Friday, December 30, 2011


Jenny Haines, 30.12.11

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald’s National Times Section on the 22nd December 2011, Robert Manne, stated his opinion that the Left Got it Wrong on Boat People. Manne notes the current stalemate between the political parties in Parliament and does not resile from his opposition to John Howard’s Pacific Solution cruelties, but he criticises the Left for not recognising the efficiency of the Pacific Solution in reducing the numbers of refugees arriving by boat. No reference is given for the figures that he quotes on asylum seekers arriving by boat between 2002 and 2008. But how can you have it both ways – if you are horrified by the cruelties of the Pacitic Solution, you can’t then use that Solution to justify the reduction in numbers arriving by boat. And it may be useful for Robert Manne to take a look at the following figures:

Year Migration program Resettled refugees % of migration program

2000–2001 80 610 3 997 5.0%
2001–2002 93 080 4 160 4.5%
2002–2003 108 070 4 376 4.0%
2003–2004 114 360 4 134 3.6%
2004–2005 120 060 5 511 4.6%
2006–2007 148 200 6 003 4.1%
2007–2008 158 630 6 004 3.8%
2008–2009 171 318 6 499 3.8%
2009–2010 168 623 6 003 3.6%
2010–2011 (planned) 168 700 5 998 3.6%

Sources: DIAC advice; Population flows: immigration aspects 2008–09, source data, chapter 4, 2010; and DIAC annual reports

As a member of the Labor Party and a proud member of the Left, I have always admired Robert Manne's intellect and there comes a time in every movement where people change their views. The pain of the refugee issue can induce great shifts of opinion.

I do not subscribe to the view that current people smugglers are akin to Oskar Schindler. There is no doubt that crime syndicates operate in the business world of people smuggling and that those criminal elements should be dealt with by the processes of criminal investigation forces around the world, including Australia. But people smuggling is a difficult business that draws into its whirlpool those who are refugees themselves, Indonesian fishermen who have been driven out of business by Australia’s policing of their former fishing grounds, and opportunists. These latter people are often not fully aware or choose not to be aware of the criminal structure of the enterprise they are involved in, but are hoping to either make some money, or get some family to a safe haven through their service on the boats. If we are serious about stopping refugee deaths on the sea, then bring people who are refugees from Indonesia by plane or safe boat. It is a very simple solution. No sending them back to Malaysia with all its human rights problems, No Nauru or Manus Island. The problem here is the politicians on both sides won't do this. They are all too afraid of voters in marginal seats and focus group outcomes.

The great shift in Manne’s opinion, is his conversion to offshore processing. Manne suggests in his article there are two solutions in the form of offshore processing – the Malaysia Solution which he appears to reject because it provides for 800 refugees being returned to Malaysia to an uncertain future or the re-opening of Nauru and Manus Island, but this time with “decent, health, accommodation, and education facilities.” .Given current government policy and practice on both sides of politics, of contracting out detention facilities to questionable international corporations, there does not seem to be any guarantees that facilties on faraway islands would meet these requirements.
Manne goes on to admit that

“The obvious problem with such an offshore processing camp is that it might not succeed in its deterrent purpose. One solution here is to nominate in advance the number of those found to be refugees that Australia will accept each year from the camp, and to admit that number on the basis of date of arrival. The likelihood of a long wait should act as a powerful deterrent.”

But who goes to Nauru and Manus Island - those who arrive by boat and plane, given the government’s recent commitment to process both groups in the same way? Or is Manne suggesting some regional solution where the Australian Government brings refugees from Indonesia to Nauru and Manus Island by plane or safe boat, thereby bypassing the need for them to get on people smugglers boats to get to Australia? If he is suggesting that refugees who land on Australian soil be sent back to Nauru and Manus Island , Australia is in breach of the Refugee Convention. Given his concerns about the dangers of refugees sailing to Australia by dangerous boat journey, is he suggesting that we continue to allow that to happen, and then send these people to Nauru or Manus Island where they linger in an Australian created queue based on their date of arrival ? If he is suggesting the latter, there is a moral problem in his stated views. They seem to contradict.

