Independent inquiry into Christmas Island incident, additional detention accommodation
Monday, 14 March 2011
Chris Bowen: Thank you, everybody.
I wanted to give you an update on the situation at the Christmas Island detention centre. As you know, on Friday night up to 70 people breached the perimeter fence of the North West Point facility. Following this, the decision was taken to dispatch 57 Australian Federal Police and 18 additional Serco staff. An additional 48 Serco staff will be deployed on the island today.
On Saturday, another group of approximately 100 people breached the perimeter of the fence to stage a peaceful protest near Christmas Island Airport. The Australian Federal Police provided a cordon at the airport, which the asylum seekers did not attempt to cross. I'm advised that all detainees are back at the centre. Head counts are currently under way to confirm that that's the case.
Last night, about 300 detainees inside the centre engaged in protests. Damage was done to facilities including fencing, some accommodation and door locks. At 3.37 am this morning, the Australian Federal Police determined that it was necessary to use tear gas to quell this protest. No injuries were sustained by the AFP or Serco staff. I'm advised that one detainee has been taken to hospital with a suspected broken leg.
Let me make some comments about this protest action generally. Protest action, as I've said before in relation to other protests, doesn't achieve anything. This protest action has meant, for example, the Independent Merits Reviewers who were meant to arrive at the island today to progress people's assessment of their claims have not been able to enter the island. People who protest to try to change their visa outcome or get their place of detention changed do not achieve anything. They simply slow the process. I understand people's frustrations inside detention, but protest action like this does not achieve the desired result. It cannot and it will not be allowed to change visa outcomes or any other government decision.
In relation to this incident, and particularly the incident overnight, there will of course be an Australian Federal Police investigation and it will be up to the Director of Public Prosecutions as to whether to lay any charges. It's worth making the point that this is a significant and serious incident. I do, however, want to make the point that the number of people involved is not all detainees on Christmas Island; it's not the majority of detainees on Christmas Island. It's a few hundred detainees out of the people who are on Christmas Island. It is, in every sense, a minority of the people involved, and a number of the people on Christmas Island have said to the department that they have no involvement in this protest and wish to have no involvement in this protest, and disassociate themselves from the protest.
I also think it's appropriate that there be an arms length inquiry into this incident, into the preparedness and response of both the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and Serco, to examine what has happened in this instance and whether there are any lessons to be learned. I've begun the process for the appointment of this independent review and I'll be announcing further details, including who will conduct the review, in coming days.
Of course, as I have been over the weekend, I'll continue to be very regularly updated on the situation at Christmas Island. I will continue to provide my department with whatever support and resources are necessary to ensure that this incident continues to be managed as best as it can.
I'm happy to answer some questions.
Journalist: Does it show a level of desperation that they're escaping from the centre, even though they can't go anywhere?
Bowen: Well, look, I think it shows a level of frustration, of course it does, and that is to be understood. I make the point again that protest action, whether it's by escaping or other protests, is not achieving the outcome that they desire. The best way of resolving the situation for them is to cooperate with the processing of their refugee assessment claims. For example, as I make again the point, there was due to be some further hearings today of their claims of several individuals by Independent Merits Reviewers. Now, it could well be that those people who have those claims that can't be assessed today have had no involvement in this protest action and they, unfortunately, are the innocent victims by having their claims delayed, having the consideration of their claims delayed by this protest action.
Journalist: Surely if you're involved in action like this, though, you forfeit the right to even be considered. Shouldn't these people be sent back immediately?
Bowen: Well, we have a refugee convention. Now, clearly if charges are laid against people and there are criminal sanctions involved, that then goes to the character test. But that is not something that I flag as being widespread. People should understand that if they are attempting to achieve a better outcome, protest action does not achieve that. The only thing that it will achieve is a delay to their process and potentially being moved to more secure premises, as we have done before, but that is something that will be considered as this unfolds.
Journalist: But aren't these already high security? How much higher or what grade were these people?
