Update on ongoing Christmas Island unrest
Friday, 18 March 2011
SUBJECTS: Update on Christmas Island incident
CHRIS BOWEN: Obviously, I want to make some statements about Christmas Island and Acting Deputy Commissioner Lancaster will make some statements as well, and then we’d be happy to answer your questions.
As you’re aware, last night we saw a continuation of the violent and unacceptable behaviour of an organised group of protesters at our North West Point detention centre on Christmas Island. Again, a group of around 200 protesters seemed to think that violent behaviour is an acceptable way to influence the outcome of their visa application or influence Government decision making. Last night, buildings were damaged, fires were lit, and there were violent approaches to the Australian Federal Police. As I’ve previously said this week, it is only fair to stress that the vast majority of detainees at the Christmas Island detention centre are not involved in this protest, want nothing to do with this protest and are actively disassociating themselves from this sort of action, this sort of behaviour.
I’d like to cover a few things in this press conference. I’d like to give you an update on the operational response. I’d like to take you through the actions of the department during this week in relation to discussions with detainees on Christmas Island; the steps in relation to the number of detainees on Christmas Island; the AGP investigation into criminal damage; and potential references to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions; and the status of the independent inquiry into my department and Serco’s preparedness and response to these incidents.
Firstly, the operational response. During the course of last night, the AFP took control of the North West Point detention centre in accord with operational guidelines about when to hand control to the Australian Federal Police. The Australian Federal Police remain in control of the centre and will remain so as long as is necessary. Another 70 AFP officers are currently being deployed on the island, which will bring the AFP contingent on the island to 188, and Deputy Commissioner Lancaster can provide you with more information about that.
I’d also like to turn to the matter of engagement with the detainees on Christmas Island. Now, a small group of detainees have made it clear that they would continue violent action until they were granted visas. Of course, we cannot enter into those sorts of discussions. We do not let that sort of behaviour influence our consideration of visa applications. I’ve made it clear in this protest and in other protests that we do not respond to this sort of protest action and that anybody who want to engage in discussions with the Department of Immigration should not be engaged in this sort of protest action. However, of course it was important that we continue to engage with the detainees on Christmas Island about the processing of their claims and to reassure them that the Government took seriously the need to process people quickly. For example, I’ve said for some weeks that I was concerned about the amount of time it was taking to get security clearances from people who had already been regarded as refugees, and that is a legitimate concern of those people. We need to ensure that those security checks occur and that they occur quickly.
On Monday, I asked the Chair of CISSR, my advisory council on detention matters, Mr Paris Aristotle, the Deputy Chair and former Air Marshal Ray Funnell and CISSR member Professor Nicholas Procter, to travel to Christmas Island and to engage with the detainees on those matters. Again, while a majority of detainees appreciated this information, a minority were determined to continue in violent protest action. It was important to ensure that the detainees were fully aware of what action the Government was already taking to ensure that people were processed as quickly and as efficiently as possible, and that engagement continued right up until yesterday.
Clearly, I’d also like to talk about the number of people on Christmas Island. Clearly, these events have made it necessary to speed up the reduction of the number of detainees that are currently held on Christmas Island. Last December, we had over 3,000 detainees on Christmas Island. At the beginning of this week, before this protest action, we had 2,500, and there are now less than that. A couple of weeks ago I announced the establishment of a new detention centre in Darwin. I said at the time that would relieve pressure on Christmas Island. But clearly, as I say, this reduction now needs to be expedited. 105 detainees will leave Christmas Island today; more tomorrow. They’ll be spread throughout our existing detention facilities.
A second last point I’d like to make is that obviously, there will now be an AFP investigation into individual conduct, with a view to potential criminal charged being laid by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. Obviously, the AFP is currently focused on managing the situation at Christmas Island. But of course, that does not preclude an ongoing investigation into individual conduct. And again, Acting Deputy Commissioner Lancaster will have more to say about that.