Robert Manne goes on to suggest that once Nauru and Manus Island are re-opened, mandatory detention could be abolished. We don’t need the re-opening of Nauru and Manus Island to abolish mandatory detention. He then agrees with the current Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen that the annual refugee intake in Australia could be increased to 20,000. Minister Bowen will increase the annual intake on the condition that the Opposition agrees to the Malaysia Solution. Robert Manne agrees that the refugee intake could be increased on the basis that Nauru and Manus Island are re-opened. We don’t need the Malaysia Solution or the reopening of Nauru and Manus Island to increase the annual intake of refugees. Given the hundreds of thousands being accepted annually by European countries, an increase to 20,000 in Australia is a drop in the ocean. What we need in this country is a government that is prepared to act courageously and humanely, whatever the uneducated portions of the voting public think, but what we have is a government pandering to the perceptions of voters in marginal seats, and participants in focus groups. Until we have more education of these people about the realities of life for refugees and asylum seekers, there will never be a fair go for refugees and asylum seekers, in a country that once prided itself on being the land of the fair go for all.

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Labor and Coalition in 'unholy alliance' on refugees

Stefanie Balogh

From: The Australian December 24, 2011

REFUGEE advocates have accused Labor and the Coalition of entering an "unholy alliance" on offshore processing, expressing dismay that the Pacific Solution-era island of Nauru has been resurrected as a processing option for asylum-seekers.

Labor for Refugees co-convener Linda Scott said the group was "concerned" about the negotiations between the government and opposition to break the border protection impasse.

She said the government's offer to reopen the Nauru processing centre in return for support to pass legislation to shield the Malaysian Solution from any further High Court challenge was "ostensibly a Liberal Party policy".

"Labor for Refugees clearly continues its opposition to any offshore processing, although we are especially concerned about options concerning places like Nauru which we know have a long history of problematic treatment of asylum-seekers," she said.

The ALP's national platform, adopted this month, prohibited any reintroduction of temporary protection visas, Ms Scott said.

...She also said the platform included caveats designed to ensure Australia upheld its international obligations and protected asylum-seekers. "We would certainly work hard to make sure the government kept those commitments," she said.

Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul said: "We're pretty disgusted that the Labor Party is trying to establish an unholy alliance with the Coalition to reintroduce third-country processing.

"At least at Christmas Island people who are processed at Christmas Island come to Australia. But if there is a deal with the Coalition, it will give the Labor Party the capacity to turn people away from Australia," he said. "And that is why nothing good whatsoever can come out of the discussions."

Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said she greeted Labor's decision to reverse course on Nauru "with despair".

"What is going to happen to these people? Are we going to dump them in Nauru in conditions that are so inhospitable that the Australian government hopes the message will go back to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan 'don't come because the living conditions are appalling'?" she said. "It didn't work last time and it's not going to work this time."

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said Labor's decision to embrace Nauru was a "very sad moment".

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Don't stoop to stupid policy over boat tragedy

Aloysious Mowe

December 19, 2011

Eureka Street

Almost a year to the day when a boat sank off Christmas Island with horrendous loss of life, yet another asylum seeker tragedy, with an even higher death toll, has occurred. Up to 150 people bound for Australia may have died in the seas off East Java on Saturday.

The familiar refrains of 'Stop the boats', or more elegant variations thereof, inevitably followed.

The Coalition's policy of towing boats back to Indonesia is both immoral and stupid. It puts the lives of asylum seekers at further risk and undermines the professionalism and morale of the Australian Navy. The other oft-bruited policy, off-shore processing, strikes at the heart of the asylum system.

People have a right to seek asylum, and Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention which clearly states that those who seek asylum and arrive in a country's territory by irregular means should not be penalised. Let us be clear: off-shore processing puts Australia in breach of its international obligations, and makes laughable the claim that Australia is a nation of laws.

Of course we want people to stop making the hazardous boat journey to Christmas Island, but tow-backs and off-shore processing are blunt instruments that avoid the complexity of the issue.

Asylum seekers who attempt the boat journey to Australia often make their way to Indonesia via Malaysia, or arrive in Indonesia directly from their countries of origin before making the decision to get on a boat. Many try to get their refugee status determined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in these countries, but the process is long drawn-out, seen to lack transparency, and has no independent review mechanism.