Bowen: Well, there are various parts to the North West Facility: there's the core of the detention centre and then there's two other compounds. Most of these incidents have occurred in the two other compounds. Of course, we do have varying degrees of security in our detention centres.
Journalist: And can you confirm, there's been rumours that the extra police that are being sent over to the island are actually taking tear gas with them. Is that right?
Bowen: That's an operational matter, but I'm not aware of as to whether tear gas is already there or they've taken it with them. I'm not aware of that. It's an operational matter for the Australian Federal Police.
Journalist: What forced them to use the tear gas?
Bowen: Well, as I understand it, they were concerned that the, at 3.37 am this morning, that the particular protest action had the capacity to turn more violent and they took the decision on the ground as an operational matter that that was the appropriate response.
Journalist: How did the guy get a broken leg?
Bowen: I understand that that was not involved in the tear gas, but that was a separate incident. But again, it's an operational matter which we could provide you with more information on, but as you'd understand, this is unfolding and in relation to that particular incident I'd be happy to get you more information.
Journalist: So is this the first time that tear gas has been used in one of these situations?
Bowen: It's the first time, as I understand it, for quite some time. It's been used, certainly, in previous incidents and certainly under the previous government.
Journalist: Minister, what assessment has been made of Serco's liability or otherwise in the initial [inaudible]?
Bowen: No assessment, at this particular instance, of course that will be reviewed. As you'd understand, the focus of myself and my senior departmental officers and of Serco is on managing this situation. There'll be a time and a place to review Serco's role and whether there has been any breach, and if there has been a breach obviously there are contractual remedies to that, including fines. But I'm not making that point at the moment; I'm not making the point that there may or may not have been a breach. My focus has been on managing this incident. Of course, the independent review will examine all the management involved, including the Department of Immigration, Serco and whether the response and preparedness was appropriate. I think it's important that we learn any lessons to be learned.
Journalist: With the officers that were already sent over there after the initial breakout and then you called this significant and serious, you know, piecing these together it just seems like the mood on Christmas Island is extremely tense at the moment. How do you summarise it?
Bowen: Oh, look, I think the mood is tense within the detention centre. I think it varies, of course. As I make the point: the majority of people on Christmas Island, the majority of detainees, have not been involved and do not wish to be involved in this protest. They are obviously concerned about what's going on around them and they are concerned about this protest action. But of course, I think the situation would vary from time to time and it would be churlish to say that the situation hasn't been tense inside the detention centre; of course it has. But it is being managed.
Journalist: Is it true that there's tension between male detainees, who were apparently playing loud music, et cetera, and family groups is actually what is causing the tension?
Bowen: Not inside North West detention centre, because there are no family groups inside this particular detention centre: no children, no families; they are held elsewhere on the island. There are incidents from time to time, tension between, if you like, the single unaccompanied men, the young men, the unaccompanied minors and family groups; that does happen. But that has not been a factor in this incident.
Journalist: So doesn't it show, like, a level of desperation that they're trying to escape the centre, even though they can't go anywhere?
Bowen: Well, you've already asked me that question, and as I say, it indicates a level of frustration and yes, when you escape from the Christmas Island detention facility you are very limited in where you can go; that is true. But nevertheless, it is a serious issue which I do take seriously.
Journalist: How long are the, the officers that were sent over there, how long are they going to be based there?
Bowen: As long as they need to be.
Journalist: And how many extra police were sent and what's the total number now?
Bowen: 57 additional police were sent. In terms of the total number of police on the island, I'd have to get back to you on that. But it's 57 additional police.
Journalist: Okay. And what does it say about Serco, that there was a hole in a fence that detainees could actually get out of?
Bowen: Well, there was no hole in the first instance. That was a result of the first escape, and then action was taken to repair that. But of course, as you can imagine, in difficult circumstances, very quickly after the first escape it has been possible for a second escape to occur. That is concerning, but it is understandable that in these very difficult circumstances that Serco and the department and the AFP have been limited in to what repairs they can make.
Journalist: When will the inquiry start?