In relation to the implications for visa applications of this sort of potential criminal activity, I’d like to provide you with this information. The Migration Act allows that character is an important consideration in determining whether somebody should be granted a visa. Character can have regard to a number of factors: whether somebody has been sentenced for a criminal activity to prison for more than 12 months, and also general conduct and whether somebody’s general conduct implies that they are not of good character. Now, of course, this will be considered on a case by case basis, but character considerations will be taken into account for those on Christmas Island who have organised and perpetrated this sort of activity. It will be taken into account by our decision makers and ultimately by me. In addition, because these are people who arrived at an excised offshore place at Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef, it is also necessary for me as the Minister to lift the bar to allow them to apply for a Protection Visa if they are regarded through our processes as a genuine refugee. I am able to take into account considerations in deciding whether to lift the bar and I’ll be doing that very seriously on a case by case basis in relation to anybody who has participated in this sort of activity. I say that on a without prejudice basis I would apply those rules and those considerations genuinely, very seriously, on a case by case basis.
The final point I’d like to make in relation to this matter is on Monday I announced an independent, arms length review on my department’s preparedness and response, and the response of Serco to these breakouts and these violent incidents on Christmas Island. I announced that on Monday because I thought that was an important thing to do. Today I can announce more details about that. The review will be conducted jointly by Dr Allan Hawke AC and Ms Helen Williams AO, both former departmental secretaries in the Commonwealth public service; Ms Williams a former secretary of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, which gives her that hands on knowledge – so important – and a range of other Government departments. So Mr Hawke, of course, a former secretary of the Department of Defence and a well respected bureaucrat and person of high regard. They will conduct this inquiry and will report to me by the middle of the year. In addition, of course, there is a separate process for the investigation of use of force by the AFP through their own processes and also through the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman. And again, Deputy Commissioner Lancaster might want to say something about that.
Finally, just on one other matter before I hand over to Deputy Commissioner Lancaster and then take your questions. Last night, I was informed of the tragic death of one of our detainees at our detention centre at Scherger in Queensland, and this was a young Afghan man. Of course, any death in our detention network is very tragic and is taken very seriously. Now, of course being a police investigation and I would assume a coroner’s investigation, unfortunately I can’t provide any further commentary on that, other than to say we are endeavouring to contact the next of kin of that individual, and of course we will be cooperating with that next of kin on the next steps and passing on our condolences. And of course, we will be investigating fully with any police or coroner’s investigation.
STEVE LANCASTER: Thank you, Minister.
I’d just like to provide an overview of what occurred last night to bring everyone up to date, and also to articulate what our intent is over the next period as we assume responsibility for the centre.
The AFP can confirm that its members responded at approximately 8.15pm Christmas Island time to an incident at the immigration detention centre at the North West Point facility on Christmas Island. The AFP was responding to a group of approximately 200 protesters. Numerous of those protesters were carrying improvised weapons. These weapons included accelerant-based weapons, poles, bricks, pavers, concrete rocks and also a wheelie bin full of rocks. This is clearly an organised attack [inaudible] police, preventing them from leaving the compound. The protesters advanced on police when confronted in a fast and aggressive motion while throwing rocks in the direction of police. The protesters were also wearing cloths and towels over their heads and faces in an attempt to avoid exposure to CS gas or other use of force options available to police. Some protesters set fire to two administration buildings and seven marquees across the grounds of the centre.
At 10pm, the AFP was formally handed responsibility of the centre by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. This will remain the case until order is restored and the safety and security of all persons can be reasonably guaranteed. The situation remains tense and police are actively assuming control and taking steps to secure the facility to ensure safety. Police remain ready to effectively and quickly respond to public order issues on Christmas Island. Community safety on Christmas Island remains our highest concern. I would like to highlight that the violent behaviour appears limited to a minority group, or a small proportion of the detention centre. The majority of clients are acting responsibly and appropriately, while still being able to voice their concerns. Many of these other clients have also sought refuge from the violent activity itself. [inaudible] have a duty of care to ensure the safety of these people and everyone involved in this incident. For example, last night approximately 300 of the clients and staff sought refuge from the violent protests within the gymnasium of the facilities. The gym was later attacked by the minority group, who threw rocks and stones, and those seeking refuge inside had to be safely removed from the attack.
