Funerals for the Christmas Island boat tragedy victims, moving children and families into community-based accommodation
Wednesday, 16 February 2011
Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW
Neil Mitchell: On the line is Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen. Good morning.
Chris Bowen: Good morning, Neil.
Mitchell: There's no point dodging it, it's going to be unpopular in some areas, but what will it all cost?
Bowen: Well, you're right, Neil: this is always controversial – anything in this space is always controversial and emotional – and moving people off Christmas Island is expensive; it's a long way from mainland Australia. It's closer to Indonesia than it is mainland Australia, so it's always expensive.
But the alternative here was to say to people 'Look, frankly, we don't care that you're going to leave Christmas Island', because whether these people are accepted as refugees and come to the mainland or they're returned to Iran and Iraq and elsewhere, they're not going to stay on Christmas Island. So really, the alternative was to say, 'You will never see your son's grave or your father's grave or your family member's grave again because we're going to force you to bury them on Christmas Island, or alternatively, yes, you can bury them in Sydney but we're not going to let you attend the funeral'. Now, it was a difficult issue to work through but I think at the end of the day, the arrangements we put in place were the only appropriate ones.
Mitchell: Well, you've stated your case but you haven't answered the question. What will it cost?
Bowen: Well, we'll collate the costs. The funeral costs are being borne by the Australian Federal Police, they're the custodian of the body; the costs of moving people off Christmas Island are my department's. We'll collate all the costs and –
Mitchell: You must have an idea, though?
Bowen: Well look, it's expensive, Neil.
Mitchell: But how expensive? You've chartered the plane; what else have you done?
Bowen: Well, we chartered the plane; they were kept in the Villawood Detention Centre overnight, but for the first night they were kept in a hotel. So we'll put all those costs together. Look, it's always expensive to move people off Christmas Island.
When you charter a plane – which is the only way to do it, because you've got to have security arrangements and the commercial flights out of Christmas Island are very, very limited, as you'd understand – that's expensive. It's an expensive part of our detention arrangements to move people on and off Christmas Island. We do it regularly –
Mitchell: So do you have an estimate on how much it's going to cost?
Bowen: Well the plane costs would be, you know, several hundred thousand dollars in terms of the charter from Christmas Island and then back to Christmas Island, so that's, you know, as I say, leaving somewhere that's closer to Indonesia and then back to Sydney and then back again.
Mitchell: So, several hundred thousand for the plane costs; you've put them up in a hotel so that's probably cost, I don't know, $10 000?
Bowen: Well, they're not luxurious hotels that we use for these purposes and then they were in the Villawood Detention Centre so there's no cost there.
Mitchell: This is 21 people, correct? Who was on the plane: 21 people, seven bodies; is that right?
Bowen: I'm not sure about the number of bodies – that's actually handled by the Federal Police – and eight bodies were buried yesterday. There were 17 that had been identified; I'm not sure how many bodies would have been moved out of Christmas Island at this point.
Mitchell: So are there more people to be flown back for other funerals in the future?
Bowen: The majority of the bodies are being transferred back to the countries from where they've come; that's the arrangement that has been put in place by the Australian Federal Police. We've still got a number of bodies to identify, Neil. This is all a very delicate operation and once those bodies have been identified, if they can be, then the Australian Federal Police will need to put those arrangements in place.
Mitchell: They're returned to the countries from which they came; presumably we pay for that as well?
Bowen: The Australian Federal Police is looking after that.
Mitchell: Okay, and the Federal Police paid for the funerals yesterday?
Bowen: Yes, and as you would have seen, Neil, I don't think anybody could say that they were, you know, funerals where too much money was spent. I mean, that was a basic funeral, an appropriate funeral, but a basic funeral.
Mitchell: And are there more funerals to be held in Sydney?
Bowen: Not at this stage, Neil.
Mitchell: Anywhere else around the country?
Bowen: No, not at this stage. As I say, we've still got some bodies to identify. I think you've seen the vast bulk of these funerals in relation to any that might be held in Sydney.
