Tuesday, March 1, 2011

ASIO's security check logjam revealed

Refugees: 900 are held in detention centres, most on Christmas Island. (AAP - file image: Mick Tsikas)

ASIO's security check logjam revealed

ASIO is under pressure to explain why 900 asylum seekers are stuck inside detention centres waiting for months for security checks to be completed.

The security agency has told the ABC it now takes an average of 66 days to do a security check on an asylum seeker - about a month longer than it took in 2009.

During a Senate estimates hearing last week, the Immigration Department revealed that 900 people are being held in detention centres because ASIO has not completed its security checks.

These 900 people have already been accepted in Australia as genuine refugees and most are being held on Christmas Island.

The group makes up more than 13 per cent of Australia's total asylum seeker population and security delays are being blamed for overcrowding inside detention centres and millions of dollars in extra costs.

They can be held indefinitely, because there is no limit on the time ASIO can take to deliver an answer on their security clearance.

In October last year, 330 asylum seekers who arrived by boat were stuck in detention waiting for an ASIO assessment. But in just four months that number has almost trebled.

The Greens say that some detainees have been waiting for security checks for 18 months, and that children are also stuck in detention waiting for their parents to be assessed.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told estimates that she knew of a family who had been in detention for over 14 months.

"Three kids, under the age of 9, [are] being held in detention indefinitely, despite the fact that they are refugees, and we are still keeping them locked up," she said.

Checks taking longer

During 2009, it took ASIO an average of 37 days to complete security checks for asylum seekers who arrived by boat.

By October 2010, the security checks were taking an average of 57 days.

ASIO has revealed to Lateline that the security checks now take an average of 66 days to complete.

A senior government official has told Lateline that ASIO was warned about a spike in security assessments 15 months ago and that it needed to increase its resources to deal with the boat arrivals.

The official said that ASIO finally got the message six to nine months ago, but it was too late and ASIO did not have enough staff to cope with the increasing number of asylum seekers.

The official also said the delays are causing tensions between ASIO and the Immigration Department, which is now under pressure to release aslyum seekers who have been accepted as refugees.

ASIO has had to take urgent steps to address the situation.

In a written statement to Lateline, a spokeswoman said: "During 2009-10, ASIO had to divert significant resources to undertaking security assessment of irregular maritime arrivals for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

"Protection visa applicants and other refugee assessments were most significantly affected.

"In response, ASIO implemented new measures, including the establishment of a dedicated team responsible for protection visas and other complex non-irregular maritime arrival visa cases."

Agency under pressure

Liberal Senator Russell Trood wants to know why the delays have occured.

He says despite a large budget increase during the past decade, ASIO is struggling to keep up.

"They were moving people from one part of the agency to another to focus a larger among of resources on this problem of the security checks, so it's clearly putting pressure on the agency overall," he said.

"I'd be surprised if it was not putting great pressure on particular sections of ASIO."

Refugee lawyer David Manne says ASIO has not made the security checks a high enough priority.

"In the meantime, it's quite clear that there are seriously inadequate resources being dedicated to ensure that security checking is done properly, humanly and in a timely fashion," he said.

Last year, during a Senate estimates hearing, ASIO officials stated that between 2008 and 2009, ASIO completed 207 security assessments for irregular maritime arrivals.

The officials said between 2009 and 2010, that number increased to 2,028 security assessments, almost ten times the number being processed the year before.

Mr Manne says the long delays are not neccessary and the Federal Government has another option.

"Two years ago, the government announced a new policy, which promised an end to the practice of prolonged detention by ensuring that upon initial completion of health, security and identity checks, asylum seekers would be released into the community, unless they prosed some clear risk to the community," he said.

"It's clear that promise has been abandoned."

Tonight, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said that asylum seekers would only be considered for community accommodation once health, identity and security checks had been completed.