This article was written for The Guardian Australia.
You’d think a government so well practised at keeping secrets would be good at it. Yet they’ve inadvertently published the personal details of 10,000 asylum seekers in immigration detention.
The department of immigration and border protection has accidentally published the names, dates of birth and nationalities of one third of all asylum seekers held in Australia. The information was on its website for all to see and may have been accessed by the regimes from which those asylum seekers fled. There’s a clear risk it could be used against them if they’re ever returned.
Most of the asylum seekers whose confidential information has been disclosed are probably already owed protection - over 90% of boat arrivals are ultimately found to be genuine refugees. Nevertheless, the reckless disclosure of their personal details adds another layer to the risk they may face.
Circumstances arising after a person has left their home country which make it unsafe for them to return can form a new basis for seeking protection as a refugee, known as a “sur place” claim. The government’s disclosure of the identities of asylum seekers may bolster existing protection applications or give rise to a completely new sur place claim.
The personal details published relate to asylum seekers from countries including Sri Lanka, Iran and Syria. There have been widespread reports over many years that failed asylum seekers sent back to those countries can face persecuted on return.
For instance, the UNHCR has detailed reports of failed Sri Lankan asylum seekers facing detention, ill-treatment and torture. Amnesty International has reported that failed asylum seekers returned to Iran face arrest, interrogation and prosecution. The US State Department has reported that Syrians who unsuccessfully seek asylum elsewhere can face criminal prosecution once back in Syria.
This isn’t to say that every failed asylum seeker from these countries necessarily faces reprisals. Whether or not they do often depends on what the regime knows of their asylum claim and whether it is perceived as being disloyal, treacherous or undermining of the government. The risks need to be assessed case-by-case, but they are clearly amplified by the country of refuge publishing asylum seekers’ personal details on the internet.
Operation Sovereign Borders has otherwise been characterised by a seemingly impenetrable veil of secrecy. There’s been no transparency about boat turn backs, despite them being dangerous and potentially illegal. There’s been no media access to offshore detention centres. There’s been no independent investigation of allegations of serious abuse by Navy personnel. Even requests for information by the Senate have been rebuffed.
That secrecy has harmed asylum seekers by limiting independent scrutiny of their treatment. They’ve been endangered by government withholding information it ought to disclose. It’s a cruel irony that they’ve now been endangered by government disclosing information it ought to have withheld.
Daniel Webb is Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre. He is on Twitter @DanielHRLC