SYDNEY (AFP) - The Australian government admitted on Wednesday it accidentally published the personal details of thousands of asylum-seekers in detention in a major privacy breach that refugee advocates said could put lives at risk.
The immigration department was alerted to the error on its website by The Guardian, whose Australian edition reported that the vast database contained full names, nationalities, location and boat arrival information.
It said every person held in a mainland detention facility and on Christmas Island was identified, as well as several thousand living in the community under the community detention programme.
The department said the information was never intended to be in the public domain.
"The department acknowledges that the file was vulnerable to unauthorised access," it said in a statement.
"The file has been removed and the department is investigating how this occurred to ensure that it does not happen again." The Refugee Council of Australia said the breach raised fears that those identified could be at risk of retribution if they were returned to their countries of origin, while family members still in their home nations could face harassment.
"It is unbelievable that a breach of this kind could happen. The information is highly confidential for a reason," the council's chief executive Paul Power told AFP, adding that he had been told the data could have been available for days.
"There could be implications not just for people in detention but also family members in the country of origin." He said the ramifications for people who failed in their asylum bid and were returned could be "huge", with some countries punishing those who fled.
"It runs the risk of putting lives in danger," said Power, while calling for a full explanation on how it happened.
The breach is an embarrassing blow to the conservative government, whose hardline policies to combat people-smuggling and deter asylum-seekers have been shrouded in secrecy.
Labour immigration spokesman Richard Marles said the government had blundered.
"It can't determine what should be made public and what should be kept private," he told reporters.