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    Towards a Royal Commission into the treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and immigration detainees

The Royal Commission call

May 3, 2005

Image: The Royal Seal, attached to the Australian Constitution and an asylum seeker in tears at the Woomera fence (2002)

The call for a Royal Commission into issues relating to detention and the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and immigration detainees has always been relevant: especially since the 2001 Tampa stand-off it has been heard, sometimes louder than at other times, but it was never off the agenda since the 2001 Federal election.

All over Australia, a distinct number of supporters and friends of refugees, refugee advocates, human rights lobby groups and NGO's have been collecting statements, reports, letters, diary notes and stories, all in perhaps a quiet but very determined ways since we became involved with refugees, asylum seekers in detention, and other immigration detainees. It is likely that there is a vast storehouse of indictments declaring serious human rights abuses and prosecutable offences and breaches of many Australian laws and statutes, and all of it is on the records held by individuals around Australia.

From Wikipedia: In countries that are members of the Commonwealth a Royal Commission is a major government inquiry into an issue ... Royal Commissions are called to look into matters of great importance and usually controversy ... A Royal Commissioner has considerable powers, generally greater even than those of a judge but restricted to the "Terms of Reference" of the Commission ... once a Commission has started the government cannot stop it. Consequently governments are usually very careful about framing the Terms of Reference and generally include in them a date at which the Warrant becomes defunct ...

5000 x

More at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Commission

More recently, and especially since the Cornelia Rau affair and the subsequent reluctant admission by the Australian government that several - perhaps even many - Australian citizens who may have been unlawfully held in detention, and even deported, the call for a Royal Commission is again gaining momentum.

This page contains the text of a petition we started drafting a while ago, assisted by input, corrections and feedback from several refugee advocates and individuals from around Australia. The petition is also downloadable to your computer as a PDF file.

Current tally: 17,943 signatures

Please download it, please print out multiple copies, distribute them throughout your office, the staffroom at your school or hospital or your workplace, leave the petition in coffeeshops, café's, community centres and other places as you find suitable; and if you hold a stall, don't forget to print copies, because the time has now come to start collecting signatures for the future.

  • Our Petition Form for a Royal Commission into Immigration detention - The Petition Form for a Royal Commission into Immigration detention and related issues. "It is likely that there is a vast storehouse of indictments declaring serious human rights abuses and prosecutable offences and breaches of many Australian laws and statutes, and all of it is on the records held by individuals around Australia." (PDF File 16 Kb)

And as we drafted and created this web page, a reader poll at The Age online showed rather remarkable results on the question "Do we need a royal commission into mandatory detention?". Below is a reproduction of the results:

The Age Reader Poll: Immigration

Do we need a royal commission into mandatory detention?

Yes - 94%
No - 6%

Total Votes: 3653

Source: The Age Poll, 2 May 2005

Related: Wrongly deported Australian now missing

And a day later on May 4, after some merely superficial reporting by most Australian media, it was Tony Jones of ABC Lateline who suggested that as many as one hundred people may well have been unlawfully detained in the last three years - as we had already suggested in our Sunday 2 May press release, and that an Australian woman was deported to the Phillipines, and the ALP through Laurie Ferguson also supported a Royal Commission.

Royal Commission into the treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and immigration detainees

To the Honorable Speaker and Members of the House of Representatives assembled in Parliament:

We, the undersigned petitioners, citizens and residents of the Australian Commonwealth: Request from the House of Representatives:

to establish, as a matter of the highest priority, a Royal Commission into the treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and immigration detainees from the introduction of mandatory detention, with particular reference to the period of Howard government. Your petitioners therefore ask the House to ensure that this inquiry includes investigations into:

  • conditions, incidents and events, in Australian and 'Pacific Solution' detention centres & all other forms of immigration detention and prisons, police lock-ups, home detention, including how incidents were acted upon and followed up;
  • engagement and administration of the contract between ACM and the Commonwealth of Australia from 1997-2004 incl., and Group 4Falck from 2003 onwards; and the conduct of ACM and GSL in their operation of IDCs;
  • the sinking of SIEVX and the possible role of AFP, ASIS and agents recruited, equipped or tasked by either AFP or ASIS;
  • whether the Howard government influenced ADF & other Commonwealth agencies to suppress information about interception procedures and measures regarding Australia's rescue obligations to refugee claimants attempting to reach Australia in SIEVs;
  • into deaths of immigration detainees including the adequacy of any previous investigations and responses to their deaths, and unnatural deaths of TPV holders in the community;
  • compliance of the TPV regime with international refugee law and its impact on the human rights of refugees on TPV's;
  • whether a bias was present or created in refugee assessment and review;
  • the effects of preventing due access by lawyers, media agents and the public in order to assess, assist, support and report;
  • whether obstructions were caused to the unfettered access to all aspects of legal recourse during assessment, review and appeals;
  • the effects of government policies on their physical and mental health and that of their families and dependants;
  • damage and disruption to asylum seekers' lives, family and career plans;
  • deportees and their fate upon return;
  • and into the cost to the Australian community of these policies.

This Inquiry also should address accountability mechanisms and remedies, compensation, etc available for persons who have suffered violations of human rights as a result of Australia's refugee and immigration detention regime.

  • Our Petition Form for a Royal Commission into Immigration detention - The Petition Form for a Royal Commission into Immigration detention and related issues. "It is likely that there is a vast storehouse of indictments declaring serious human rights abuses and prosecutable offences and breaches of many Australian laws and statutes, and all of it is on the records held by individuals around Australia." (PDF File 16 Kb)

First round of tabling in Parliament

On June 15 2005, Dr Carmen Lawrence (ALP, Fremantle) informed The House of the Royal Commission petition, and prepared to present - on World Refugee Day, 20 June - the first 4200 petitions to Parliament, with the adjournment speech.

Below is the Hansard transcript.

15 June, 2005
ADJOURNMENT SPEECH
Asylum Seekers
Speech

Dr LAWRENCE (Fremantle) (7.39 p.m.) The now notorious cases of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon have reawakened the general media and community interest in the treatment of asylum seekers more generally in Australia. They have reawakened interest in the system that this parliament ratified. The mistreatment of vulnerable people now has to be squarely faced by all in this place and the wider community. What we know now demands a full judicial inquiry. We know, for example, that at least 13 people have died in detention; as many as four probably more have been killed on return to their countries; and 353 people drowned en route to Australia on board the SIEV X. Perhaps as many as 200 according to the minister have been wrongfully detained and an unknown number of people have actually been wrongfully deported. These facts alone demand a full judicial inquiry.

While a lot of people have been content to turn their backs and close their ears, a band of dedicated advocates and supporters who I commend have provided tangible support to people in detention and those who have been let out on various forms of visa without proper support from the government. They have worked assiduously to try to minimise the damage being done in the government's name indeed, in the Australian people's name to so many people. They have selflessly sought to wring concessions from successive ministers and to get them to change their minds about various detainees sometimes successfully, sometimes not. They have shone a light on the desperate circumstances of the thousands who have had the misfortune to pass through the detention system in Australia and on Manus Island and Nauru. There have, too, been a few determined journalists who have provided the vehicles to tell the stories and highlight the atrocities because atrocities they are.

This evening I want to present the outline of a petition which will be tabled in due course calling for a royal commission into the treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and immigration detainees. The petition has been compiled by one of the groups I mentioned, Project SafeCom, and a dedicated advocate, Jack Smit. It is in the following terms. Already it has 5,278 signatures, and they are rolling in a couple of hundred at a time. It calls for a royal commission into the treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and immigration detainees, and specifically into:

• conditions, incidents and events, in Australian and Pacific Solution detention centres & all other forms of immigration detention and prisons, police lock-ups, home detention, including how incidents were acted upon and followed up;

• engagement and administration of the contract between ACM and the Commonwealth of Australia from 1997-2004 incl., and Group 4Falck from 2003 onwards; and the conduct of ACM and GSL in their operation of IDCs;

• the sinking of SIEVX and the possible role of AFP, ASIS and agents recruited, equipped or tasked by either AFP or ASIS;

• whether the Howard government influenced ADF & other Commonwealth agencies to suppress information about interception procedures and measures regarding Australia s rescue obligations to refugee claimants attempting to reach Australia in SIEVs;

• into deaths of immigration detainees including the adequacy of any previous investigations and responses to their deaths, and unnatural deaths of TPV holders in the community;

• compliance of the TPV regime with international refugee law and its impact on the human rights of refugees on TPV's;

• whether a bias was present or created in refugee assessment and review;

• the effects of preventing due access by lawyers, media agents and the public in order to assess, assist, support and report;

• whether obstructions were caused to the unfettered access to all aspects of legal recourse during assessment, review and appeals;

• the effects of government policies on their physical and mental health and that of their families and dependants

and a number of other matters.