In relation to our intent over the next few days or until that security can be restored, is to reduce the violence that’s currently occurring at the centre and around the centre. We want to restore the security and safety, to ensure the facility can go back to normal, business as usual operations, and we want to reduce further damage from being occasioned to the facility. Our goal is to return responsibility to DIAC and Serco as soon as possible and again, for us to continue to support them in their activities on Christmas Island. I’d just like to corroborate the Minister by saying we are currently 118 Australian Federal Police on the island and we are coordinating plans for a further 70 officers to attend, which will bring the total up to approximately 188 persons. This is, in effect, to give sustainability to the operations that we currently have on the island at the moment.
JOURNALIST: Minister, with the violence in a far away place like Christmas Island, does this throw into doubt plans for the East Timor processing centre?
BOWEN: They are quite separate issues. Of course, this is a challenging situation on Christmas Island, but of course security would be a consideration for any detention centre, wherever it would be built, domestically on the Australian mainland or an offshore detention centre.
JOURNALIST: Minister, of the 105 people you said you’re moving off the island today, were any of those 105 involved in this riot?
JOURNALIST: What’s the status of the 200 protesters?
BOWEN: Well, as I understand it, the 200 protesters or the 200 people involved in this action are being held in the North West detention centre itself, which is under AFP control.
JOURNALIST: Are there any plans to move them off the island?
BOWEN: Not at this stage. Obviously, I would be guided by the operational advice of the AFP and my department as to whether they should be moved for operational security reasons. But at this stage, the plan is to keep them on Christmas Island.
JOURNALIST: Minister, can we take from your comments in respect of the granting of visas and the fact that you will take into account character, that of those 200, if they can be identified, that most or all of those we would expect would have their visa application [inaudible]?
BOWEN: Well, Steve, under the Migration Act and interpretation of the Migration Act by the courts, I’m required to provide natural justice to people before I make a decision in relation to whether to grant them a visa, in relation to character. So I would need to put – if I was planning not to grant a visa on character grounds – I would need to put allegations to them and allow them the chance to reply. That is what I would do. Of course, there are degrees of culpability in this: there are organisers and inciters, potentially, of this sort of activity; and then there are varying degrees of activity underneath that. What I’m saying to you, Steve, is that I take the character test very, very seriously. One of the tests is if somebody is imprisoned for 12 months or more. There is a more general test, which simply goes to somebody’s conduct and general conduct, and whether that indicates they are of bad character. I will be examining those matters very, very seriously.
JOURNALIST: You keep saying it takes time for the East Timor solution to be sorted or put in place. Time is clearly not a luxury that we have at the moment. Is it time to actually abandon the idea of East Timor?
BOWEN: We are continuing discussions with our regional colleagues and of course we have the Bali Ministerial Meeting coming up. That is an important step, but it won’t be the final step in reaching a regional framework. It is an important step. But these are quite separate issues. We believe a regional framework is necessary to stop the flow of boats and asylum seekers. But what we do not do is engage in quick, three word slogans and pretend this is an easy answer.
JOURNALIST: Minister, given we’ve seen a week of rolling unrest at the island, [inaudible] assurance from you that everything’s under control? Do you bear personal responsibility for what’s happened overnight? And a question for the Deputy Commissioner: you talked about these protesters covering their faces to protect themselves from the gas; were they hiding their identities?
BOWEN: I’ll answer the question first. As Minister, I take responsibility for the actions of my department. In relation to my comments during the week, I have made it very clear, with respect, that this is a serious and tense situation. At no stage during the week have I underplayed the seriousness of this situation. With respect, I’ve gone out of my way to indicate that I regard this as a very tense and serious situation.
LANCASTER: With respect to why they are putting the cloths around their head, it would be speculative to say exactly why they were doing that. However, my suspicions would be that they are trying to resist the effects of the [inaudible] gas and of course, the issue of identification could also be a reason why they did that. But at this point in time, it is still early stages; it would be speculative.
JOURNALIST: Minister, are you concerned that the unrest would spread to other detention centres? We’ve seen some protests there; are police being called in?
BOWEN: No. No police have been called into other detention centres. Of course, we do have issues from time to time in various detention centres with protests. There’s no indication of any violent activity in any other detention centre. I make it very clear: we do not respond to these sorts of activities, and in fact we were planning to have independent merits reviewers in Christmas Island this week; they will now go to other centres and be processing other claims. So places where detention centres are operating as per normal will be able to progress that processing of refugee claims. That won’t be possible at the moment at Christmas Island.
