National Security

Labor’s deportation bill could affect several thousand more people than first estimated, inquiry told

April 15, 2024

Monday 15 April 2024
Paul Karp
The Guardian

Home affairs officials have revealed up to 5,000 non-citizens could receive orders to cooperate with removal from Australia under Labor’s controversial deportation bill, a figure far higher that earlier estimates.

Officials revealed at a Senate inquiry on Monday that 4,463 people on bridging visa E could be subject to threats of a minimum of one year in prison if they refuse to cooperate, significantly more than the fewer than 1,000 people that were initially said to be affected.

The bill creates an offence with a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison for an unlawful non-citizen refusing to cooperate with their deportation and gives the immigration minister powers to blacklist new visa applications from countries that refuse involuntary deportations.

Officials revealed that those who could be directed to cooperate with deportation included:

  • 4,463 people on bridging visa E (BVE)
  • 150 to 200 people in detention
  • 152 people granted bridging visa R (BVR) due to the high court’s NZYQ decision that indefinite detention is unlawful; and
  • a further 99 people on BVRs pre-dating the high court decision

Michael Thomas, the first assistant secretary of immigration compliance, argued that the true figure was likely to be far lower as the department believed that only 1,200 of those on BVEs may have “an issue with their departure” if they don’t cooperate; while most people on BVEs do cooperate with deportation.

The home affairs department secretary Stephanie Foster added that directions punishable by a year in prison are a “measure of last resort”.

Earlier the chair of the Law Council’s migration law committee, Carina Ford, warned the bill “could see people rounded up to be removed”.

“Even if the intention is only a small part [of those in scope would receive directions], once passed it can apply to a large number of people,” she said.

Piumetharshika Kaneshan, a 19-year-old nursing student, told the inquiry she was one of the people who “might be jailed if this bill is passed into law”.

Kaneshan said that her family had been “failed by the fast-track” visa assessment process, with claims of needing protection from Sri Lanka rejected because authorities “said we were safe because of my father” who has now died.

Kaneshan said her family is appealing in the federal circuit court but if their case fails their visas will expire in 35 days.

“This bill would put us in jail if we don’t go back to Sri Lankan,” she said. “We consider ourselves Australian. We thought the Australian community accepted us.”

Betia Shakiba, an Iranian lawyer, submitted that her mother and husband had “failed to secure protection in Australia” and their cases are now “finally determined”, meaning they face “being deported or imprisoned” for trying to keep their family together in Australia.

Ahead of the hearing the shadow home affairs minister, James Paterson, confirmed the Coalition is considering amendments to ensure the “extraordinary powers” for the immigration minister have “appropriate safeguards and rigour around them”.

Paterson told reporters in Canberra that multicultural groups are being “silenced” and government legal experts will not appear due to the fact the inquiry had been limited to one day. He blamed this on the fact the legal affairs legislation committee is “government-dominated”.

In his questioning, Paterson explored the possibility of sunsetting the power to blacklist countries so that it would end on a designated date, or adding a power for parliament to disallow such a designation.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has recommended that the bill not be passed. If that is rejected, it proposed amendments including a set of factors that must be considered prior to the minister blacklisting a country from new visa applications.

Foster told the inquiry that the department “acknowledges” the concerns of those who gave evidence particularly in relation to family unity, but she warned that “most” had roles in advocacy.

“We remain strongly of the view the bill is an important measure to take to protect the integrity [of the migration system],” she said.

Foster said the bill dealt with “a relatively small caseload of non-citizens who have come to end of the line” with efforts to stay – including having exhausted merits and judicial review – “and are not cooperating with departure”.

Foster noted the bill does not expand the cohort of people who are required to be removed from Australia; and the powers to revisit a protection finding only apply to those “on a removal pathway”.

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