UNHCR is also in a bind: even if it recognises the refugee status of asylum seekers, there are not enough resettlement places for these refugees to take up. While they languish in Malaysia or Indonesia, they are unable to work legally, cannot get an education, face harassment from the authorities, and are readily exploited by unscrupulous employers who know they have few protections.

Senator Doug Cameron's cogent and insightful statement in reaction to Saturday's tragedy bears repeating:

“It doesn't matter what deterrent you put in place, if they are fleeing for their lives, if they don't have a future in the country they're in, then they will take these chances. You can't place enough impediments in the way of asylum seekers who are fleeing death or torture”.

This is a regional problem and requires a regional solution. Australia must engage with the countries through which pass the flows of irregular migrants, explore with them ways to increase the protection space for asylum seekers and refugees in their territories, and share in the cost, so that people are not driven by poor living conditions and lack of legal protection to make desperate journeys.

It should also engage in serious research to find out why people make onward journeys from the countries of first asylum such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

On a recent visit to Indonesia, I met many asylum seekers and refugees. For them, coming to Australia was not always an inevitability, but a solution to a problem that seemed to have no other solutions: where can they be safe, and lead normal lives?

For a young man of 16, waiting two to three years in Indonesia for the refugee status determination and resettlement process to play itself out seems like a lifetime, especially when you cannot get an education and have no other meaningful activities while you wait. Getting on a boat seems like the better option, and the young cannot weigh the risks because they feel they are indestructible.

Many have now learnt, to their cost, that this is not the case.


Aloysious Mowe is Director of Jesuit Refugee Service.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Questions surround latest asylum seeker boat disaster

Tony Kevin December 18, 2011

Eureka Street

Reports started coming in on Sunday about another major boat disaster en route to Christmas Island. Questions surround this latest tragedy, ten years after SIEV X and one year after the SIEV 221 shipwreck.

BBC News Asia reported the sinking location as about 90km out to sea. ABC News gave the same location. BBC reported at least 250 people were on board. Some reports put the number as high as 380.

The vessel appeared to have been carrying more than twice its capacity. It 'sank Saturday evening and the national search and rescue team [BASARNAS] has already moved out to sea to start the search', rescue team member Brian Gauthier told Indonesian news agency Antara. Gauthier's position is unstated: he may be an Australian Maritime Safety Authority secondment to BASARNAS (AMSA has extensive rescue at sea training-type cooperation underway).

Extreme weather caused reduced visibility. An Afghan survivor told Antara the ship rocked violently, triggering panic among the tightly packed passengers. This made the boat even more unstable and it sank. He and others clung to wreckage and were rescued by local fishermen. He estimated more than 40 children were on the boat.

This account recalls the details of SIEV X: a grossly overloaded, top-heavy boat capsizes after rocking violently in extreme weather; a few survivors are later rescued by local fishermen.

ABC News and Antara sources offer more detail as to the location of these events. Gauthier told Antara some of the rescued are in Prigi in eastern Java, around 30km from where the boat sank. Some survivors are in Trenggalek, a town about 20km further inland. Both places are around 200km east of Jogyakarta, in the Java southern coastal region (and about 350km east of Cilicap, where another sinking took place a few weeks ago).

Antara says the sinking location 'is estimated to [be] within 20-30 miles from the boundary waters Prigi Coast'. This would seem to locate the sinking in international waters outside the Indonesian contiguous zone, about 30km or more south of Prigi Beach.

Christmas Island — about 700km away in a WSW direction — was the most likely destination from this area. But this is an unusually long route, about twice as long as the direct route south from the Sunda Strait/Panaitan Island area. If the boat started from east of Prigi, its route towards Christmas Island would be diagonal to the coast — which could indeed put its sinking location about 30km from the coast after 90km travelling.

There are more parallels here with SIEV X: a circuitous route from a long way off, yet a sinking location finally not far outside Indonesian contiguous waters, far from Australian waters, and in the Indonesian search and rescue zone; and plausibly accessible to Indonesian fishing boat rescue.

