The accidental public release of thousands of asylum seekers' details could have mixed implications for their safety.
(Transcript from World News Radio)
The Immigration Department has inadvertently published online the full names, nationalities and boat arrival details of up to 10,000 asylum-seekers.
While there are concerns the information could be used against asylum-seekers and their families, the information might also increase some asylum-seekers' chances of securing refuge.
Thea Cowie explains.
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For many asylum-seekers the immediate concern is that the release of their personal details could have serious ramifications not only for their own safety, but also for the safety of family members back home.
The leak affects about a third of the 30,000 asylum-seekers in Australia, or in Australian detention centres overseas.
Chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, Paul Power, says it's an outrageous breach of security.
"If any of this information has got out into the wrong hands the ramifications for the people who are on the database are enormous. It definitely would heighten the risk for the people whose names are on the database if they're returned to the country of origin, certainly in a number of countries of asylum people who have gone somewhere else to seek asylum are pursued by authorities in different ways and to be named in this way by the Department of Immigration has all sorts of implications. But also particularly it would create an immediate risk to family members who can be tracked by the authorities in the country of origin as being linked to a person in detention or community detention in Australia."
On the other hand, the security breach could actually work in asylum-seekers' favour.
Legal experts say the leak could validate the claims of asylum-seekers who would not otherwise have been eligible for refugee status.
Daniel Webb, from the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne, says the asylum-seekers may well be able to seek protection by relying on the legal concept known as "sur place".
"A sur place claim is basically a claim for refugee status, a claim for protection that's based on circumstances that arise after an asylum-seeker has left their home country that can make it unsafe for them to return. There are some governments that view the very act of seeking asylum as one of treachery, as one of disloyalty, and impose penalties or sanctions when failed asylum-seekers return."
In the same way, Daniel Webb says, the security breach could strengthen the cases of asylum-seekers who already had a reasonable chance of securing refuge.
"By publishing the details of people who've come to Australia and asked for our protection, Australia's risked putting those people and their families in danger if they're ultimately returned. Our conduct has increased the risk of that happening. I'd imagine that's going to be raised in a large number of these cases."
The federal Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, is investigating how the breach occurred and will receive a detailed report from the Immigration Department.
The Department itself has engaged global auditing company KPMG to conduct an investigation, with an interim report to be complete next week.
For many asylum-seekers the ability, or inability, to determine exactly who has accessed their personal information could be crucial to their claims.
The Executive Director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, David Manne, has told the ABC this needs to be taken into consideration on a case-by-case basis.
"There must be an assessment of the implications for each and every individual and the reason for that is that we know that as part of this fundamental principle of refugee law, that the disclosure of someone's identity can involve an increased risk of harm and a very serious one particularly if that information falls into the wrong hands."
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has admitted to Sky News the breach may be factored into assessments of asylum claims.
"All people's protection claims are considered individually on the merits of each specific case and to the extent that anything like that may or may not be considered would be a matter for the person making the assessment at the time. There'd be no general rule which would apply to these sorts of things as there is no general rule which is applied to any individual assessment they're made on the merits of each specific case."
An apologetic Prime Minister Tony Abbott is promising there won't be a repeat of the leak.
"It shouldn't have happened. It was an error. It was wrong. It shouldn't have happened. It'll be investigated. We'll get to the bottom of it and it won't happen again."