Concerning the 730 cases and the 170 interventions mentioned in yesterday’s e-mail, can you please clarify whether these are all requests for Ministerial intervention under Section 417 of the Migration Act?

    The reason for the question is that a ring around of refugee advocacy groups this morning has revealed that this number of decisions is “nowhere” on their books. They suspect that these figures include decisions made by the Minister under Section 351, which does not concern refugees.

  2. How many decisions in total has the Minister made under Section 417 since taking office, and what is the breakdown of decisions?
  3. The media release states: “This transparency will extend to providing better information in relation to the exercise of Ministerial discretions, and work on this is well underway.”

    What exactly is planned here? What information will be provided, and to whom?

  4. When will Temporary Protection Visas be abolished?
  5. The government has promised to give refugees work rights and Medicare rights. That has not happened yet. Why not, and when can it be expected?