Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Whistleblower laws and offshore detention centres

Key aspects of Australia’s asylum seeker policies involve government acting outside Australia’s borders — on the high seas or on foreign soil. These places — where Australia exercises authority and control over people’s lives— are in many ways beyond the reach of the normal oversight arrangements and often beyond the reach of Australian courts. They are shrouded in secrecy. So what happens when we don’t know what the government is doing in our name?

Our report ‘Operation Secret Borders: what we don’t know is hurting us’ was launched at a sold-out Wheeler Centre event in April 2016. The report explores the culture of secrecy surrounding our immigration policies and the dangers that it poses: both to people seeking asylum and to Australian democracy.

Following the launch of our report, Fitzroy Legal Service and Doctors for Refugees mounted a legal challenge contesting the constitutional validity of legislation preventing doctors working in immigration detention from speaking out. In response, the Government changed the legislation so these provisions no longer apply to health professionals. But the threat of legal action remains for other workers, including teachers and security guards. The validity of the provisions is still being challenged.

In the meantime, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee has handed down its report into serious allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect of asylum seekers in Regional Processing Centres. The report found that the government’s policies were ‘disturbing’ and that Australia must admit it controls the centres. The committee also called for an end to the secrecy, which it said exacerbated the vulnerability of refugees and asylum seekers, and prevented proper scrutiny. In doing so, it extensively referenced our report.