Australian Ombudsman slams refugee’s wrongful detention

The Commonwealth ombudsman has criticised the Department of Immigration over the case of a Vietnamese-born refugee who was wrongly detained for three years. Van Phuc Nguyen was granted refugee status in 1989, but in 2002 he was thrown into Villawood Detention Centre when airport immigration officials did not recognise his permanent resident status. He was there until February 2006.

Ombudsman John McMillan says it is the longest term of wrongful detention in recent history and highlights a more serious problem across government departments. He says the system needs to be overhauled. “The Department of Immigration did not have an expressed power to correct a defect in an earlier decision and part of the delay was caused by legal debate within the department as to the options available to them,” he said.

Mr Nguyen’s lawyer Robert Sutherland says it was a bureaucratic bungle. “The Commonwealth ombudsman was able to decide, ascertain, that he ought not to be there,” he said. “I frankly don’t understand why the department couldn’t come to the conclusion themselves.”

The Immigration Department says the ombudsman’s findings in this case have been taken seriously. Spokesman Sandy Logan says it has taken on board the criticism, but that the department is now looking to the future. “We acknowledge that the Ombudsman’s recommendations and findings were indeed accurate,” he said. “Additionally with a new government and the new government of the day’s policy, immigration detention is now risk-based. “We would hope that a case such as [Van Phuc Nguyen’s] would never reoccur.”

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