“Access Denied”: The Culture of Secrecy defining Australia’s Asylum Seeker Policies


Video footage from August 29th, shows migrants from Eritrea and Somalia, cheering, as their overcrowded, virtually unfuelled boats, just make it to rescue vessels, waiting for them off the coast of Libya. Through a series of 40 coordinate operations, involving vessels from Italy, the EU’s border agency Frontex and various humanitarian organisations, around 6,500 people were successfully rescued, including a 5-day old baby, who, along with other infants, was airlifted to a hospital in Italy.  This mass rescue effort demonstrates a degree of compassion, and recognition of the international community’s shared responsibility in dealing with increased migration. Unfortunately, such sentiments have been distinctly lacking in Australia’s asylum seeker policies.  Had those 6,500 people found themselves stranded in Australian waters, it is safe to say they would not have been met with open arms.

In 1992, the Keating government introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat. Twenty-four years later the issue is more contentious and solutions more elusive than ever. The veil of secrecy shrouding Nauru and Manus Island has failed to protect the government from media scrutiny any more than the government has protected the human rights of the people captive to their inertia and policy failures in off-shore detention.

In 2015, the Australian Border Force Act was ushered through parliament, receiving support from both major parties. Section 42 of The Act made it an offence for an ‘entrusted person’ (an employee of the Australian Border Force) to record or disclose ‘protected information’, meaning information obtained by that person in the course of their employment. Essentially, this means that an employee working in an offshore facility – including health care workers – could risk up to two years imprisonment, if they speak about conditions in detention centres to the media or other organisations.*   

In the past two weeks, both Fairfax media and the (now former) Greens Minister for Immigration Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, were denied visas to Nauru.  This Tuesday, six politicians from Denmark cancelled their long-planned visit to inspect the detention centre, after three members of their group were denied access to the Island. The fact that two of these excluded politicians – Jacob Mark and Johanna Schmidt-Nielsen – have openly criticised Australia’s policy of offshore detention, has not gone unnoticed. On Tuesday evening, Schmidt-Nielsen took to Facebook to voice her frustration, describing it as ‘totally unacceptable, antidemocratic and very telling of the situation on Nauru that critics are denied access’. It is a move that will surely raise eyebrows in the international community, where Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is already under scrutiny, and the harrowing accounts from the Guardian’s “Nauru Files” are still fresh in the public’s consciousness

As the cracks in the government’s policy of ‘out of sight out of mind’ deepen and this culture of secrecy becomes harder to sustain, the question many of us are asking is, "What are the Australian and Nauru governments so desperate to hide?"[1] More importantly, will this recent bad publicity be enough to motivate our leaders to reform our current asylum seeker policy, condemned by Amnesty International as a ‘system of deliberate abuse’, designed to deter people from seeking asylum by boat. 

If the Government’s response in the wake of the Nauru Files is anything to go by, we shouldn’t expect meaningful change any time soon. Around the same time that the Nauru files came to light, journalists for the ABC’s Four Corners programme had begun exposing atrocities being committed closer to home, at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.  The similarities between these cases are self-evident. In both, we have examples of gross human rights violations, committed against some of society’s most vulnerable people, residing in institutions funded by our government.  Yet the difference in the government’s response to the two events was astounding.

The credits had barely stopped following the Four Corners program before our Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull called for a Royal Commission.  However, when questioned about the Nauru Files, Turnbull gave a brisk, no frills answer:  "The material that's been published will be examined … to see if there are any complaints there or issues there that were not properly addressed".  That Turnbull reserved his anger and “bitter disappointment” for those responsible for the failure of the 2016 Census, speaks volumes about his priorities.

Meanwhile, Minister for immigration, Peter Dutton dismissed some of the reports as “hype”, and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection took the opportunity to praise the “rigorous reporting procedures that are in place in the regional processing centre’”, as evidenced in the Nauru files.

Key human rights bodies, including Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have called for an end to offshore processing. Over 100 academics have endorsed a policy paper, calling on Turnbull to hold a summit to consider alternative approaches to dealing with the approximately 2,000 asylum seekers, living in limbo on Manus Island and Nauru. 

While resettling people from Nauru remains in the ‘too hard basket’ due to lack of political will by both major political parties, the current government has committed over $60 million dollars in the next year, to offshore processing facilities. Historically, our political landscape has been defined by taking a tough stance on asylum seekers, as calls to ‘Stop the Boats’ echo through the halls of parliament. Will we ever have a government brave enough to introduce “compassion” as the next political buzzword?


* A High Court challenge to the secrecy provisions is currently underway, lead by Doctors for Refugees, and represented by the Fitzroy Legal Service.


The author Jess Clarke is the AHR Centre Student intern for Semester 2, 2016. Read more from The Student Voice.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

[1] Sarah Hanson-Young, quoted in: ‘Nauru bans Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young from visiting refugees’, The Sydney Morning Herald, August 16, 2016, available at http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/nauru-bans-greens-...