Update on Christmas Island incident, Regional Protection Framework
Tuesday, 15 March 2011
Interview with Chris Uhlmann, ABC 24
Chris Uhlmann: What happened on Christmas Island last night?
Chris Bowen: Last night we see continuing pressures and tensions at our Christmas Island detention centre. We saw more protests last night. We saw some damage to property: some buildings were damaged, including by a fire, and some CCTV equipment was damaged last night. There were no serious injuries and the AFP got the situation under control.
Uhlmann: Did they use tear gas last night?
Bowen: No. No direct confrontation last night; no need for tear gas or any associated weapons last night.
Uhlmann: How many people were involved last night?
Bowen: About 100 to 200 last night, and what we are seeing at Christmas Island is a group of around that number, sometimes more, sometimes up to 300, who are determined to engage in protest action. We’ve seen an organised and orchestrated campaign on behalf of a minority of asylum seekers at Christmas Island.
In fact, a number of asylum seekers have told department of immigration staff that they want nothing to do with this protest, that they have no role in it, and they are in fact quite annoyed and disappointed by what’s happening and what other detainees are doing.
Uhlmann: But 300 out of a group of 2,500 is still a fairly significant proportion of the population.
Bowen: Sure, absolutely.
Uhlmann: And you needed to use tear gas on them the night before, so have you lost control of the Christmas Island detention centre?
Bowen: Well, clearly we have a difficult situation with ongoing tension, but it is being managed. It’s being managed by a combination of my department, Serco and the Australian Federal Police. The Australian Federal Police are highly trained, they are experienced in managing these sorts of events, and together it is being managed.
I don’t underplay the seriousness of this event or the difficulties of this event, because it is both serious and difficult and ongoing. But the important thing is, Chris, that I send the message as I sent yesterday and I send in all instances like this: protest action like this achieves nothing, it does not achieve the desired result; in fact, it makes life more difficult for the other asylum seekers and slows processing.
Uhlmann: But two nights ago did immigration department officials have to lock themselves into cells to protect themselves from this group?
Bowen: Two nights ago we did have a serious incident, yes, in which tear gas was used and there was an injury.
Uhlmann: Had officials locked themselves in the cell?
Bowen: Well, certainly the department of immigration officials and Serco officials needed the assistance of Australian Federal Police, and the Australian Federal Police responded accordingly.
Uhlmann: While detainees escaped, so are you in a circumstance at the moment where you have lost control of this facility?
Bowen: No, I don’t think so. But it is a serious situation which is under management and is getting intensive resources from me, my department and the Australian Federal Police.
Uhlmann: How can you possibly manage it? How many police do you have there at the moment?
Bowen: We have an additional 57 police, which brings the AFP contingent on Christmas Island up to over 80, and the AFP assures me that they feel they have enough police to handle the situation.
Uhlmann: And how many private contractors?
Bowen: We’ve brought in a considerable number of extra Serco staff and certainly that has been enhanced even yesterday; more Serco staff going in. So we’ve considerably increased the number of Serco staff onsite and in fact we’ve brought in over 60 over the last few days.
Uhlmann: So are detainees still at large on Christmas Island?
Bowen: No. I’m advised that the vast majority, if not all, detainees are back in the detention centre. We’ve had head counts to confirm that. But as I say, I don’t underplay the fact that the situation in the detention centre is tense. We have a group of detainees who are organising protests, we have another larger group of detainees who are concerned about that and don’t want that protest, and of course we have the ongoing management issues that are being handled by my department and the AFP.
Uhlmann: You said a vast majority, if not all, so you’re not certain that all the detainees are back inside?
Bowen: I understand they are. But as I say, I just have a caveat that there are ongoing head counts to ensure that’s the case.
Uhlmann: I understand this happened because 10 of the ringleaders were put into cells and then 300 – this is two nights ago – tried to free them. Is that the case?
Bowen: That’s largely true. There was an effort undertaken to ensure that those who organised the protest were effectively handled and that did lead to the other protesters engaging in violent activity.
Uhlmann: Anything beyond tear gas being used? Are we talking about batons; were they used?
