One of Australia’s foremost refugee legal advice centres claims it has been obstructed by staff at Christmas Island detention facility when trying to offer legal advice to asylum seekers, the Guardian newspaper reported.
The Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) says it has been fielding “hundreds of calls on a daily basis” from Sri Lankan asylum seekers on Christmas Island who have arrived by boat and are in fear of being returned without accessing legal advice. Those seeking RACS’ advice are subject to the government’s controversial “enhanced screening” procedure, a process understood to be specifically directed at Sri Lankan asylum seekers and aimed at speeding up the claims process with shorter interviews and fast turnaround returns.
RACS executive director Tanya Jackson-Vaughan told Guardian Australia she was aware of claims that legal documents sent via fax to clients in detention were consciously not being passed on by Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) staff members. An asylum seeker’s right to reasonable access to legal advice is protected under the Australian migration act and under Australia’s international human rights obligations.
Jackson-Vaughan said RACS clients on Christmas Island were being denied access to personalised forms which allowed them to document their asylum claims, sent via fax machine.
“RACS sent the people we had been speaking to, and whose details and claims we had on our database, personalised faxes with the forms to fill in. We had been assured by Serco [the private company which manages the detention facility] that any fax address to a specific person would be delivered to them in a sealed envelope,” she said.
The allegations continued: “However, when these forms were sent to Christmas Island, DIAC called the clients who the faxes were addressed to and asked them to come to talk to a senior DIAC officer. This officer then questioned them as to whom they were seeking legal advice from.
“In the event that they were not able to specify the name of the individual lawyer or the organisation that they had requested help from, the officer did not pass on the forms which were addressed to them.”
The allegations have been reported to DIAC.
This follows news from the immigration minister on Friday last week that 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers were returned to Colombo, meaning there have now been 1035 Sri Lankans returned involuntarily since August last year.
A spokeswoman for DIAC said: “The department and its staff operate in a lawful manner, as prescribed under the Australian public service code of conduct, and consistent with the requirements of the relevant legislation and international conventions.”
They declined to comment on what investigations DIAC were undertaking in response to the allegations.
A spokesman for Serco said: “We are committed to treating people in our care with dignity and respect in a safe and secure environment and within the law. We work with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to achieve this ”
Guardian Australia has also spoken to four Tamil asylum seekers who arrived in Australia in October and were subject to the enhanced screening process. Their claims are separate to any allegations from RACS.
The four asylum seekers claim they were due to be returned under the “enhanced screening process”, following a short interview that lasted no more than half an hour and in which all four of them were prevented from giving a detailed record of their asylum claims. One, a 32-year-old ex-government worker and member of the Tamil National Alliance, says he attempted to show the two DIAC officials conducting the interview four gunshot wounds and scarring from torture all over his body, but was not allowed to do so. He says the wounds were inflicted as part of a sustained campaign of intimidation and murder attempts directed at him since 2009.
All four men arrived in Australia on a boat from Colombo with 104 people in October last year. They landed on the Cocos Islands and were subsequently transferred to Christmas Island. They were then moved again to Scherger Immigration Detention Centre in North Queensland. They say that 18 of those on their boat were returned to Sri Lanka the following month, and that they themselves were due to be returned but were saved by last-minute legal intervention.
They also say that they have been in contact with a number of those returned from their boat, who were imprisoned shortly after they arrived back in Sri Lanka.
One of the men, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals on their families in Sri Lanka, said: “If the Australian government sends us back, it is directly to the killing fields. It’s blood on Australia’s hands.”
The enhanced screening process has been the subject of sustained criticism. At senate estimates on 28 May, 2013, Vicki Parker, chief lawyer at the Legal and Assurance Division at DIAC, told the committee that she understood that asylum seekers who underwent the enhanced screening process were not told by officials of their right to legal advice.
When questioned by Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young on whether asylum seekers undergoing the enhanced screening process were told they were able to request legal advice, Parker replied: “Not so far as I am aware.”
Parker then said that if an asylum seeker undergoing the process specifically requested legal advice the department provided them with “a telephone book and access to a telephone, and an interpreter if necessary, I believe”.
Greens senator Lee Rhiannon has also asked questions in relation to the advanced screening process and how it specifically relates to asylum seekers from Sri Lanka.
Speaking to Guardian Australia, Rhiannon said: “The Labor government’s ‘enhanced screening’ process for people seeking asylum in Australia is facilitating the mass removals of Sri Lankans, including Tamils, back to the brutal Rajapakse regime implicated in war crimes, torture and rape.
“In Senate Estimates the AFP has acknowledged the allegations that the Sri Lankan police have been accused of widespread use of torture and rape of Tamils in detention. While these allegations stand, no one who has fled persecution and sought asylum in Australia should be removed back to Sri Lanka.”
Responding specifically to the allegations from RACS, senator Rhiannon said: “If this is the case, then the officials making these decisions appear to be in breach of the Migration Act. This is yet another example of the Australian government discriminating against Tamil asylum seekers.”
Last week ABC news reported comments from an ex-DIAC employee, Greg Lake, who described the department’s enhanced screening process as “dangerous”. He said the interview process begins with a simple question: “Why did you come to Australia?” and expressed concerns that legitimate asylum claims were slipping through the net as a result of the process.
DIAC confirmed that Lake was an ex-employee, but described him as a “mid-level public servant”.