Sydney - Australia has inadvertently made public the identities of almost 10 000 asylum-seekers, the Department of Immigration said on Wednesday, raising concerns it could help locate people fleeing persecution and thus place them in greater danger.
A file published on a government website by mistake held the names, nationalities and locations of nearly a third of all people held in Australia's immigration detention network. It is unclear how long the information was available to the public.
The lapse was first reported by The Guardian Australia website, which informed the government of the breach, leading it to block access to the information.
“This is an unacceptable incident,” Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement.
“This is a serious breach of privacy by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.”
The incident comes as Prime Minister Tony Abbott's tough stance on asylum-seekers has been receiving fresh scrutiny after a series of events, including violent riots, involving its policy of transferring asylum-seekers to third countries.
Australia uses detention centres in Papua New Guinea and on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru to process would-be refugees sent there after trying to get to Australia, often in unsafe boats after paying people-smugglers in Indonesia.
Morrison said audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG LLC would conduct an investigation into the leak. Australia's privacy commissioner announced a separate inquiry.
Regardless of the outcome, a prominent human rights lawyer said the leaks could mean that people previously deemed ineligible for asylum would receive it as a result of being put at risk by having had their identity made public.
“It's a fundamental principle of refugee law that a person seeking asylum should be free to make their claim free of disclosure of their identity to the authorities in their home country,” David Manne, executive director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, told The Age newspaper in Melbourne.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees raised fresh questions overnight about the policies of Abbott's conservative government, which have drawn fire over the conditions in the camps and the lack of clarity surrounding processing.
“We have a number of concerns, as to whether the legal and practical framework in Papua New Guinea in relation to refugee status determination, reception conditions and settlement are sufficiently developed to handle these arrangements envisioned under the agreement Australia has with Papua New Guinea,” spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters in Geneva.
An asylum-seeker was killed and at least 77 injured on Monday in the second riot this week at the Papua New Guinea facility on Manus island, leading to calls from critics for its closure.
Britain's G4S, the world's biggest security group, is responsible for providing security at the Manus Island detention centre.
Australia's arrangement with tiny Nauru has also come under fire in recent weeks following a series of moves by the government there that critics call authoritarian and anti-democratic.
Sarah Hanson-Young of the small but influential Greens Party called the data breach, one of the largest in recent memory in Australia, an example of the government's “failure to care for vulnerable people who are fleeing for their lives”.