JOURNALIST: Minister, there’s been violent protests in the past. Are you aware of any asylum seekers who have lost their bids for a visa because of their protest?
BOWEN: There have been particularly violent protests under the previous Government at Baxter and Woomera. I would have to take your question on notice as to what the implications of those protests were. I’m indicating what my approach will be as Minister, not necessarily what previous Ministers would have done.
JOURNALIST: What are the preliminary costs of this, what’s the damage bill?
BOWEN: Well, obviously it’s still fairly early at Christmas Island. There’ll be an audit of the damage. Once those are established, I’d be happy to release those publicly, but I have no indication of costs at this stage.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do you understand the desperation of the people who are involved in this protest, and can you give assurances or can either of you give assurances to people who are actually on the island that they will be safe?
BOWEN: Let me deal with both of those matters. Firstly, I understand the frustration of detainees and asylum seekers, of course I do. That’s why I wanted to make sure that those people who have frustrations were fully aware of the actions the Government was taking to speed up processing to deal with security clearances, etcetera. Let me say this: there is no excuse, no excuse, for violent and extreme behaviour.
In relation to the people of Christmas Island, I’ve had a number of talks this week with the Administrator and with the Mayor of Christmas Island. I understand people’s concerns. I think it’s important to note that I’m not aware, I don’t think the police are aware, of any indications of damage to private property or any threats to any private citizen on Christmas Island. That’s not to underplay the seriousness of the situation, just a statement of fact that I’m not aware of any claims or fears of damage to a private property or a private individual. That accords with the police’s understanding. That’s not to say I don’t very much understand the concerns of Christmas Island residents. Christmas Island residents, I think, have expressed a view that numbers on Christmas Island need to be brought down and I agree with them.
Up the back. You’ve been very patient.
JOURNALIST: Minister, on the use of beanbag rounds, you said that they only cause bruising. The US Department of Justice says that people hit in the chest or in the stomach are at serious risk of injury or death, that 10 per cent [inaudible] do cause broken bones and there have been at least 10 deaths from them.
BOWEN: I’ve indicated the briefings that I’ve received of the implications of these beanbag rounds and perhaps the police would like to provide more information.
JOURNALIST: In light of that information, though, do you still support –
BOWEN: The police will provide more information about the implications of the use of this particular type of weapon.
LANCASTER: I’ll just answer the question. The use of beanbag [inaudible] is a legitimate use of force option that’s been approved and used by all jurisdictions within Australia and police tactical group operators. They are highly skilled professionals and although there are statistics out there about potential, you know, damage that can occur, or injury, the way that they are deployed, as can be seen over the last three or four days where they have been deployed, there has been little, if any, injuries directly to them as a result of the beanbags.
JOURNALIST: Do you accept that there is a risk of serious injury or death from these, and do you accept that over more than six metres they’re inaccurate, under three metres they’re potentially deadly?
LANCASTER: There is a chance of risk of serious injury and death with any of the tools that are being deployed by these people. Whether it be beanbag round, accelerant-based tools, bricks or pavers, they are all capable of causing death and serious injury.
JOURNALIST: Minister, will the independent review examine whether the policies of the Rudd Government, I’m talking specifically of August 2008, have contributed to the fact that we’ve now got 200 or so hardline detainees marauding around Christmas Island trashing the detention centre. We understand some escaped and have not been found on Christmas Island – you might like to answer that. Will this independent review examine whether there is a linkage between those policies and where we are at now? If not, why not?
BOWEN: Steve, this is not a political review. This is a review, as I announced on Monday, of the preparedness and response of my department and its contractor, Serco. I’ve done that in the interests of openness and transparency; and to see what lessons are to be learnt in terms of the administrative and professional response of my department and the relevant agencies. This is not a review of policy; this is a review of response. I’m more than happy to have the political debate but I will not drag two independent, former public servants into that political debate. They have a very serious job to do.
JOURNALIST: Are Serco effectively now on notice, given what’s been going on in Christmas Island and the announcement of this review?
