Australia drops asylum-seeker secrecy laws

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton (AP Photo/File) Related News

Australia is scrapping secrecy laws designed to stop whistleblowers from speaking out about alleged abuse at offshore asylum-seeker detention camps, in a move which campaigners on Monday hailed as a victory for free speech.

Asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat are either turned back or sent to remote camps in Nauru and on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Refugee advocates and medical professionals have long criticised conditions in the camps, where some detainees have been held for years.

The secrecy provisions were introduced in 2015, making it a jailable offence for immigration department workers to speak out about conditions in the centres. But Immigration Minister Peter Dutton last week moved an amendment to the law to restrict the definition of unauthorised disclosures to information relating to the national or public interest.

He told parliament last week the 2015 changes had “not kept pace with the developments in the modern border environment”. “The definition of the information to be protected has been refined to include only certain kinds of information such as national security and defence,” Dutton added.

The previous provisions were set to be challenged in the High Court by rights group Doctors for Refugees, which welcomed the government’s U-turn. “This is a stunning victory for anyone in Australia who believes people who are concerned about abuse or neglect should be allowed to speak out,” Barri Phatarfod from Doctors for Refugees said in a statement Monday.

A PNG court ruled last year that holding people on Manus was unconstitutional, and Canberra is set to shut the camp later this year. The detainees will be moved to third countries such as the US and Cambodia or be resettled in PNG. Canberra has been criticised for its asylum-seeker policies but defends its tough stance as necessary to stamp out people-smuggling and stop asylum-seekers dying at sea in rickety boats.

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