Mitchell: The vast bulk, so there could be more?
Bowen: Well, look, if a body gets identified correctly and then the family requests that they be held in Sydney then that would happen, but I don't envisage that being the case. But we just don't know, we're still working through the identification process.
Mitchell: And the reason you haven't had the funerals on Christmas Island is because you wanted the graves to be in Sydney close to the relatives, is that correct?
Bowen: That was the relatives' request and that's right, Neil. And as I said in my opening remarks, the alternative is to say, 'We insist that they be buried at Christmas Island and we don't care that you'll never get to tend that grave, never get to go back to it', because once you leave Christmas Island, if you're a detainee, I'm not aware of any who've gone back and it's very difficult to get to. So they would effectively be being forced not to visit that grave in the future.
Now, I think regardless of your politics, Neil, regardless of whether you're Labor or Liberal, you approve of our policies or disapprove, think we should be tougher, think we should be softer, these are very difficult circumstances and people should be treated with dignity and respect. And I don't think anybody could suggest that, you know, for example, treating people with dignity and respect is going to encourage more people to come to Australia by boat.
Mitchell: I agree; that's quite true. But I do also hear a lot of people – and you can understand their feeling – there was an elderly pensioner the other day saying, 'Well, my husband came from Canberra, I wanted to bury him in Canberra but I couldn't afford to, and then when I finally paid for a funeral here – I live here in Sydney – I had to pay GST on the funeral'. So not only is she a pensioner paying for her husband's funeral, not where she wants it, she's paying GST. What do you say to people like that?
Bowen: Look, I understand people's concerns and the Federal Government does pay for transport costs and funeral costs in very unique circumstances where people have been killed overseas in major natural disasters and that is a program which springs into place when that happens. But, you know, it's not the norm, but this is not the norm either. These are a very unique set of circumstances where you've got people who were killed in a tragic accident and survivors went into detention.
They couldn't have – even if they wanted to pay their own way to Sydney, we wouldn't have allowed that – we don't let people leave detention and hop on a plane. If they need to be moved to the mainland, they're moved to the mainland with security on a chartered flight. That's how these things work.
Mitchell: And what determines whether the people, the dead, will be buried in Australia or flown back to the country from which they were fleeing for burial?
Bowen: That's the wish of the next of kin.
Mitchell: Isn't it a bit strange that you'd flee a country but then be flown back to be buried there?
Bowen: Well, Neil, I think it's very difficult to put yourself in these people's shoes, frankly. You know, you don't know what's going through their mind. And look, some people have criticised us for being, frankly, too hard for not doing the funerals quicker, for returning people to Christmas Island.
You can't win in these sort of situations, Neil, as you could expect. There's plenty of people who say we have been soft and we've spent too much money; and there's plenty of other people who would say very strongly we've been far too harsh, we should be letting the people stay in Sydney, we should've buried them earlier, et cetera, et cetera. So look, there are a range of views around on this; I recognise it is going to be controversial. I think it's better we take the politics out of it, not politicise the funerals. I think when the tragic accident happened there was an appropriate degree of restraint from our political leaders and I think that should continue in relation to the funeral.
Mitchell: Oh, yes, I think the Opposition division about it yesterday was a sideshow in a sense really: it's really got nothing to do with what's going on, if they're divided or not; not the main issue. But where are the people who were flown here now, are they still in Sydney?
Bowen: They are in Sydney and they're being flown back very shortly.
Mitchell: What, today?
Bowen: Whether it's today or tomorrow, but certainly they will be flown back.
Mitchell: Okay. That nine-year-old boy, Seena, lost his mother, his father and his brother and he came over here with the cousins, went to the funeral. Will he be flown back to detention?
Bowen: Yes, he will be.
Bowen: He will be because we have children in detention facilities on Christmas Island. Now, I've announced previously, we're moving children out of detention; that's happening. We've already moved a significant number and we are prioritising people who've been through trauma and torture. But this is quite separate to the funeral, Neil. Just because the funeral was yesterday doesn't mean that he gets released yesterday.