BOWEN: I’m not going to pre-empt the result of the review. I have no particular evidence that Serco have been negligent in their preparation. What I want to make sure of, is that both my department and Serco were fully prepared and responded appropriately. I’m not pre-empting, I’m not pre-empting the results of the review. The review may make findings about either my department or about Serco. That’s what I’ve asked of the review. I will let the review take place before I provide any further comment.
JOURNALIST: But at this point in time, are you completely happy with how Serco has run this centre? And could I also ask the officer, to answer that question?
BOWEN: I’m not going to pre-empt the results of the review. The review is there for a very good reason: to have a thorough examination of the role and response of my department and Serco. Deputy Commissioner.
LANCASTER: In relation to Serco: there is a responsible plan that we’ve put in place for these events. This has been an escalation and de-escalation where it becomes beyond the capacity and capability for them to be able to keep control of the facility; then it is handed over to police and a responsible decision-making process. I am very comfortable with how this has transpired and the fact that there has been minimal, if any, very minor injuries is testament to the fact of how the police and the decision-making process is in the coordination between the partner agencies has worked very effectively.
JOURNALIST: But why did it take so long for the AFP to take control? If there were wheelie-bins of rocks, surely it was obvious what was happening at that time.
LANCASTER: We had enough assets in country to deal with the current arrangement where Serco and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship were in control of the facility; and we are there to support them, when contingency, when it escalates and de-escalates. That does not mean that in every event the police will automatically step in and take the responsibility for the situation; because it doesn’t warrant it. Clearly, last night there was an escalation to the proportions that a responsible decision was made and police assumed responsibility at the request of DIAC and Serco.
BOWEN: Can we have a bit of order? We’ll go here and here and then over there.
JOURNALIST: Can you say, are the fences around the camp secure because obviously there’s an issue with them being torn down earlier in the week? Are all the detainees who got out – are they now back in the camp or are they still running loose on the island? And the 200 people; have they been segregated, are they being kept away from things like rocks, like cigarette lighters and things like that?
LANCASTER: As I’d like to say, the events of last night are still being completed. We are still in the wash up of what went wrong, who was responsible. Clearly, there are people that potentially did get out; and of course we go through the processes of ensuring how many people are out, if any; and then we deal with that issue. In relation to those who are responsible for the activity inside; that is part of the police planning when they assume responsibility for the centre. So a tactical strategy is employed at that time; is being developed now. So the events that happened last night – the opportunity for that to occur – are reduced significantly.
BOWEN: I second the Commander.
JOURNALIST: A question about the review: how wide-ranging is this? Is it possible that Christmas Island could actually be closed if the review recommended that; given the circumstances, the ongoing circumstances there? Would you rule that out now?
BOWEN: I have absolutely no reason to think that that would be one of the recommendations. I won’t pre-empt the review. The review is into operational response, preparedness et cetera. I think the Christmas Island facility is a well-constructed facility; constructed by the previous government. Well-constructed and appropriate for its use; but of course, if there are lessons to be learnt as to how security can be improved arising out of that, then of course we’d take that on board.
I said we’d come over here.
JOURNALIST: What was in the letter that was given to protesters before this latest violence broke out? Clearly there had been some negotiations and dialogue. Do you have an idea of the nationalities of the protesters and were they largely people who’d been approved as refugees and were waiting on ASIO security clearance or were they people who had received initial rejections?
BOWEN: In relation to the letter that you refer to – and I’m happy to put that up on the department’s website – that does to that engagement that I talked about in my opening remarks. Members of CISSR, on my behalf, are engaging with the detainees at Christmas Island, explaining that the Government is taking steps to ensure faster processing. I announced, for example, referring to the announcements I made that came into force on the 1st of March for faster processing. Also referring to the public comments making sure that those ASIO checks occurred as quickly as possible, after refugee-status has been met. The letter explained that. It also explained things such as: there were independent reviewers due to come onto the island. They would not and could not come while the island, while the detention centre was experiencing unrest; but if the detention centre returned to a state of calm then they would return and that processing would continue. That was part of that engagement and my feedback is that the vast majority of detainees appreciated that engagement, took on board and accepted what was in the letter. That it was a well received piece of communication; as was the general engagement of the CISSR members with the broad clientele at Christmas Island.
JOURNALIST: It seemed to have sparked the protest, though [inaudible].