The circumstances raise similar intelligence-related questions as those raised by SIEV X. How did fishing boats find survivors? How did anyone know where the boat was? Were there tracking devices on board? Were there intercepted distress messages from passengers using GPS-reading satellite phones, to relatives, to Indonesia, or to 000 in Australia? Did AFP inform AMSA of any distress message and location? Did AMSA inform BASARNAS?
This overloaded boat must have been at sea at least 15 hours to have got 90km from its embarkation point. Were there any monitored pre-embarkation phonecalls by passengers to family members (as there usually are these days)? Would the Australian border protection intelligence system have picked up such messages? What did they do with them, and when?

The events have a similar smell to them as SIEV X: of a possible Indonesian police (INP) illegal disruption operation, from a remote location, highly profitable and sending a terrible deterrent message to others.

As former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty testified in the Senate CMI inquiry in 2002, 'though the AFP would never ask the INP to do anything illegal, once they have asked the INP to do anything to disrupt the movement of people smugglers, the AFP has to leave it in the INP's hands as to how they do it. Recent Senate Estimates Committee testimony by Customs suggests nothing much has changed.'

As with SIEV X, the Australian border protection system is far from the scene. And with all intelligence information being withheld on national security grounds, we may never know how this latest tragedy happened — as with SIEV X, SIEV 221 and the lost boats in 2009 and 2010.

Australian politicians and officials will blame the easy target we have been taught to hate: people smugglers. The tragedy will be exploited by both sides of politics. Gillard will use it to pressure Abbott to pass her legislation to enable Malaysian offshore processing. Abbott will use it to pressure her for Navy towback of boats, and for Nauru — as SIEV X was exploited by Howard to force Indonesia to accede to Australian towbacks.

It is an indictment of Australia's border protection system, including its secret intelligence-based parts, that such disasters go on happening, and that the Australian system continues to avoid admitting any degree of knowledge or accountability.

I will continue to research these issues, asking fact-based questions that the Australian Government would prefer not be asked. I do this because deaths of people at sea in these numbers are intolerable in any decent society that claims to conduct intelligence gathering on people smugglers, and people smuggling disruption operations in cooperation with the INP, by lawful means.

Tony Kevin is an author and former ambassador to Cambodia and Poland whose 2004 book A Certain Maritime Incident sparked debates about Australia's moral responsibilities on the high seas.

Sunday, December 18, 2011




Australia cannot evade its share of the responsibility for yesterday’s
tragic sinking of another asylum boat off Java, according to advocates
from the Refugee Action Coalition. The boat is believed to have been
carrying Afghan and Iranian refugees.

‘Australia’s push for Indonesia to detain asylum seekers and to
criminalize people smuggling directly leads to the kind of tragedy
we’ve seen yet again today,’ said Ian Rintoul, RAC spokesperson.

‘There’s nothing inherently dangerous about the passage from Indonesia
– if it’s in proper boats. If the government is worried about people
losing their lives at sea, they should decriminalize people-smuggling
so that the voyages can be planned in the open and seaworthy boats can
come here without having to sneak into Australian waters in secret.’

“But the policy of detaining asylum seekers in Indonesia means asylum
seekers risk imprisonment if they contact authorities if they are
concerned about the seaworthiness of any boat.
“The fact that Australia impounds and destroys the vessels that bring
asylum seekers here means boats used for are more likely to be
unseaworthy. The crossing from Indonesia is these boats’ last voyage.’

‘This time we tragically have hundreds of people likely to be dead.
‘No doubt we’ll hear a lot of hypocrisy from government and opposition
about the tragedy of lost lives. They’ll say the sinking shows
Australia has to deter people from undertaking boat trips. But talk of
stopping the boats only makes the situation worse.
‘It doesn’t matter how unsafe the boat is, refugees will try to get to
Australia because that is often the only place where they can be safe.

‘According to reports earlier this year, there were 1462 civilian
deaths in Afghanistan in the first half of 2011 alone – a 15%
increase. May this year was the deadliest month of the war for
civilians since 2007. It’s no surprise that people are willing to risk
their lives on the trip to Australia.’

‘Sending people to Nauru or Malaysia will make no difference. People
trying to escape war and persecution in Afghanistan or Iran are still
going to try and come here because they have no other option. And any
refugees who are prevented from coming to Australia by government
policies will just undertake other dangerous journeys to Europe or
America, with just as much risk to their lives.’

