Earlier this week, the Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Migration released the first report of its inquiry into immigration detention. The report contained 18 recommendations in all, including that any detainee’s maximum stay should be 12 months and that anyone facing deportation should be given counselling and seven days’ warning. Immigration Minister Chris Evans said that the recommendations would inform legislation to be introduced next year to overhaul mandatory detention.
Crikey blogger Andrew Bartlett wrote on Tuesday:
One particularly welcome recommendation from the entire Committee concerns the issue of charging people for the time they have been kept in detention. This issue was the subject of a major piece in Crikey a couple of months ago. I hope this recommendation is acted on by the federal government as soon as possible.
The Committee recommends that, as a priority, the Australian Government introduce legislation to repeal the liability of immigration detention costs.
The Committee further recommends that the Minister for Finance and Deregulation make the determination to waive existing detention debts for all current and former detainees, effective immediately, and that all reasonable efforts be made to advise existing debtors of this decision.
People like Evelyn and Masoud Shams say they share the same hope. They currently have an outstanding Commonwealth debt for Masoud’s detention of $257,225.10. Plus $4,857.50 in legal costs.
Ms Shams told Crikey that the couple are “exhausted from five years of protesting.” According to Ms Shams, her husband Masoud was in detention for four years, from September 2000 — September 2004. Around a year after he was released, Masoud, who sought refuge after arriving from Iran, received notification of his outstanding debt.
“To date we have appealed to both Ministers of Immigration and Finance but have got nowhere… Masoud is being refused a permanent spouse visa until he has agreed to accept the debt and has entered into a payment plan,” Ms Shams said. The government has also suggested in the past “that while Masoud’s ability to pay may be limited, he has a wife whose income should help shoulder the debt.”
According to Ms Shams, the Minister for Finance Lindsay Tanner agreed to investigate the treatment of Masoud while in detention before making a decision on his debt. “We provided our own information to the Minister regarding this, including reports from the UN Human Rights Commission of their acknowledgement of Masoud’s rights being abused, and Masoud’s extended stays in extreme isolation,” says Ms Shams. This was “including nine months kept incommunicado to the outside world and later, punishments that included solitary confinement, once in an unlit soundproof padded cell.”
Just over a fortnight ago the couple received this letter from the office of Senator Nick Sherry, Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law. In the letter below, Sherry wrote:
I am satisfied that Mr Shams was not the victim of unfair or abusive treatment while held in Immigration Detention. I note also that, while he is not currently employed, he has work skills and, at 29 years of age, should expect to participate in the workforce for many years, and would therefore have the capacity to begin repaying the debt at a rate that takes account of his financial circumstances.
Accordingly, under subsection 34(1) of the FMA Act, I have declined to approve waiver of Mr Shams’ debt of $257,225.10 in detention costs and $4,857.50 in legal costs.
According to Ms Shams, her husband Masoud’s brother, whose case for asylum was identical to Masoud’s, received a protection visa two years ago and is soon eligible for citizenship. He never received a bill, “nor have any of the other single guys we know who have been granted protection.”
Masoud is on a ‘temporary’ spouse visa, “which means he can’t leave (has no passport) and he can’t stay unless he pays. His permanent visa is ready but will not be released to him until he has agreed to a payment arrangement,” says Ms Shams.
The government had earlier indicated to Ms Shams that a payment plan should be possible by including her wages and the couple’s home into the calculations.