New legislation strips away checks on Ministerial powers

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The Federal Government’s new legislation to change asylum and maritime powers laws is a comprehensive assault on Australia’s obligations to protect victims of persecution, giving the Immigration Minister greater power than ever before to act as he wishes, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) says.

RCOA chief executive officer Paul Power said the 118-page Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014 was the most significant set of changes to Australian asylum laws in a generation with nearly all of the changes aimed at stripping away the already limited safeguards for people seeking asylum.

“This legislation has been presented to the public as a humane political compromise between the Government and the Palmer United Party (PUP), focused on getting children out of detention on Christmas Island and providing refugees who reached Australia with a pathway to a permanent visa,” Mr Power said.  “While we appreciate PUP’s efforts to bring some much-needed humanity to the government’s destructive agenda, unfortunately the legislation includes a vast array of changes designed to strip away fairness for people seeking refugee protection and reduce the likelihood that anyone could question the Immigration Minister’s capacity to do largely as he pleases.

“Many of the changes are designed to prevent the courts from intervening to ensure that the Minister acts in accordance with the rule of law and in line with Australia’s treaty obligations.

“If passed, the Bill would increase Ministerial powers to take a vessel or person to a place outside of Australia regardless of whether there is an agreement with the particular country and prevent the courts from acting if this action does not comply with Australia’s international obligations or the laws or obligations of another country.

“Among many other measures, the legislation introduces a fast track asylum process which limits access to independent merits review, removes the possibility that children born in Australia to asylum seeker parents could seek Australian citizenship, replaces the Refugee Convention’s definitions with the Government’s own interpretation of Australia’s obligations and makes it possible for the Government to remove asylum seekers without considering the risk of refoulement.”

Mr Power also said amendments promoted by PUP to allow asylum seekers who arrived between July and December 2013 to be released from detention and into the community were significant and positive but he expressed concerns about the ability of people to access permanent protection.

“People found to be in need of refugee protection have no pathway to permanent protection unless, after working in a designated regional area for three and a half years and satisfying a number of requirements, they may be able to apply for another migration visa. Unless the rules which apply to these visas are significantly changed, it is not likely that many refugees will meet the highly restrictive criteria which apply to other migration visas.

“Unless there is some pathway to permanency, we will again face the situation where large numbers of refugees struggle to survive in Australia with no security, no possibility with reuniting with separated family members and little hope.”