‘Australia’s obligation is to welcome asylum seekers. We have
resettled a minuscule number of refugees from our region.

‘If the government and opposition really had a concern for asylum
seekers’ lives they would institute the humane refugee policy
Australia has needed for so long. They’d massively increase our
refugee intake from the region, they’d end mandatory detention,
decriminalize people-smuggling, remove offshore processing as a policy
option, and process and resettle refugees from Indonesia.’

More information: Ian Rintoul, 0417 275 713



Stay tuned for the Gillard blames Abbott and Abbott blames Gillard show.

Jenny Haines

Huge toll as overcrowded asylum ship sinks

Ali Kotarumalos, SMH.

December 18, 2011 - 9:27AM

Read later.A wooden ship suspected to be heading to Australia and carrying more than 200 asylum seekers, many of them from the Middle East, has sunk off Indonesia's main island of Java, local media report.

So far only 33 people have been rescued.

Police blamed the Saturday accident on overloading, telling the official news agency Antara that the vessel appeared to have been carrying more than twice its capacity.

Advertisement: Story continues below One of the survivors, Esmat Adine, told Antara the ship started rocking from side to side, triggering widespread panic.

Because people were so tightly packed, they had no where to go, said the 24-year-old Afghan migrant.

"That made the boat even more unstable and eventually it sank," he said.

Adine said that he and others survived by clinging to parts of the broken vessel until they were picked up by local fishermen.

He estimated that more than 40 children were on the ship. It was not immediately clear if any were rescued.

Indonesia, a sprawling archipelagic nation of 240 million people, has more than 18,000 islands and thousands of kilometres of unpatrolled coastline, making it a key transit point for smuggling migrants.

Those on board Saturday - apparently heading to Australia - were from Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

The private television station Metro TV reported that 33 people had been found alive and that perhaps 215 others were still missing.

Last month a ship carrying about 70 asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan capsized off the southern coast of Central Java; at least eight people died.


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Thursday, December 15, 2011


Asylum seeker policy betrays Labor's true believers

Robin Rothfield

SMH, December 15, 2011 - 6:48AM

You may have missed it, but the Labor Party made history last week by passing a policy to support, for the first time, the offshore processing of asylum seekers.

But for card-carrying Labor supporters in particular, and fair-minded Australians in general, it was a bitter pill to swallow.

The sweetener - such as it is - was an increase in annual visas for humanitarian refugees to 20,000 a year, on condition of a reduction in the number of boat arrivals.

This increase should be unconditional and not entwined in a quid pro quo formula that turns persecuted and vulnerable human beings into cold statistics as the government bids to make offshore processing Australia's new reality.

Ultimately, offshore processing of asylum seekers – during which some victims may have to wait as long as nine years in detention – will not stop the boats. We now have the harshest and cruellest policy in Australia's history, with more than a third of detainees having been incarcerated for more than a year and many committing acts of self-harm.

Labor's new policy is thus nothing but a political capitulation to the politics of fear and smear waged by Tony Abbott and his opposition.
In his speech to the national conference in Sydney, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Labor's new refugee policy was ''compassionate'' and ''pro-refugee'', a balance between a ''soft heart and a hard head''.

He is either delusional or in denial. For how else to read this statement after his performance at the conference. Asked to justify the jailing of Indonesian villagers coerced into crewing boats bound for Australia – some of whom are teenagers and don't even know they are engaging in people smuggling – he simply deferred the issue to the Attorney-General. This was either politics at its cynical best or the best cop out in the book.

Further pressed as to whether it is justifiable to sentence an asylum seeker to life in detention when they have committed no crime, he responded that the High Court had ruled that indefinite detention of asylum seekers is legal. A sidestep to be sure, but hardly outright opposition to such draconian measures.

Worse, arguably, was his cold-hearted retort about the government's right to repatriate failed asylum seekers even when there is a risk of death as the Taliban have made brutally explicit in Afghanistan.
Bowen and the government's spin-masters have tried to sell the public the fiction that its policy, while maintaining a balance between humanitarianism and border security, is a deterrent for people smugglers.

