Legal service providers say the federal government appears to have cut off free legal assistance for thousands of asylum-seekers who have arrived by boat or plane.
(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
Several providers of services under the government-funded Immigration Advice and Application Scheme, or IAAS, say they haven't had any referrals since before the federal election.
As Thea Cowie reports, some say the changes could alter the fate of thousands of asylum-seekers.
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The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre's Kon Karapanagiotidis says the Immigration Minister's stated policy could be a matter of life or death.
"If I was overseeing a system where I know without that government-assisted legal assistance these people have no fighting chance of having their claims properly assessed, I would be troubled by that because I could be sending genuine refugees back to a country where they could be killed or tortured because when that system fails, people die."
The last piece of the Coalition's border protection policy announced before the September election was to stop funding immigration advice for asylum-seekers who arrived by boat or plane.
For nearly 20 years the Immigration Advice and Application Scheme has provided free migration assistance for asylum-seekers, including those who can't afford it, don't speak English, or are suffering physical or psychological harm.
But at least three IAAAS providers contacted by SBS say they have not received any referrals since the election and they believe the policy to scrap the scheme has already come into effect, although they've received no notification from the government.
President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs says it's vital asylum-seekers can access free immigration advice.
"We see it as absolutely fundamental to a fair system in which their claim for protection is properly assessed. We have certainly said that it's a retrograde step to take this advice away. It's really contrary to the spirit of the Refugees Convention and of our obligations to give people a fair process to determine their status."
Migration agent Libby Hogarth says she's been providing free advice to asylum-seekers under the IAAAS for 18 years.
She says of the approximately 33,000 asylum-seekers who have arrived by boat and are yet to have their claims processed, she understands about 20,000 have not been allocated an advisor under the IAAAS.
Currently more than 90 per cent of asylum-seekers are granted protection, but Ms Hogarth says the chances of those 20,000 asylum-seekers lodging successful claims will be greatly diminished without access to free advice.
"I'm really concerned that the percentage may go way down, that there'd be a lot of refusals simply because people haven't understood how they need to relate their claims to the legal defintion that's provided under the United Nations. The other thing is, without the migration agents, it's going to actually backfire - I believe - on Immigration because they'll end up getting application forms that are not filled out properly so the Immigration officers are therefore going to have to spend a lot more time going backwards and forwards with the client to get more information. Or, sadly, they might just refuse them because the information is not there."
Founder and CEO of the Asylum-Seeker Resource Centre, Kon Karapanagiotidis, says it's unreasonable for the federal government to expect asylum-seekers will be able to successfully complete their applications without help.
"I train young lawyers on how to complete these applications and they struggle - and they have a law degree in fluent English. When you're trying to fill in a protection visa application that only comes in English that is complex and difficult, you're vulnerable, you're in detention, you're most likely traumatised, you might be a survivor of torture and then miraculously somehow you're going to prepare your own case? It's not going to happen."
Funded through the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, prior to the election the official IAAAS factsheet stated the scheme was expected to cost 3.6 million dollars over the next financial year.
But the Coalition says figures directly from the Department of Immigration suggest the cost is more like 40 million dollars a year.
At the time the policy was announced, Immigration Minsiter Scott Morrison said there would be nothing stopping asylum-seekers paying for legal advice, or for members of the community donating their services.
Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs says if the government won't fund that advice, authorities should at least help asylum-seekers get in touch with people who can provide it.
"We hear stories - whether they're true or not I don't know - but that at most they may be handed a telephone directory but basically they're not being facilitated in any way at all. They may be advised when they first arrive in Australia that technically they have a right to seek legal advice but when they have no means of achieving access to that advice, then that becomes a meaningless statement. We do urge the government to ensure that the officials working with asylum-seekers assist them where appropriate to point them in the right direction at least with telephone numbers for the refugee advice and casework service or to the various pro bono bodies."
SBS is seeking comment from the Immigration Minister.