Asylum seeker advocates have cautiously welcomed moves by ASIO to speed up the way it handles asylum seeker security checks, in a move the government hopes will result in a ”same-day service” for clearances.

But there is still no word on how many of the 900 people who were revealed earlier this year to have been waiting in detention centres for security checks from ASIO have been released, despite being approved for refugee status.

In a response to a Human Rights Commission report into the Villawood immigration detention centre, DIAC revealed its new plan which will see most asylum seekers now being assessed by immigration officers in conjunction with ASIO under a new “triage method”.

Despite DIAC taking a larger role in the checks, ASIO will still control the security checking  process. The federal government hopes there will be some clients that receive “same-day service” for their security check.

Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition, says the security check change is a “welcome step”, but told Crikey there are at least a “couple of hundred” of approved refugees still in detention — despite assurances from the government.

ASIO have claimed in the past the average wait for a security check is 66 days, however there have been cases of asylum seekers waiting months for their clearance.

“Obviously anything that speeds up security clearances is a very welcome step and certainly this should mean that Afghans in particular are not going to be waiting for months and months,” he told Crikey.

“But the wider issue of ASIO clearances is likely to still be a problem going forward, there are a large number of people — Tamils in particular — who have been waiting for some time and this arrangement doesn’t seem like it will impact those waiting for long-term clearance.”

As a way of preventing any future backlog of security checks, only asylum seekers defined as refugees under 1A of the United Nations’ Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees will be assessed under the new system.

In the two months since the process began, more 1200 asylum seekers were processed under the new methodology. Of these, about 17% clients were referred to ASIO for further scrutiny.

When contacted by Crikey this morning for information on whether DIAC hoped the new process would ease the strain on the overloaded immigration detention centre system, a spokesperson told Crikey it was an ASIO matter and that it would be more appropriate to speak with the spook agency or the Attorney-General.

The spokesperson would not comment on how many people with refugee status were still waiting in detention.

ASIO director-general David Irvine told Senate estimates this week the agency was working with DIAC in an “ASIO-managed process”.

“We did an assessment of the bureaucratic processes and we have been able to streamline security assessments,” he said. “The result is our security checking is now more thorough and more effective.”

Bill Kyriakopoulos, a spokesman for Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen, would not be drawn on whether it was hoped shorter processing times would improve detention centre conditions.

Advocates have claimed recent demonstrations in detention centres on Christmas Island and in Villawood were the result of long processing times as a result of the ASIO check.

“The government has acknowledged the pressures on our detention system, but we’re working hard to relieve that pressure by improve processing times for asylum claims and delivering a regional solution to the international problem of irregular migration and people smuggling,” he told Crikey.

Pamela Curr, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, says the new process is a “good move” but that it still doesn’t address the “underlying problems of mandatory detention”.

“How come it had to get to 1000 people sitting and waiting in detention centres for 18 months before the government realised they did not have to run security checks on every man, woman, child and baby?” she told Crikey. “There are still nearly 6000 people being held up by a process which has failed.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey