Locking People Away Forever Because ASIO Reckons

It’s a scandal that administrative decisions which result in indefinite detention are made outside judicial scrutiny.

In his 1885 book An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, the great English jurist AV Dicey said, “No man is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer in body or goods except for a distinct breach of law established in the ordinary Courts of the land.”

This, he argued, was the first principle of the rule of law. With his book, Dicey shaped the English-speaking world’s legal philosophy. He formalised the ideals suggested in documents like the Magna Carta, but which can be traced back to Aristotle.

So compare Dicey’s high principles to a statement made by the head of ASIO, David Irvine, to a parliamentary committee in November last year.

Explaining why he wouldn’t even tell Parliament the grounds on which his organisation makes security assessments for refugees, the ASIO boss said, “Once the criteria for making assessments are known, then you will find very quickly that all the applicants will have methods of evading or avoiding demonstrating those characteristics.”

The Department of Immigration only refers asylum seekers to ASIO for security checks after it’s been determined they qualify for refugee status. It’s one of the last steps. By the time ASIO looks at them, the Australian Government already believes they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted.

So when a refugee receives an adverse security assessment, they’re thrown into administrative limbo. They are unable to return home (too dangerous for them) and they are unable to enter Australia (too dangerous for us). The result is indefinite detention. It’s a classically bureaucratic non-solution. Just lock them up forever and hope the problem goes away.

This is pretty bad, but no-one said national security wasn’t about tough choices.

What makes the situation fundamentally and egregiously illiberal is the fact that these refugees have no idea why they have been detained.

The refugees are not told why ASIO believes they are a security threat. They are not told what evidence the belief is based on. And they have no opportunity to challenge the assessment. There is no review process where the merits of their case can be scrutinised.

In the interminable debate about asylum seeker policy, much has been made of the distinction between incarceration – which happens to criminals – and immigration detention – an administrative process which all asylum seekers undergo. Temporary administrative detention is not punishment.

But when a person is detained indefinitely because the government believes they are a security threat, that distinction is nowhere near as clear. We should never be asked to take a government department on its word that someone must be locked up.

This makes the claims that there are heavy national security issues at stake quite hollow.

No doubt there are circumstances where security demands that some people not be let into the country. David Irvine assured the parliamentary committee that ASIO makes negative findings sparingly and hesitantly. In his words, “We do not take a decision to issue an adverse security assessment lightly and nor are we contemptuous of or blasé about the human rights of the individuals involved.”

That may be true. ASIO could be bureaucratic paragons. But with no checks, we cannot have any confidence they are. Ronald Reagan was fond of the phrase “trust, but verify”. It applies here. A liberal society trusts its bureaucratic and judicial administration because of safeguards built into that system – not because of the inherent honesty and virtue of the public service.

So the issue here is not simply about justice for the 50-odd refugees stuck in this administrative black hole. Without institutional safeguards, the Australian public should have no confidence in ASIO’s decisions. The ASIO chief may have meant his assurances to be comforting, but they only remind us that his assurances are all we’ve got.

In a story on Monday night, the ABC’s 7.30 spent time discussing the adverse assessments made about refugees with links to the Tamil Tigers. The program offered up academics with different views about the security risks they presented, and an interview with a former member now living in Australia.

All very interesting. But this debate is in many ways premature. It grants the system an institutional legitimacy which it does not have.

By not implementing a right for refugees (or their security-cleared advocates, or a tribunal) to question the merits of individual cases, we have, by accident, established a system where we literally lock people away forever just because somebody at ASIO “reckons”.

It’s hard to imagine anything more illiberal, anything more contrary to Dicey’s great principles, than that.