In all of this, it is very important that we do not let the government off the hook. This is not just about the behaviour of DIMIA, DIMIA staff and contracted companies. It is about the systematic abuse of asylum seekers in this country and it deserves a full, open inquiry. Labor has called for it; members of the community are now calling for it. It is time we opened up this hideous Pandora's box and examined it in all its grotesqueness.

Second tabling in Parliament

On November 7 2005, Mr Tony Burke (ALP, Watson NSW) tabled 9,831 further signatures in Parliament. Below is the table - including links to the HTML and PDF House Hansard sections - that appears on the website of Federal Parliament.

Petition: Asylum Seekers by Mr Burke (from 9,831 citizens)
Date: 07 November, 2005 Database: House Hansard
Presenter: Mr Burke Page: 28
Proof: Yes Source: House
Type: Petition Context: Petitions
Main Committee: No Size: 4Kb
Download Petition: Link here (PDF File)
Location of this Information: Link here (House Hansard)

E-alert updates

Media

Press releases

bullet14 June 2005 - Carmen Lawrence MP to table Royal Commission petitions in Parliament
bullet8 May 2005 - Refugee advocates applaud ALP, launch Royal Commission petition

Refugee group seeks Royal Commission

Sydney Morning Herald
May 8, 2005 - 2:39PM

Refugee advocates have released a petition calling for a Royal Commission into the treatment of immigration detainees and refugees in Australia.

Refugee advocacy group Project SafeCom spokesman Jack Smit said the terms of reference called for in the petition were developed over several months by advocates around the country.

Mr Smit said the petition, which has been circulated by email to 15,000 people, was particularly timely, given revelations last week that more than 100 Australian citizens, permanent residents and overseas visa holders may have been wrongly detained on Australian soil over the past three years.

He also called for federal Opposition Leader Kim Beazley to speak out against the government's immigration detention policies, after opposition immigration spokesman Laurie Ferguson last week called for a "full judicial public inquiry" into the immigration detention system.

"The time has come for the ALP to redeem itself from its weak-kneed lack of opposition with what amounts to a dire human rights emergency, and for Mr Beazley to break his silence, which only seems to indicate he is terrified of the issue," Mr Smit said in a statement.

"Mr Beazley should deliver a landmark speech on the dark shadow of the Howard government's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and its total disregard of maintaining Australia as a leader in human rights issues."

© 2005 AAP

Link to Sydney Morning Herald article

  • Our Petition Form for a Royal Commission into Immigration detention - The Petition Form for a Royal Commission into Immigration detention and related issues. "It is likely that there is a vast storehouse of indictments declaring serious human rights abuses and prosecutable offences and breaches of many Australian laws and statutes, and all of it is on the records held by individuals around Australia." (PDF File 16 Kb)

PM hopes for detention resolution

The Advertiser
June 15, 2005
From: AAP

[segment]

PRIME Minister John Howard and a group of rebel Liberal backbenchers remain hopeful they can find a solution to their impasse on the Government's mandatory immigration detention policy.

[....]

Meanwhile, Labor backbencher Carmen Lawrence plans to table bundles of petitions calling for a royal commission into Australia's treatment of asylum seekers in the lower house today or tomorrow.

The petition was organised by refugee lobby group Project SafeCom.

"People all around Australia are signing the petition, and in some cases we have received reports that people have been literally been queuing up to sign," Project SafeCom spokesman Jack Smit said.

http://www.theadvertiser.news.com.au

Panopoulos defends terror remarks

The Australian
June 16, 2005

[segment]

LIBERAL backbencher Sophie Panopoulos has defended accusing her rebel colleagues of behaving like political terrorists over Australia's mandatory immigration detention system.

