When It Comes to Punishing Refugees, Dutton Is the New Morrison

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Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison

After refusing to make a decision on an Iranian asylum seeker’s visa application for the past 20 months, home affairs minister Peter Dutton decided to reject the claim last Friday morning. The foreign national had been waiting for a final decision on his case since July 2013.

In November 2018, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal found that the asylum seeker passed the character test set out in the Migration Act and therefore was eligible for a protection visa. And since then, Dutton hasn’t been able to find it within himself to make a decision either way.

Federal Court Justice George Flick ordered on 17 June that the home affairs minister had to decide upon the Iranian man’s case by the 26 June, warning that if he didn’t, he could be found in contempt of court, which had the potential to see him arrested and imprisoned.

Yet, despite the threat, Dutton continued to drag his feet. And in the meantime, two separate cases saw a previous court ruling – known as BAL19 – overturned. BAL19 would have forced the minister to grant to the visa. But in the end, the new findings allowed him to reject the application.

There are many terms that can be used to describe the minister’s performance in this matter. Some of these expressions when used in public can result in criminal charges being laid.

However, it should be remembered that Dutton didn’t lay the foundations that allow him to act in this manner, as that job was actually handled by the current PM Scott Morrison.

Immigration Ministering 101

Following his September 2013 election victory, then PM Tony Abbott appointed Scott Morrison as the new minister for immigration and border security: a role which involved overseeing the implementation of the Coalition’s military-led security policy Operation Sovereign Borders.

On the week after his appointment, the then immigration minister publicly outlined the details of the tough new regime that involved the turning back of boats, mandatory offshore detention and an expansion of the immigration detention centres on Nauru and Manus.

In other words, the Australian government would be complicit in incarcerating numerous innocent people fleeing danger.

And as it continues on today, this indefinite and prolonged detention on the soil of poorer nations is in violation of international laws and involves conditions that are akin to torture and are rife for abuse.

Many former and current detainees would remember that when they arrived in offshore detention they were shown a video of now prime minister Scott Morrison stating, “You have been brought to this place – here – because you have sought to illegally enter Australia by boat”.

“If you have a valid claim, you will not be settled in Australia,” continues the devout man of faith. “You will never live in Australia. You will remain here until you go home, or you are settled somewhere else… If you choose not to go home, you will spend a very, very long time here.”

Illegal boat arrivals

The head public servant in Dutton’s Department of Home Affairs is Mike Pezzullo. And at the time that Morrison was overseeing the establishment of Operation Sovereign Borders, Pezzullo was the CEO of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.

In fielding questions during a 19 November 2013 Senate estimates hearing, Pezzullo outlined that it was not his department that had started referring to asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat as “illegal”, but rather it was a directive from the new immigration minister Scott Morrison.

The Howard government had referred to asylum seekers arriving by boat as “unauthorised boat arrivals”, while subsequent Labor governments used “irregular maritime arrivals”.

However, Labor senators at the estimates hearing had noticed that since Abbott had been in power, “illegal” boat arrivals was the term being used.

The senators further inquired whether there had been any convictions given asylum seekers were engaged in illegal activities, although officials replied that there was no actual criminal offence under immigration law for entering Australia without a visa and hence no crimes had been committed.

The 1951 Refugee Convention sets out that asylum seekers fleeing persecution have not broken the law in entering a state party’s border without a visa – this is by boat or otherwise – and therefore, these people should not be punished for having entered the country.

The finishing touches

One of Morrison’s last acts as immigration minister was overseeing the passing of the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014.

This legislation bestowed new powers upon the immigration minister allowing them to detain people at sea and transfer them to any country, even without the consent of that nation. And it permits arbitrary and indefinite detention at sea.

The passing of the bill on 5 December 2014, came after the Abbott government secretly detained 157 Tamil asylum seekers at sea for a month commencing in late June that year, prior to eventually bringing them to the Australian mainland, before secretly flying them to Nauru by cover of night.

The amendment bill also saw the reintroduction of temporary protection visas and an end to permanent protection, meaning that those found to be legitimate refugees are only granted protection for up to three years, before having to reapply.

Other reforms brought about by the bill were a watering down of the appeal process, an erosion of safeguards against deportation, a reinterpretation of Australia’s obligations under international law and a reclassification of children born to asylum seekers in Australia as “transitory persons”.

Love a good curry

So, while Peter Dutton is often cast as the most sinister politician in federal parliament, it seems somewhat misplaced not to credit our current PM with causing some of the trauma and tragedies that asylum seekers have experienced both in offshore detention, as well as on the mainland.

Indeed, following an official trip to Sri Lanka to discuss boat people in early 2013, the then shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison appeared on the ABC’s Lateline declaring that if his party won the coming election, they’d be turning back the boats.

Then, in July the following year, he oversaw the interception of a boat and the return of 41 Sri Lankan nationals – including 4 Tamils – to that nation’s officials at sea.

And following all of this, Morrison, as treasurer, then had the gall to appear on the ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet in late 2015 to cook a dish of traditional Sri Lankan curry for the host, outlining that he’d developed his taste for that nation’s cuisine while he was on his official visit to the country.

Although, the Pentecostal PM neglected to mention to host Annabella Crabb that while he’s happy to eat the food of the Sri Lankan people, he also has no qualms in returning their persecuted minorities back to their oppressors to suffer an unknown fate.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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