Feds ‘Iron Curtain of Secrecy’ Around Detention Centres
28 May 2015 at 2:55 pm
Those working in Australia's detention centres, including Not for Profits, are now forbidden under threat of jail time from revealing information to anyone about anything they come across while doing their jobs, according to the Australian Lawyers Alliance.
The ALA claims a new Commonwealth law which came into force this week, called the Australian Border Force Act 2015, will have far-reaching and disturbing consequences for the scrutiny of immigration detention centres and the treatment of asylum seekers by the media, professional groups, international human rights bodies and NFPs.
“The Australian Border Force Act, supported by the ALP and opposed only by the Greens, effectively turns the Department of Immigration into a secret security organisation with police powers,” Barrister and spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, Greg Barns said.
“The Abbott Government is erecting an iron curtain of secrecy over what is happening and what has happened in Australia's immigration detention system.
“Although the Act seems to be directed at Customs operations, it also seeks to regulate and control access to information about asylum seekers in immigration detention.
“Under the Act, it is a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment of up to two years, for any person working directly or indirectly for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to reveal to the media or any other person or organisation (the only exceptions being the Immigration Department and other Commonwealth agencies, police, coroners) anything that happens in detention centres like Nauru and Manus Island.”
Barns said that Section 24 of the Act requires that any departmental workers or contractors to the department subscribe to an oath.
“There is no detail about the contents of the oath, and it is possible that the oath will prevent individuals such as doctors and nurses, as well as organisations such as the Salvation Army, Red Cross, United Nations and Amnesty International, from fulfilling their ethical and professional obligations to report physical and mental harm,” he said.
“Section 26 of the Border Force Act allows the Australian Border Force Commissioner to direct people who work for the department including contractors, consultants and people who work for foreign governments or for public international organisations.
“These directions must be followed. This will inhibit contractors from abiding by their professional obligations or from following the generally accepted standards required to fulfil their roles. The Commissioner could, for example, direct that medical staff on Nauru ensure they seek permission from him before accepting a request to provide a briefing on their work to a medical organisation such as the AMA.
“Section 42 of the Act is disturbing in its heading alone. It is entitled "Secrecy". It provides that a person who is an "entrusted person" commits an offence if he or she makes a record of, or discloses, what is termed protected information. An "entrusted person" is defined in the Act to mean not only government employees, but also a consultant or contractor. And "protected information" simply means any information that a person comes across while working for, or in, detention centres.
“If section 42 is not chilling enough, consider the definition of "corrupt conduct". It includes conduct by an employee or contractor or consultant that is judged to be "abusing his or her position".”
Barnes said the effect of these provisions will be to deter individuals such as doctors, counsellors, and others who have voiced publicly their concerns about the appalling conditions endured by asylum seekers in detention centres from collecting information about those conditions and then raising their concerns in the community via the media.
“The Act not only criminalises whistleblowers but those such as medical professionals and teachers who believe they have an ethical duty to report physical and mental harm that occurs in a systemic fashion. It may be that these new requirements put vulnerable people's lives at risk but given the secrecy requirements of the Act, we will never know,” he said.
“The Border Force Act goes much further than any other Commonwealth, State or Territory legislation in seeking to reduce scrutiny of Government actions in a detention setting.”