But in reality it smacks of political expediency because the government knows that the Malaysian solution is stillborn – rejected by the judiciary and deadlocked in the legislature.

It may be true to argue that, by dint of a High Court ruling and a hung parliament, Labor is processing refugees on Australian soil and in a more humane manner.

But this is neither morally sustainable nor politically defensible. It's nothing but a false sense of security. For the first time in its history Labor's official policy is now to promote offshore processing as the solution.

And to add insult to injury, the rank-and-file party members were denied the right to a conscience vote on this issue even though they were granted it for the hot-button issue of gay marriage.

Indeed, it seemed Bowen was acutely aware it would be a close-fought battle because two prominent members of the Right faction, including refugee advocate Shane Prince, were denied permission to speak at National Conference.

Nevertheless, Labor For Refugees, with the backing of the Left faction, did manage to secure policy reforms that may improve the lives of asylum seekers processed in Australia. Labor has abandoned the policy of treating those who arrive by boat more harshly than those who arrive by air.
Mercifully, Labor has also committed to releasing children and, where possible, their families from detention centres. And for asylum seekers detained while their health, identity and security issues are checked, Labor will strive to ensure that detention is for a maximum of 90 days.
But striving is not good enough. They should be released within 90 days unless there is evidence of a security risk endorsed by a judge.

Nevertheless, these specific reforms pale into insignificance compared with the government's overarching new policy. Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are now jostling in their race to the bottom on this critical issue. Former prime minister John Howard must be bemused at how the politics of panic he manipulated so expertly are edging Labor closer and closer to Howard-era policies.

As David Marr writes in his new book, Panic: ''Hearts are hardened. Terrible things are done in the name of protecting the nation. It is not the first wave of boats and won't be the last, but the politics are more rancorous than ever.''

Ordinary Australians should be ashamed that our government supports abdicating our responsibility to a third party. Australians need to deal humanely with refugees on Australian soil without compromising border protection.

By backing offshore processing, Labor has crossed the idiomatic Rubicon. It's a subtle but significant shift – one that alters the party's DNA. In short, Labor has abandoned defending human rights in favour of trading the human rights of asylum seekers with other countries.

Not in my name.

Robin Rothfield is secretary of Labor for Refugees (Victoria).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Refugee inquiry to tackle backlog

Kirsty Needham

December 13, 2011
THE former attorney-general Michael Lavarch will conduct an independent review of the refugee and migration tribunals amid a backlog of cases and allegations that the process is being abused.

The matter has become urgent as thousands more asylum seekers are set to be funnelled into the Refugee Review Tribunal from early next year, as the separate system for assessing boat arrivals is scrapped.

An internal memo announcing Professor Lavarch's appointment was circulated within the Immigration Department yesterday, pointing to a surge in overseas students appealing visa knock-backs and sponsored family fighting to stay in Australia as two reasons for the backlog.

Advertisement: Story continues below ''The increasing delays result in uncertainty for applicants and provide an incentive for others to misuse the review process to extend their stay in Australia,'' the memo said.

In November, less than half of Refugee Review Tribunal cases (47 per cent) had been completed within the 90-day standard, while a third of Migration Review Tribunal cases were more than a year old.

The principal member of the tribunals, Denis O'Brien, had complained in the tribunals' annual report it would be a ''significant challenge'' for them to meet targets this year.

The migration tribunal deals with business, bridging visa and student visa refusals. Most cases lodged with the refugee tribunal - which only deals with plane arrivals - were from China, Fiji and India. There was a 31 per cent leap in new cases before the refugee tribunal and a 24 per cent increase in new cases before the migration tribunal last year.

Professor Lavarch is expected to report by the end of January 2012. The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said: ''This independent review will identify what changes could be made to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of both the MRT and RRT.''

The refugee tribunal lost members last year to the boat arrival system, which has been plagued by its own difficulties.

Two out of three visa refusals handed out by the boat system have later been overturned in the Federal Magistrates Court on the grounds of lack of fairness.

The court has also ruled that a key reviewer assessing boat arrivals appeared to be biased against Afghan Hazaras and has injuncted the Immigration Department from using the reviewer's decision.

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