Attorney-General George Brandis clashed with barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside on the legality of asylum seekers after he said refugees who come to Australia commit "offences against our migration laws".
Brandis called any refugee who arrives "in the hands of people smugglers" unlawful when quizzed by Burnside on the ABC's Q&A on Monday night about whether or not he believed asylum seekers were committing a crime.
"Attorney-General, as the senior law officer of the country, do you believe that asylum seekers who come to Australia commit any offence?" Burnside asked.
"Yes, I do," Brandis responded.
"What offence do they commit? Which?" Burnside went on.
"They commit offences against our migration laws. I'm not going to quote a section," Brandis shot back.
"Because there isn't one. You are wrong," Burnside responded.
"The fact is people are entitled to seek asylum in an orderly manner," Brandis responded. "The people of whom we speak are people who have put themselves in the hands of people smugglers and who have come to Australia unlawfully."
The debate was sparked by a question regarding Australia's refugee resettlement deal with the United States and the possibility for the agreement to fall through under the presidency of Donald Trump.
You can watch the exchange below.
It has become common for both Coalition and Labor politicians seeking to justify Australia's harsh treatment of asylum seekers to refer to refugees as "illegal".
Although immigration to Australia without a valid visa or appropriate documentation is indeed illegal under Australian law, Australia is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that those fleeing persecution have the right to enter a country if they face persecution at home "for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion".
Here is an excerpt from the Australian Government's website:
Brandis also confirmed that the resettlement deal, which could see more than 1500 refugees on Manus Island and Nauru relocated to the US, was to continue under the Trump Administration with 'extreme vetting' of asylum seekers already underway.
"It was confirmed with the Trump Administration. Famously we now know that the Prime Minister had a difficult telephone conversation with President Trump and the outcome of that telephone conversation was that President Trump committed to the deal. That is what is important," he said.
He also alleged that "extreme vetting" was always a part of the refugee deal, formed between Turnbull and the Obama administration."It was always part of the arrangements that the American authorities... would conduct their own investigating. That hasn't changed.
"I can't tell you as a matter of days or weeks how long it will take, but that process has commenced and is now under way."
Brandis' comments on the panel show were widely criticised by viewers on social media who claimed he was out of touch as the nation's top law officer.
@TurnbullMalcolm you need to sack George Brandis. He doesn't even know the law. Also seems more concerned about appearances than refugees.— (the) kennethen (@thekennethen) February 20, 2017
#qanda George Brandis is not in touch with reality— aaron davis (@asdkent7) February 20, 2017
While the deal was struck under the Obama Administration, it was thrown into doubt in January following President Trump's executive order that suspended the immigration of Muslims and refugees from seven countries in the Middle East.
"We are very confident and satisfied that existing arrangements will continue," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the time, despite the details of the deal being publicly confirmed.
"It's quite clear that the administration has set out in the order the ability to deal with existing arrangements."