As the federal government rushes to increase the capacity of its immigration detention centres to relieve pressure on its overloaded system, questions are being asked about the length of time taken by ASIO to complete security assessments of asylum seekers — nine hundred genuine refugees continue to languish in detention awaiting clearance.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced yesterday that a new $9.2 million detention centre would be established at Wickham Point, 35 km south-east of Darwin. The facility would be ready to house 500 asylum seekers by the middle of this year, he said, before eventually moving to a capacity of 1500.

While much of the increased strain on the government’s has been attributed to an increase in asylum seeker boat arrivals, pressure is also beginning to increase on the role of ASIO. Each asylum seeker who arrives offshore is submitted to a security check by ASIO. They can be held indefinitely, as there is no time limit for ASIO to complete the checks.

A review into the administration of intelligence agencies is currently underway, with a submission from ASIO released today declaring that the agency had received 811 complaints last year about delays in security checks. In 2009–10, ASIO completed 38,438 visa Security Assessments (compared with 59,884 in 2008–09) — including 2,822 for “irregular maritime arrivals”.

In a senate estimates hearing last week, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) revealed that 900 people who have been accepted as genuine refugees are still waiting in detention centres because ASIO has not completed their security checks — a number which has grown from 330 last October. Most of these people are being held on Christmas Island.

Greens immigration spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told Crikey that the situation is unfair and that it denies genuine refugees natural justice. Hanson-Young is pushing for a system similar to New Zealand, where she said the Inspector General has the power to review a security assessment that is rejected or takes undue time.

“What we are seeing is very vulnerable people who in all other senses are genuine refugees who remain locked up in detention centres,” Hanson-Young told Crikey. “Despite the constant political argy bargy about people being genuine refugees, what we are finding here is that these people are still being treated as criminals.”

According to a Lateline report, it now takes an average of 66 days for ASIO to perform a security check — about a month longer than it took in 2009. According to its submission to a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) review, ASIO found nineteen adverse security assessments in 2009-10. Fourteen of these adverse assessments were issued on counter‐terrorism grounds, with the rest relating to espionage or foreign interference.

Under the current system, DIAC do not control how ASIO conduct security checks. They can ask for a case to be prioritised, but the security agency is not obliged to act on the request. According to the Lateline report, the delays are causing frictions between DIAC and ASIO. ASIO did not appear before senate estimates last week to explain the delays.

Hanson-Young says this isn’t good enough. The Senator has been pushing for answers from ASIO about the time taken to complete security checks for two years, but to no avail.

“Two years ago I asked them and I got no answers. Now it’s clear that they have a total backlog which they can’t process,” she said. “They are keeping innocent children refugees locked up and they’re not prepared to give any answers.”

Resources were also of concern, said Hanson-Young. According to the senate estimates hearing, DIAC staff had increased from 35 to 170 in the last year. Hanson-Young could not find answers as to whether ASIO had provided a similar increase.

According to its submission, the security agency diverted resources to undertaking security assessment of asylum seekers for DIAC. Consequently, the resources available to assess protection visa and other refugee referrals were “limited” and this caseload experienced delays.

“Given these resource pressures, ASIO has implemented measures to ensure all security assessment cases receive attention, including quarantining resources in the form of a dedicated team responsible for protection visas and other complex non‐IMA visa cases; and working very closely with DIAC to ensure visibility of the overall visa security assessment caseload and agree priorities.”

Submissions to the PJCIS review have been made by advocacy groups, including the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Refugees Survivors and Ex-Detainees. Both groups said they had made myriad complaints to both ASIO and the Inspector‐General of Intelligence (IGIS) about the length of time taken to compete security checks.

But in its submission to the PJCIS, ASIO claimed that an increase in complaints about security checks did not indicate an increase in issues or failings by ASIO and could be a motivated by advocates seeking to reduce visa processing times:

“The majority of these visa‐related complaints to the IGIS appear to be attempts to accelerate visa processing times and do not indicate problems in ASIO’s processes or significant levels of delay in reaching assessments.”

As of 4 February 2011, there were 6659 people in immigration detention, including 4086 being held on the mainland and 2573 on Christmas Island. Of these, 1027 were children. More than 3000 had been in detention longer than six months.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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