COMMITTEES;Migration Committee;Report – 18 Aug 2009

I rise today also to speak on the third report of the inquiry into immigration detention in Australia by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, of which I am a member. This is the last of three reports against the inquiry’s terms of reference. We have seen the two previous reports: Immigration detention in Australia: a new beginning,released in December 2008; and Immigration detention in Australia: community-based alternatives to detention, released in May 2009.

The first report made 18 recommendations aimed at improving accountability and ensuring a timely release from detention centres—and of course I, and the members of the committee, are pleased that this government has already acted on some of the recommendations from the first report.

In the second report, tabled in May 2009, the committee looked into options available for community based alternatives to detention centres and focused on the support, both physical and emotional, required for a successful release of detainees into the community. The key recommendation here was that the government reform the bridging visa framework to fully support people released into the community, with the appropriate reporting or surety requirements.

I will not go over old ground on those two reports in the short time I have today. It should be noted, however, that the third report, Immigration detention in Australia: Facilities, services and transparency, brings this particular inquiry to completion. The third part of the report addresses the issues of options to expand the transparency and visibility of immigration detention centres, the preferred infrastructure options for contemporary immigration detention and options for the provision of detention services and detention health services across the range of current facilities. This includes immigration detention centres, immigration transit accommodation and community detention. I am pleased that the government has taken positive steps to introduce more humane and appropriate accommodation facilities through immigration transit accommodation and residential housing, but the standard of many facilities remains of concern to the committee, particularly at Perth and stage 1 of Villawood.

There are 11 recommendations overall in the third-stage report of the inquiry, which received over 144 written submissions. These submissions supported the many public hearings and visits by the committee to various forms of detention. The committee members reiterate that reconstruction of stage 1 at Villawood remains a priority of the committee. And here I would just like to point out the Rudd government has announced that it will provide $186.7 million over the next five years to help Villawood redevelopment. We also recommend that the upgrade of the Perth centre goes ahead but that the government look at developing a purpose built facility over the long term, as the lease agreement on this site will be renewable in a few years.

The committee notes that some facilities are more like the traditional concept of a prison, with razor wire, and/or barbed wire, and the committee recommends replacing this with more appropriate fencing. Immigration detention is not meant to be punitive, so it would be more appropriate if the facilities did not look, as I said, like the traditional concept of what people imagine a prison to look like. North West Point, one of the facilities on Christmas Island, has caged walkways and electrified fencing. Once again, it is recommended that this be replaced with more appropriate security infrastructure.

The geographical remoteness of Christmas Island provides a challenge to the detention service provider, organisations that provide support and other services to detainees and the local community. Some medical needs cannot be met on the island. It is difficult for the local community to provide adequate health support to a significant number of immigration detainees. Recommendation 9 is that the Australian government provide and maintain appropriate physical and mental health facilities on Christmas Island.

It is imperative also that staff dealing with detainees are aware of and trained in cultural sensitivities and appropriateness, that they have basic counselling skills, can manage conflict through negotiations and provide the appropriate security measures. To ensure that all detainees, whether onshore or offshore, receive the same level of appropriate service the committee’s recommendation 7 is that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship include mandatory staff training programs at the various facilities and that all staff dealing with detainees are assessed as competent in the areas I have just mentioned.

Recommendation 8 relates to the need for DIAC to publish the detention service standards or the current equivalent on its website, with all current and future detainees to receive a copy which has been translated into appropriate languages. It is also recommended that the Australian National Audit Office undertake an independent review of the current detention service providers and facilities within the next three years.

The committee also recommends that the Australian Human Rights Commission be granted a statutory right of access to all places of and persons in immigration detention in Australia. If Australia ratifies the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, which it recently signed, an agency with functional independence will need to be developed to conduct visits based inspection of all places of detention in all parts of Australia as well as relevant offshore locations such as immigration detention facilities. It was considered by the committee that access by Australian Human Right Commission be the minimum access.

In the past few years the government has moved towards using a more humane process of immigration residential housing and immigration transit accommodation where possible, as I have already mentioned. But it is unfortunate that some parts of the media still use old file footage of facilities that are now closed, such as the  Baxter and Woomera. Providing access to the media, with due process undertaken to protect the privacy of detainees, would increase the level of transparency and allow greater visibility of day-to-day life in the facilities. Therefore, the committee recommends that DIAC develop a set of public media protocols to be applied consistently across all immigration detention facilities and also provide the media greater access to all immigration detention facilities, but, as I said, with due care to maintaining the privacy of people in these facilities

A fair and effective immigration detention policy and strong border security measures at the same time need not be mutually exclusive. We must ensure that we are committed to the fair and equal treatment of all people, and this commitment extends to people who enter Australia illegally and are placed in detention. To this end I would like to acknowledge the work already undertaken in this area by my colleague Senator Evans, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. I would also like to thank all those people who gave evidence to this committee, either in writing or verbally, the chair Mr Michael Danby, and fellow committee members, from both this place and the other. Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the staff of the secretariat who worked with the committee on this report. Their professionalism and integrity at all times are to be applauded, and I thank them for their hard work.

Question agreed to.