Bowen: Well, it'll start in coming days and certainly I would want it to report to me in six to eight weeks.
Journalist: And who will be put in charge of it?
Bowen: I'll be making that announcement in the not-too-distant future, in coming days.
Bowen: As I've said, there have been two escapes, that is true, two lots of escapes. That is correct. Of course, we continue to monitor the situation, and the fact that there is a significant AFP presence and improved Serco presence has improved security at the centre. As to lessons to be learned going into the future, that is something for the independent review.
Journalist: But that's just a band aid sort of solution right now [inaudible].
Bowen: It's a short term solution, I agree. That's why we'll have an independent review: to look at what needs to be done and lessons to be learned in the longer term.
Journalist: I was going to say the issue here seems like the actual facilities are struggling.
Bowen: The Christmas Island facility is under pressure; it has been for some time, I've acknowledged that. That's why I announced new detention centres just in recent weeks on the mainland to take some of that pressure off. I'd also make the point that last December there were 3 052 detainees on Christmas Island. Today we're currently at 2 539. So we've been bringing those numbers down and that's very important, and we'll continue to open those other facilities and they will take pressure off Christmas Island as they open, and that does improve security at the detention facility. Because as I say, there are two extra compounds at the North West Point facility known as Aqua and Lilac: they are the additional compounds and it is accurate to say that security there is arguably lower than it is in the core of the centre.
Journalist: So those numbers again, sorry?
Bowen: There were 3 052 detainees on Christmas Island as at last December. Today there are 2 539. I've consistently acknowledged that Christmas Island detention centre is under pressure; that's why I've taken the action I have in opening the other detention facilities on the mainland.
Journalist: Do you also acknowledge, though, the fact that if there are more boats coming through, that 500 people roughly is going to fill up quite quickly?
Bowen: Look, certainly more boats puts more pressure on the detention facility, of course it does. But that's why we have a program of moving people onto the mainland, that's why we continue to move people through Christmas Island and of course, I make the point that that will continue, as I have announced in recent weeks. I've announced the opening of the detention centre at Wickham Point and of course we have the other detention centres, like Northam, that are coming online over coming months.
Journalist: Will there be any charges? What sort of action will be taken against people who you may identify?
Bowen: That's a matter for the Australian Federal Police and for the Director of Public Prosecutions. And of course there'll need to be an inquiry, an investigation, into the actions of individual detainees. It may be the case that charges are laid against some individuals but that is not, frankly, a matter for me. That is a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Journalist: As you said, there is a level of desperation in the Christmas Island detention centre. Are you concerned that there could be more things like this?
Bowen: Look, I think whenever you have the situation that people have taken the very big decision to move across the world, to risk their lives on a boat to do that, you're going to find a level of frustration. I'd also make the point that we've found that our recognition rates of asylum claims have fallen in recent months. I've always said publicly and privately that that would lead to a level of frustration.
If people are having their claims for asylum rejected, you are going to see that flow through in terms of protests. And I seem to recall a headline in The Australian newspaper several months ago saying, 'Brace yourself for more protests, says Bowen' because I did flag that as we saw increased refusal rates we're going to see more tensions and frustrations in our detention centres. That is a necessary result of having a rigorous and vigorous assessment of refugee claims, and that means that in some instances people are not successful in those claims and that leads to some level of frustration, I understand that. Protests do not change visa outcomes.
Journalist: So what sort of equipment will the AFP be taking over with them to control any situations that might arise?
Bowen: Well, they have the necessary equipment. As to what the details are, it's an operational matter for them. I don't comment on that and I imagine they won't be commenting on that. But they have what they regard as the appropriate equipment for the challenge that they face.
Are we all done? Last question?
Journalist: [inaudible] the FOI documents released in The Australian today, I was wondering can you rule out a taxpayer funded information campaign about the carbon tax?
Bowen: The Treasurer and the Deputy Prime Minister dealt with that on the weekend.
Thank you very much.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Thursday, 17 March 2011 at 12:26 AEST