The Australian Border Force has admitted that “human error” – the failure of an ABF officer to send an email to the Australian Federal Police confirming his refugee status – was a contributing factor in the arrest and detention of refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi.
Fears were raised in Senate Estimates on Monday night that al-Araibi had walked into a trap in Thailand, with Bahrain tipped off that he was travelling by Thai officials and the ABF then failing to raise his refugee status with the AFP, which could have cancelled the red notice.
But Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram twice refused to offer a personal apology for the error, on the grounds that other factors – including direct contact between Bahrain and Thailand – may have been the deciding factor.
An Interpol red notice that could have led to al-Araibi’s extradition to Bahrain should have never been issued because he was a refugee who had fled from persecution.
“I apologise for the error that occurred within the Border Force, but I can’t say – nor can I accept – that that error necessarily led to his detention in Thailand, that it wouldn’t have occurred anyway,” Mr Outram said.
“I can’t say unequivocally that is the case. Whether the existence of a red notice being issued was a defining issue or not I don’t know. Obviously, we take this error very seriously. I don’t want for a minute to leave the impression we are blaming an individual officer. We are not.”
Mr Outram said the officer worked in the border operations centre.
“The officer in this case has simply forgotten to send an email. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
“Our margins for error are very small. Our officers work around the clock managing huge volumes of transactions, which require manual processes sometimes, to bridge gaps between disparate IT systems, and human error can and will continue to occur – but it is rare.”
The AFP’s capability deputy commissioner Ramzi Jabbour also told Senate estimates that if the AFP had known of al-Araibi’s refugee status it would have contacted Interpol immediately and ensured the red notice was revoked.
However, Mr Jabbour also noticed that it was an unusual coincidence that Bahrain issued a request for an Interpol red notice to arrest the 25-year-old footballer on the same day that he secured a tourist visa to travel to Thailand on his honeymoon.
“That’s a fair old coincidence, isn’t it?” Greens senator Nick McKim asked.
“Yes,” Mr Jabbour replied.
Earlier on Monday, AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin told the same Senate estimates that the AFP was not told by ABF of his refugee status and a “failure of the system” was to blame.
“Neither the AFP nor the Australian Interpol NCB [National Central Bureau] can access this information. We rely on notifications from the Home Affairs department,” Commissioner Colvin said.
November 8, 2018: Hakeem al-Araibi is issued with a tourist visa to travel to Thailand on his honeymoon after applying four days earlier. On the same day, Interpol distributed a red notice regarding al-Araibi at the request of Bahrain.
November 9: Information on the existence of the red notice was provided to ABF officers by the AFP.
November 22: The ABF accessed the Interpol red notice and ran details across Home Affairs systems. A central movements alert list for al-Araibi was created on the basis of the Interpol red notice. There is an internal service standard of 14 days from the date of publication of the Interpol red notice for loading on to Home Affairs systems. When the ABF matches a person to an Interpol alert, a true match notification advice is manually sent via email from the ABF to the AFP national central bureau and the department. On this occasion, the true match notification email was not sent, which was an error and contrary to the agreed process. The true match notification would have included the visa type.
November 27: When al-Araibi presented for departure from Australia on at 12.08pm, as the ABF informed the AFPNCB and requested advice as to whether any lawful requirement assisted to prevent travel and no such existed and al-Araibi was permitted to depart.