ASIO security assessments of asylum seekers

Recent media reporting and questioning in the May Budget Estimates hearings have again focused attention on security processes relevant to the processing of asylum seekers, with one particular case leading the Prime Minister to direct an Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security inquiry into ‘the management of [by] Australian government agencies of persons seeking asylum who present complex security issues’.

ASIO’s security assessment role

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) performs security assessments for other Australian Government agencies for several different purposes:
  • visa security assessments, which assess whether an applicant for a permanent, temporary or protection visa (including an IMA) poses a risk to the security of Australia
  • personnel security assessments
  • counter-terrorism security assessments and
  • assessments to inform decisions about grants of Australian citizenship and cancellation/refusal of a person’s passport.

An ASIO factsheet emphasises the specific nature and purpose of its security assessments:
Security Assessments only consider factors related to ‘security’ [as defined in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979].
Security Assessments are not character checks and factors such as criminal history, dishonesty or deceit are only relevant to ASIO’s advice if they have a bearing on security considerations.
It also notes that there is significant variation in what constitutes an assessment:
Security Assessments can range from a check of personal details against ASIO’s intelligence holdings, to an in-depth intelligence investigation to determine the nature and extent of an identified threat to Australia’s national security. Security Assessments are handled on a case-by-case basis.
In 2011–12, ASIO conducted a combined total of 205,542 personnel, counter-terrorism and visa security assessments.

ASIO’s security assessment of IMAs

ASIO previously undertook security assessments of all IMAs at the same time as the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) was assessing their claims to refugee status. As outlined in a 2012 report by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), two significant changes were agreed to by the Government in late 2010 and implemented in early 2011:
  • only IMAs found to engage Australia’s protection obligations are referred to ASIO for security assessment and
  • ASIO applies an intelligence-led, risk management approach referred to as the Security Triaging Framework (STF) so that resources are focused on higher risk, more complex cases.

As ASIO’s Director-General, David Irvine, explained in a May 2013 Budget Estimates hearing, these changes were made ‘partly because of the resourcing problem [due to increasing numbers of IMAs], partly to make the process more efficient and to speed it up’. He went on to state that around 10–15% of IMAs are now subject to a full security assessment:
When we did 100 per cent, we probably did 85 full assessments that we did not need to do out of every 100 … In the circumstances, I would submit that that triaging process is the most effective and efficient way of enabling the greatest resources to be applied to the greatest potential risk.
The following graph demonstrates the significant difference this revised approach has made to the IMA security assessment caseload (ANAO report, p. 27).

Line and bar graph showing IMA caseload trends (June 2009 to March 2012). Graph also shows the introduction of the security triaging framework

It is worth noting that the ASIO factsheet makes it clear that a risk-management approach is also applied to other visa categories:
Given the large volume of visa applications, it is not practicable for each one to be assessed by ASIO. A risk-managed referral framework has been developed so that applications more likely to be of concern are drawn to ASIO’s attention.
ASIO also conducts brief or ‘light touch’ security assessments of all people being considered for community detention or for release from immigration detention on a bridging visa while their immigration status is resolved. This involves ASIO checking its existing intelligence holdings for any information that would immediately preclude the person from residing in the community. DIAC’s Secretary, Martin Bowles, advised in a May 2013 Budget Estimates hearing that around 2,800 irregular arrivals are in community detention and around 10,300 are in the community on bridging visas.

IMAs in community detention or released on bridging visas who are found to engage Australia’s protection obligations are then considered through the STF, and may be subject to a full security assessment before their application for a permanent protection visa is determined by the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship.

Contribution of IMA security assessments to overall caseload

Information on the number of security assessments ASIO completed specifically for IMAs is publicly available from 2008–09 onwards.

As the graph below illustrates, although the number of security assessments completed for IMAs has increased annually from 2008–09 to 2011–12, it has remained a small proportion of the overall security assessment caseload. However, as noted in the ANAO report, because IMAs typically reach Australia without any formal identification, these assessments tend to be more complex and entail more extensive investigation than others.

Number of security assessments by type, 2008–09 to 2011–12


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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