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Border Force Keystone Cops no laughing matter

  • 04 September 2015

Last week's Australian Border Force show of force in Melbourne quickly ended in farce. What is most significant is that it reflects a particular attitude that has become apparent in Immigration in the two years since the Coalition came to power.

Firstly there is a major change in language. People without a visa are technically called 'unlawful' in the Act, to distinguish them from those with a visa, who are called 'lawful'. There is no criminality involved in being unlawful. At worst you can be detained and, if you have no ongoing case, you face removal (not deportation).

This terminology was changed under former Minister Morrison, who insisted — even in opposition — on referring to those without a visa as 'illegal'. This is not just a linguistic debate, but it illustrates an attitude of aggression.

The pejorative 'illegal' identified the unacceptable 'other' — the bad refugees - who became the target for all the worst treatment. Those who came on a boat had the more cumbersome term of 'unauthorised maritime arrivals', known by the three letter acronym UMA. Former Minister Morrison changed it to IMA — replacing unauthorised with illegal. It has not been changed in s5AA — it still says 'unauthorised'. However all Departmental publications refer to IMAs.

This successful labelling of the bad other justifies punishing treatment such as offering Temporary Protection Visas (TPV) only, as well as no family reunion and no clear future in Australia. It enables the Government to refer to anything that happens which is harsh and cruel as an 'on water matter' or an 'operational matter', before seeking to close down discussion.

Not only that, but there are other changes to the law which make cancellations and refusals easier, and attempt to reduce opportunities to seek review. A change in November 2014 created a mandatory cancellation for anyone in prison who fails the character test. Previously this was discretionary, and if a case officer made the decision, it was reviewable in the independent Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). No longer, mandatory cancellation with a revocation is possible if the Minister believes it is in the Public Interest.

The power was used for a 69 year old Vietnam vet, who was in Villawood after his mandatory cancellation for various offences. However many others are now awaiting removal because of this unnecessarily harsh power. There is no legal aid available to represent them, even if they have Australian spouses or children,