By Paul Maley
Immigration authorities are not informing asylum-seekers for months that their refugee assessments have failed.
The tactic is an effort to avoid adding to tensions in Australia's overcrowded and increasingly chaotic detention centres.
In what has been described as a "systematic" and illegal practice, the Immigration Department has delayed notifying failed asylum-seekers their claims have been rejected, in some cases for almost five months.
News of the practice comes just weeks after the High Court ruled there were serious deficiencies in the way the Immigration Department was processing asylum claims and significantly expanded the role of the courts to increase oversight of refugee assessment decisions.
It also comes on the back of a series of protests and suicides in detention centres, caused in part by long delays in resolving people's cases. Last night there were a total of 5746 asylum-seekers in detention, including 2786 on Christmas Island.
According to refugee lawyers and migration agents, notifications of unsuccessful refugee assessments are being delayed so detention authorities can manage the reaction to a failed asylum claim.
The Australian has been told the issue has caused a deep rift within the Immigration Department. Some senior officials are reportedly troubled by the practice, which has coincided with a wave of unrest in detention centres, including two suicides, protests, brawls and asylum-seekers sewing their lips together.
Experts familiar with the centres say the biggest stress factor for asylum-seekers is not overcrowding but the length of time spent in detention.
David Manne - executive director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, which co-ordinated the recent successful High Court challenge by two asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka after their claims for refugee status were rejected - said one of his clients had waited more than four months before being informed his refugee claim had failed.
"This has become a systematic practice, which is of profound concern," Mr Manne said.
He said that, given the high rate at which unsuccessful asylum claims were being overturned on appeal, it was inevitable genuine refugees were being locked up for months longer than they should be. "Quite a number" of his clients, including unaccompanied minors, had had news of their decisions withheld.
"In my view it's both inexcusable, unacceptable and quite possibly unlawful," he said.
University of Sydney law professor Mary Crock said the authority to detain asylum-seekers was tied to the process on determining whether or not someone was entitled to a visa. "So it's pretty clear that this behaviour is not lawful," she said.
Migration agent Libby Hogarth said that between 15 and 20 of her clients had had news of their negative decisions delayed for about two months.
She said another six to eight had experienced notification delays at the appeal level.
A spokesman for the Immigration Department said yesterday the department "totally" rejected the claim that asylum decisions were being withheld for security reasons.
"From time to time, it may be necessary to manage the timing of a negative hand-down for logistical reasons," the spokesman said. Asylum-seekers were informed in a "timely fashion" and support services were in place to manage any fall-out. "This support includes counselling and psychological services," the spokesman said.