Bowen: Look, that’s a matter for the AFP. The AFP has guidelines on the use of force; they tell me that they have activated those guidelines and they are used, and if there’s further statements to be made about the force that the AFP uses, then that’s something for the AFP.
Uhlmann: So they could have used batons?
Bowen: Look, I’m not going to go into details. The AFP has use of force guidelines. They stipulate that the force should be minimal in regard to the circumstances. Now, the AFP felt that it was appropriate to use tear gas and they will make statements about what other material they used as a result of their public comments.
Uhlmann: Clearly this circumstance can’t continue like this, though, can it? Are you certain that you can get this back under control?
Bowen: Look, events like this do happen, Chris. They’re rare, but they do happen. They happened under this government; they happened under the previous government. You’ll recall very similar instances under the previous government. The important thing is they’re managed. They are managed through a range of mechanisms: they are managed through making it clear that protest action does not achieve the desired outcomes.
That doesn’t mean we don’t engage with the protesters, don’t talk to the protesters and hear their concerns, but we make it clear we don’t negotiate during this time and we don’t change our policy settings as a result of this sort of protest action. But we do listen to concerns and we do provide information, but we also make it clear that the situation is managed from a law enforcement and law and order point of view as well.
Uhlmann: The core problem, though, is that too many people are being held in detention for too long, and is there anything that you actually can do to fix that?
Bowen: Look, a couple of comments, Chris. Some of the people protesting are saying, ‘We’re being held in detention too long, we want to be released’. Others have been rejected from refugee status and are saying, ‘We’re not happy with that outcome’. Well, of course they’re not happy with that outcome, I understand that.
But you might recall last year, Chris, I foreshadowed that we were likely to see more protest action as our refugee recognition rates were falling, as we were saying to more people, ‘Sorry, you’re not a genuine refugee; you will need to return’. That has obvious frustrations for people: people who have come across the world to try and claim asylum, and when we say we’re not going to recognise that claim that will lead to protest action. It has in some instances, not all, but in this instance.
In relation to the number of people in detention on Christmas Island, I have said that the Christmas Island detention centre is under pressure. We’ve taken steps to remedy that. In December, we had over 3,000 people in detention on Christmas Island; that’s now much closer to 2,500. I’ve announced new detention centres on the mainland as recently as two weeks ago, when I said at the time this was designed to relieve pressure on Christmas Island. That’s what we’re doing.
Uhlmann: Just quickly, if you hold people on the mainland in similar kinds of circumstances, don’t you expect that in the long run, if they’re there for a long time, you’ll get similar problems?
Bowen: Well, I agree with you, Chris, in that we need to move people through the process quickly. I announced a new process effective on 1 March, only a fortnight ago – announced it last year, it was effective on 1 March – to process people more quickly.
I’m working very intensively with the Attorney-General and ASIO to ensure that the security clearance process is handled as efficiently as it can be. It’s a matter of public record, we have 900 people or thereabouts who have been regarded as refugees but are awaiting security clearance. They do need to be processed quickly, and one of my priorities since becoming the minister has been to ensure that our processing is as quick as it possibly can be, but in the constraints and stresses of the system.
Uhlmann: A couple of quick questions: are we seeing a rise in the number of self harm incidents in detention?
Bowen: Well, the number of self harm incidents, of course, increases when you have more people in detention; it’s a proportion and the total number increases. Our self harm rates are much lower than they were in, say, the early part of the decade, around 2000, 2001. They’re much lower than then, and of course we’ve improved our mental health guidelines to deal with that. But we do see self harm in detention and I think that is a very troublesome thing – it certainly troubles me – and we do our best to obviously maximise mental health and minimise those results.
Uhlmann: And finally, is there any likelihood that we’re going to see an offshore detention facility, be it either in East Timor or anywhere else, in this term of government?
Bowen: Look, I believe we’re making good progress in establishing an international framework. We have the Bali meeting coming up of foreign and immigration ministers. That won’t obviously be the final arbiter of these matters, it won’t be a matter where this is concluded, but I think we’re making good progress towards a regional framework which involves international cooperation for better processing.
Uhlmann: In this term?
Bowen: Yes, I believe so.
Uhlmann: Chris Bowen, thank you.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Tuesday, 15 March 2011 at 17:38 AEST