Mitchell: Yes, but –
Bowen: He will get moved into the community but I need to have somewhere to place him, I need appropriate arrangements put in place, and as I say, that's what we do with all our children and families, we go through that process –
Mitchell: Yes, but this is different.
Bowen: – and that's well advanced.
Mitchell: I mean, we're talking about compassion. He is a nine-year-old boy whose family has been wiped out. You fly him across the country to attend a funeral where his relatives, his close relatives, care for him and the day after the funeral you pick him up and say, 'Now you're back in detention'. I mean, he's not going to go and blow up the Sydney Harbour Bridge at age nine. Surely, if you talk about compassion, it's reasonable to leave this child with his relatives that he does have in Australia rather than put him back in detention where he's got nobody and his family's been killed? What's wrong with the theory there?
Bowen: Neil, we do have children in detention facilities [inaudible]
Mitchell: Yeah, but their mother, father and brother haven't been killed.
Bowen: And some of them have been through torture and trauma and, yes, we are moving them into the community, and frankly, that is very well advanced and we've moved a number of children into the community [inaudible]
Mitchell: But isn't this a special case? You've talked about it being a special case.
Bowen: There's lots of special cases in the system, Neil.
Mitchell: Well, how many kids in there have lost their mother, father and brother and the only relatives they've got are in Sydney?
Bowen: Well, Neil, it's a tragic case; I agree with you. There's lots of people who've been through lots of trauma and torture and we move them into the community, but it's quite separate to the funeral arrangements. The process of moving him into the community is well advanced but it is not related to the funeral.
Mitchell: Is this nine-year-old child who's lost his whole family and he's deeply traumatised, is he a threat to Australia?
Bowen: No, of course he's not.
Mitchell: He's got relatives here; why can't he go and live with his relatives?
Bowen: Because we move people into community detention, which means they're looked after by a church or a charity in an appropriate facility, and that will happen with him, and it will happen soon.
Mitchell: Okay. How many children are still in detention?
Bowen: Well I've moved about 100 out, and we have close to 1 000 in various facilities across the country, and by June we'll have the majority of families and children into the community. But you've got to have somewhere to put them, Neil, you've go to have appropriate care arrangements in place; you don't just open the doors of the detention facility and say, 'Off you go'. We've made good progress: the Prime Minister and I announced on 18 October we're moving children into the community and we are.
Mitchell: When can we speed this up? It strikes me if we could just get these people processed quickly, either, 'Yes, you're entitled to come into the country, or no, you're not; go away', it'd remove so much trouble.
Bowen: Yes, well that's very easy to say, with respect, Neil.
Mitchell: Well, how many public servants have you got working on it? How much does it cost you?
Bowen: Well, we've hired more Independent Merits Reviewers and they're the people who review, but you've got to have a robust process. You can't just turn up in Australia and say, 'I'm a refugee' and be accepted. You've got to have a process to assess people's claims, so that's difficult because we're talking about what's going to happen to them, frankly, on the other side of the world, and that takes time to do. And then, once they've been accepted as a refugee, there's a security clearance process in place where ASIO signs them off as not being a threat. Now –
Mitchell: And this takes, what, a year or two?
Bowen: No, it doesn't take that long, but it does take some time. Now, I've announced a new process to make it quicker but the High Court, for example, recently found that there's judicial appeal available, that makes it slower in cases where people are using that judicial appeal. So we do it as quickly as we can.
In relation to moving people into the community, I've been working very closely with people like the Red Cross and Life without Barriers. These are people who care about these issues, who are rolling up their sleeves, and many of them are based in Melbourne where your listeners are, getting in and helping the government move them into the community. And they're not trying to make political points out of it, they're simply just working with us and moving people into the community without fuss, and that's the way we're doing it.
Mitchell: Thank you for your time.
Bowen: Nice talking to you, Neil.
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Last update: Thursday, 17 February 2011 at 12:26 AEST