[....]

Meanwhile, a petition calling for a royal commission into the treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and immigration detainees has been tabled in parliament.

The petition, which so far carries 4278 signatures, calls for investigations into conditions at all detention centres across Australia and in the Pacific and the SIEV X sinking, Labor backbencher Carmen Lawrence said.

Dr Lawrence said the abuse of asylum seekers deserves a full inquiry.

"It's about the systematic abuse of asylum seekers in this country and it deserves a full open inquiry," she said.

"It's time we opened up this hideous Pandora's box and examined it in all its grotesqueness."

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/

Unions NSW supports our Royal Commission Call

Meeting held: 12 May 2005
Chair of Meeting: The Acting President, Comrade Barry Johnson
Location of the meeting: LHMU Auditorium, 187 Thomas Street, Sydney

[....]

[copy of petition sheet tabled by Ian Rintoul, RAC-NSW]

Com. J. Robertson moved the Executive Recommendation: -

"That the correspondence be received and Unions NSW renew its condemnation of the Department's procedures with respect to children. Further, in light of media stories regarding significant failures by the Department in carrying out their role, Unions NSW support the call by refugee action groups for a Royal Commission into the treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and immigration detainees".

Com. P. Bradley seconded.

See the minutes of Unions NSW here

Royal way's the only route to heal Tampa shame

Sydney Morning Herald
By Frank Walker
August 21, 2005
The Sun-Herald

IT'S four years on Friday that the Norwegian container ship Tampa plucked 433 refugees from a sinking boat to the north of Australia. The way Australia reacted to this act of gallantry will be to our eternal shame, and a royal commission is the only way the stench can ever be expunged.

Tampa was the point at which the Howard Government hitched its 2001 election success to xenophobia. In Tampa's wake came the lies of children overboard, the barbed wire of Woomera, the electric fences at Baxter, the imprisonment of Tampa refugees in Nauru, kids dragged from school and thrown into Villawood and families ripped apart by cruel immigration decisions.

But Tampa worked for the Government and got votes. Even in the 2004 election Howard said people would "remember that period that I stopped the boats". He certainly put taxpayers' money into it. The "Pacific solution" has cost $220 million so far. Nauru now houses just 32 people but costs more than $1 million per person to run, $336 million is being spent on a new 800-bed detention camp on Christmas Island, Manus Island off Papua New Guinea has cost $58 million since 2001 and costs $1.8 million a year to run when empty.

But nothing moved the Government and the public until news of the illegal detention of Cornelia Rau, the illegal deportation of Vivian Alvarez Solon and the improper detention of another 201 people. As the outrage grew it was a handful of Liberal backbenchers with a conscience who forced Howard to try to repair the situation, apologise and soften the policy by releasing children from detention centres.

These are just the most public of the brutal and illegal acts by the Immigration Department since Tampa. Just as damaging are the everyday cases that never make the headlines that do immense damage to Australia's reputation.

Recently a young German man flew into Brisbane to visit his Australian girlfriend for three weeks. He was searched at the airport and among his papers Immigration officials found a letter from a friend on a Queensland farm inviting him to "come and have a look".

Officials took this to mean he intended working illegally in the country. Despite his denials, his ticket home in three weeks and his girlfriend waiting anxiously on the other side of the barrier, his tourist visa was cancelled and he was sent back to Germany.

A royal commission is the only way to expose what is going on in the Immigration Department and who bears responsibility. It must lift the lid on the oppressive activities of private security firms who run the detention centres. It must look into what happens to asylum seekers who are sent back to their country of origin to see if the decisions are right. It should examine the psychological impact on being held in detention for years on end. Finally it should look into whether spending hundreds of millions of dollars to keep asylum seekers in compounds on foreign soil is the best use of public money.

It will only happen with pressure from Liberals with a conscience.

From The Sydney Morning Herald (Sun-Herald)

  • Our Petition Form for a Royal Commission into Immigration detention - The Petition Form for a Royal Commission into Immigration detention and related issues. "It is likely that there is a vast storehouse of indictments declaring serious human rights abuses and prosecutable offences and breaches of many Australian laws and statutes, and all of it is on the records held by individuals around Australia." (PDF File 16 Kb)
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