Migration bill echoes 'White Australia policy': hearing

An Albanese government bill that would force refugees to co-operate in returning to their home countries or face jail has been panned by experts and advocates for breaking human rights norms.

A Senate committee hearing on Monday forced by the coalition, Greens and cross bench in March delayed the government's attempt to push through the legislation.

The proposed amendments would impose a minimum one-year minimum prison term and up to five years behind bars for people who refuse to co-operate with the government over their deportation.

It would also give the Home Affairs minister unilateral power to ban visa classes for relatives of asylum seekers from blacklisted countries that do not accept the deportees.

Greens senator David Shoebridge lambasted the "God-like powers" vested in the minister considered in the legislation.

"It's the kind of power that is reminiscent of the White Australia policy," he said on Monday. 

"It would allow a future minister without any parliamentary oversight to effectively reinstate something like the White Australia policy."

He said the forcible deportation aspect of the bill was globally unique in its cruelty and the travel ban was ineffective in changing the behaviour of rogue regimes.

Australia is a signatory to various international human rights treaties including the principle of non-refoulement, which means refugees cannot be sent back to countries where they face persecution.

People from Iran, Iraq, Russia and South Sudan have been floated as possible targets of the ban but the government has not released a full list.

"I doubt (Russian President) Vladimir Putin is shaking in his boots about what (Immigration Minister) Andrew Giles is going to do on an immigration provision," Senator Shoebridge said.

Sanmati Verma, acting legal director of the Human Rights Law Centre, told the senate hearing the proposal of punishing people for not voluntarily wanting to be deported to home countries was "unprecedented".

"We talk about a Trump-style travel ban and it will be a sad day when we talk about an Albanese-style criminalisation of non co-operation."

Greens senator David Shoebridge
Senator David Shoebridge says the bill's forcible deportation is "globally unique in its cruelty".

Piumetharshika Kaneshan, a 19-year-old nursing student from Canberra who escaped Sri Lanka with her family, said the threat of being jailed or deported was a heavy burden to carry.

"I am ... one of the people who might be jailed if this bill is passed into law."

She said she was representing a group of Iranian and Sri Lankan women whose cases had been held up by the Abbott government's fast-track system reviewing their protection claims about a decade ago.

"This is our home, we don't have any other home ... don't make us lose our homes."

Several diaspora groups including from the Iranian, Kurdish, South Sudanese and Zimbabwean communities opposed the "unchecked" powers that would be vested in the immigration minister.

They underscored the government's lack of consultation and the narrow definition of family reunion had caused concern and stress, especially for those seeking medical treatment in Australia.

Home Affairs Department secretary Stephanie Foster pushed back on criticisms from more than 100 submissions to the committee about the punitive nature of the bill.

"The absence of a power to enforce someone leaving a country that they no longer have a legal right to be in ... is fundamental to the integrity of our system and I make no apology for that," Ms Foster said.

She revealed that 2184 non-citizens were voluntarily deported in 2023, with 90 forcibly removed.

"There is no preconceived list of countries that might be designated," she said.

Senior home affairs officials said the legislation would affect about 5000 people in various visas classes.

Debate over the laws come before a High Court decision on Wednesday involving an Iranian citizen known as ASF17.

The man seeks to have an earlier High Court ruling that indefinite immigration detention is illegal for those who cannot be returned to a third country, also cover detainees who refuse to co-operate with their deportation.

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