Immigration Department under fire for photos of asylum seekers being told of PNG policy

The Federal Government has been accused of employing a double standard over images purportedly showing the first group of asylum seekers to be processed under its new policy.


On Monday the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) released several photos which it says show a group of 81 Iranians being told the news that their hopes of settling in Australia have been dashed.

One pixelated image depicts a woman with her head in her hands, and is captioned: “A female asylum seeker comes to terms with the fact she won’t be settled in Australia.”

No journalists were allowed in to the Christmas Island location where the asylum seekers were briefed, and there is no way of verifying the material.

– Immigration department releases photos of first group of asylum seekers to be processed under new policy

– Access to detention centres highly restricted; standard policy prohibits media from photographing asylum seekers

– Senator Nick Xenophon lodges formal complaint over domestic ad campaign

– Government says ‘extreme urgency’ behind campaign’s exemption from committee scrutiny

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon says it is a double standard given the tight rules around journalists getting access to asylum seekers.

“If journalists and others can’t verify the veracity of those images, the veracity of the response that the department has set out in its website, then I think that means that there can be no checks and balances to ensure that the department isn’t itself being involved in blatantly political activity,” he said.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young also criticised the release of the photo, describing it as a “vulgar display” and shameful.

No-one from the department was available for interview when contacted by the ABC’s PM program but it released a series of pre-recorded audio.

The Immigration Department’s acting regional manager on Christmas Island, Steven Karras, said the asylum seekers were given a clear message about where they would be processed.

“I think that probably sank in a bit,” he said.

“I think over the coming days, because they’ve only just arrived, they’ll start to contemplate very seriously whether in fact returning home is a better option.”

Media must sign an agreement with the Immigration Department to be given any access to detention centres.

“DIAC is willing to grant to the Media Entity access to immigration detention facilities in a manner that respects the privacy of the detainee clients residing in such facilities, and protects the identities of both the detainee clients and other third parties,” the agreement states.

“The Media Entity acknowledges that standard DIAC policy prohibits visitors from photographing, filming, audio recording or in any other way recording the Detainee Clients or Protected Parties in the IDF.”

DIAC’s national communications manager, Sandi Logan, has previously explained the department’s policy about identifying asylum seekers.

“The department also tries to protect against sur place claims – this is when someone can rely on events subsequent to their departure from their home country to form the basis of, or addendum to, their protection claim,” he wrote in the March 2012 issue of the Walkley Magazine.

“The most common reason for a sur place claim is public identification in the media.

“In the department’s view, we should not be creating opportunities (through sur place) for people to engage Australia’s protection obligations when they otherwise might not.

“It’s true that people in immigration detention are free to telephone media representatives or enter into email conversations with them.

“However, the argument that because the department allows this, unrestricted access to facilities should be afforded, falls flat.

“If someone is speaking on the telephone of their own free will, it is not tantamount to allowing recording devices into a detention facility without controls, which would clearly fall short of the department’s duty of care.”

The Immigration Department’s release today builds on the Government’s $2.6 million advertising campaign of its new asylum policy.

The campaign began over the weekend with full-page advertisements in newspapers and advertisements on radio.

The advertisements are also running overseas where they are more likely to be seen by asylum seekers.

The ads were not approved by the Independent Committee on Communications, which signs off on government advertising with a budget of more than $250,000, except in special circumstances.

Senator Xenophon says the ads are political propaganda aimed at Australian voters, not people smugglers, and has lodged a formal complaint with the auditor-general.

“My complaint isn’t with the advertising campaign overseas, it’s with the campaign in Australia,” he said.

“These ads are meant to be directed towards people smugglers and those planning to use the services of a people smuggler.

“By definition, if you’ve read one of these ads in the Advertiser or the Herald Sun or the Daily Telegraph it’s already too late because you’re already in the country.”

Greens leader Christine Milne says the Government’s rules mean it can only run such an ad campaign without prior approval if there is a national emergency.

“I’d like the Government to release immediately the advice it has got, the advice it has given to this committee, and make it public now,” she said.

“As to why suddenly this is a national emergency – Labor’s electoral fortunes in the polls are not a national emergency.”

Jamie Briggs, the Coalition’s spokesman on scrutiny of government, echoed the criticism.

“Kevin Rudd should be held to his own standard on this, and his standard was set in 2007 when he was campaigning for the Prime Ministership the first time,” he said.

“At that time he said that advertising, government paid advertising, should be banned three months within an election and that it was a cancer on democracy.

“Clearly this is within three months of an election, it’s days away if not hours, from the election being called. It is political advertising for a political purpose, unless Captain Emad is back, the advertising’s designed for the Australian electorate not for people smugglers. And it is an abuse and the Labor Party should be paying for it.”

Special Minister of State Mark Dreyfus is responsible for government advertising.

A spokeswoman says he agreed to exempt the campaign from approval by the Committee on the basis of extreme urgency.

Mr Dreyfus was not available for interview when contacted by PM, but Immigration Minister Tony Burke told Sky News he made no apology for the campaign.

“There was genuinely a genuine sense of urgency in needing to get those ads out,” Mr Burke said.

“How do you reach everybody in the pipeline to let them know that the rules have changed?

“The most effective way of reaching people who are considering getting on a boat is through their friends, relatives and contacts in Australia.

“And the bigger the issue is in Australia, the more likely it is that people in that pipeline find out.”


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