Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton announced on August 28 that 70 asylum seekers were being issued with new “final departure” visas. These people had their fortnightly welfare payments cut off, and were given three weeks to vacate their accommodation.
The move could affect up to 370 former offshore detainees who were transferred to Australia due to medical reasons. The cohort are the last asylum seekers to have made it to Australian shores, and were the focus of the recent ‘Let Them Stay’ campaign.
Dutton recently told the Daily Telegraph that “the con” was up. He acknowledged that these people had come to Australia for medical care, but claimed that “through tricky legal moves they are now prevented from returning to their country of origin, Manus or Nauru.”
The minister added that the cost of providing for each of these asylum seekers within the Australian community is $120,000 a year, but neglected to mention that the cost of detaining them offshore is $573,000 per annum.
Shock jock radio
The minister then appeared on Alan Jones’ 2GB radio program. He asserted that the asylum seekers were performing these “tricky legal moves” with the help of lawyers representing them on a pro bono basis.
When Jones posed the question, “But this is un-Australian, isn’t it?” Mr Dutton replied, “Well, of course it is.” The minister further implied that these lawyers “have been playing the game” for far too long, and that the nation was “not going to be taken for a ride.”
Dutton additionally blamed lawyers for costing taxpayers “tens of millions of dollars” by pursuing High Court proceedings.
Backlash from the legal profession
Needless to say, members of the legal profession were not impressed.
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) wrote an open letter to the minister, calling upon him to either justify his comments, “or otherwise retract and publish an apology to the Australian legal profession.”
Nicholas Stewart, member of the ALHR executive management committee, said “the rule of law” necessitates that all people subject to “Australian government authority are entitled to due process and to legal representation in order to pursue their legal rights.”
Mr Stewart pointed to the minister’s statement that pro bono representation is part of a “politically correct social justice agenda.” He then explained that this represents “an alarming attempt to delegitimise” one of the “principles that form part of the fundamental structure of our legal system.”
The importance of pro bono
Pro bono legal work plays a vital role in the Australian legal system. It provides those who cannot afford a private lawyer, but are not eligible for Legal Aid, with legal representation.
In October last year, the Australian Pro Bono Centre confirmed that over the year 2015-16, firms that had committed to providing such services reported over 400,000 hours of pro bono legal services – equating to an average of 36 hours of free work per lawyer.
Mr Dutton has taken aim at this practice when it comes to helping asylum seekers, when those carrying out this work are providing their legal services free of charge to help some of the most vulnerable people in the community.
In May this year, Mr Dutton gave 7,500 asylum seekers until October 1 to lodge their applications for a visa, or face deportation. These are lengthy and difficult documents that are written in English, which is not these people’s first language.
Currently, there are lawyers working around the clock to help asylum seekers with their visa applications, so they aren’t sent back to the countries from which they fled.
Indeed, Mr Stewart believes that the minister’s comments will actually embolden “lawyers to do more pro bono work.”
That frustrating document
During the 2GB interview, Mr Dutton took aim at the Australian constitution – claiming it was creating “issues” that were “incredibly frustrating,” as it does not allow the government to simply pass legislation to send asylum seekers back to offshore detention after they’ve received medical treatment.
“It would seem the minister regards the separation of powers and the arms of government to be an impediment to draconian rule,” Mr Stewart told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, adding that “this is very concerning” as past politicians have always understood the importance of our independent legal system.
A lack of compassion
The 370 asylum seekers that facing “final departure” visas include 116 children, 50 of whom were born in Australia.
The government is turning off the lifeline to all of these people and putting the adults in a position where they must somehow find jobs and places of residence within three weeks, or else be left destitute. These people were previously denied the right to work.
According to Mr Stewart, “cutting this group off government support, when most have never had the right to work in Australia, would likely breach Australia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.”
And while children are involved, Australia will also likely be in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“This is about basic decency,” Mr Stewart continued. “The people we’re talking about include some of the most vulnerable and traumatised in our country.”
On top of these deprivations, once these people’s visas expire they’ll be forced back into the deplorable conditions of offshore detention, or sent back to their countries of origin – to situations so dire they risked their lives – and that of their families – on the ocean to escape.
No right to legal representation
But was minister Dutton actually implying that asylum seekers don’t deserve any legal representation or assistance? As far is Mr Stewart is concerned, that’s exactly what he was suggesting.
“However, respect for the rule of law demands respect for the notion that access to justice is vital for all, including those who are marginalised politically, economically and socially,” he stated, adding the system works to ensure that the rights of all are upheld, and not just those of “the powerful.”
“At a time when Australia is set to take up a seat at the UN Human Rights Council, it should be living up to its self-proclaimed status as an ‘international human rights leaders,’” Mr Stewart concluded.
“The refugees involved must be given a durable solution,” as offshore detention “is not an option.”
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.