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Count the cost of refugee legal aid 'savings'

  • 02 April 2014

On 31 March, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced that 'the end of taxpayer-funded immigration advice to illegal boat arrivals' would save $100 million.

For over 20 years, the Department of Immigration has funded immigration advice for people seeking protection. Under both the Coalition and Labor there was always some funding. Legal aid is not available, so the Department funding was the only source of free legal assistance. The funds were limited either by a means test or to those who arrived by boat without a visa.

Now that funding has ceased. Which means no free professional assistance for what is an increasingly complex area of the law.

This is said to be both the fulfillment of an election promise and a cost-saving measure, though it is in fact only a short-term accounting saving. If advice and assistance on complex issues of immigration and refugee law is only available to those with money or the luck to gain access to pro bono assistance, this is not a saving, but a cost. People who are in detention may end up relying on unscrupulous advisors, or those who lack the experience and skills in this area. Pro bono work should exist to help plug gaps, not fill a massive hole.

The Minister states:

The withdrawal of taxpayer funded immigration advice and assistance does not prevent those who arrived illegally having access to legal assistance. In addition, those who wish to provide immigration advice and application assistance pro bono are free to do so. Access to any private and/or pro bono immigration advice by illegal boat or air arrivals will be facilitated by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, with all costs to be met by the providers of these services.

Private access has always been possible, but is often limited due to logistics about accessing detention centres. What this announcement ignores is the need for a funded system for those unable to afford private firms. It is not just representation, but also the cost of interpreters and translation; there are no free services for these crucial skills. Outside the main cities, there are travel and accommodation costs also to be covered.

'Australia's protection obligations do not extend to providing free immigration advice and assistance to those who arrived in Australia illegally,' states the Minister.

The Refugee Convention does not discuss this, but it also does not say we have to have mandatory detention, or deny access to permanent residence and