BOWEN: No, I do not accept for one second – and I’ve seen some very irresponsible comments by some so-called advocates to that effect; and I would just caution that those particular advocates have, during the week, made some, I think, irresponsible comments; and I think these comments are equally irresponsible. The letter was drafted by experienced psychologists in the form of the Chair of the Commonwealth’s advisory council, Dr Paris Aristotle and others, in conjunction with my department, in terms of dealing with some of those concerns and it was a very well received letter. So comments that this letter somehow sparked this action yesterday are completely out of line: irresponsible, inaccurate and bear no resemblance to the facts.
In relation to your question as to the make-up of the protestors; it varies as I understand it. Some are people who have had their refugee status rejected; either at the first level or the second level or both. Others are people who’ve been accepted as refugees but haven’t reached their ASIO clearances. It would vary across the board.
JOURNALIST: [inaudible] if someone had been accepted as a refugee and was simply waiting for the ASIO clearance but has taken part or is maybe a ringleader in these protests, will they now have to have that status revoked?
BOWEN: They would still be subject to the character test like everybody else.
JOURNALIST: Minister, how long do you anticipate it will be before you regain control of the centre? Will there be a boosted presence of AFP officers on the island now, to keep that order in place? And the Human Rights Commissioner, again, has reviewed their call to you to end mandatory detention and close Christmas Island.
BOWEN: There’s a number of questions there; I’ll deal with each of them. In relation to how long the AFP will be in control of the and before it will be handed back; the AFP will be in control for as long as the AFP and my department feel that is appropriate and necessary. I’m not prepared to put a timeframe on that. It will take as long as it takes. In relation to the boosted numbers; that is something we will keep under review and I would obviously take the advice of the AFP and the relevant minister, the Minister for Home Affairs; would take that advice as well.
In relation to the Human Rights Commission; their view is well known. Their view has been the same for many, many years. I have the view that if you come to Australia seeking asylum, you don’t have a visa, you often don’t have any documentation. It is appropriate that you be in detention while you are being processed. I have very strong views, clearly, that I have acted upon that detention centres and facilities are not an appropriate place to keep children and families; and we’re acting on that. But more broadly, will detention and mandatory detention remain part of our system? Yes it will.
JOURNALIST: Can I just get clarity, Minister. Are there detainees – all the detainees – accounted for, as far as you’re aware? Or are there some that are on the loose on Christmas Island?
BOWEN: The AFP will answer that question.
LANCASTER: It is still early days at this stage. There was a breach to the perimeter wall and clearly there were people that did get out and most of those, if not all, have been returned. However it does require a full headcount. We’re not in a position to say definitely that they are all within the detention centre; however we have strategies in place to work with the people of the community and the working with our partners; that if there is any person suspicious or out there and we are proactively searching, that they will be identified and returned back to the facility.
JOURNALIST: When do you expect to have a headcount completed so you can say categorically, ‘yes all detainees are accounted for’ or ‘there are half a dozen on the loose’?
LANCASTER: There are a number of actions that need to be done. We work closely with DIAC and Serco to enable that to occur. Along with that, there are other activities. Clearly, they have been able to get possession of some weapons; so clearly some search has to be done. So there is a significant body of work that we will do quickly, quickly to ensure the safety and security is returned very, very quickly.
JOURNALIST: Minister are there electric fences on, around the detention centres?
BOWEN: No, the situation is that, as I understand it, that the fences around the actual compound are not electrified. There’s no capacity to do that. There is a capacity to electrify around the core of the centre but that has not been activated as the additional compounds are still in use.
JOURNALIST: Is it true that some of the protesters were trying to break-out somebody that was in custody in the red block?
BOWEN: I’m not aware of that. Deputy Commissioner, are you?
LANCASTER: Look, there was activity around the red block, where there was a group of about 21 or about 23 clients. Whether they were trying to get at them, again, is purely speculative. They were there attacking the centre and along with other staff that were in the centre at the same time. The operational response group was deployed to ensure the safety of those within, not knowing what the intent of those protestors were. And also for the start; they were inside the red zone with them.
JOURNALIST: Will all the asylum seekers on Christmas Island spend the night tonight in the Christmas Island detention facility, and if they do, where will they sleep – given six marquees were burnt down?
BOWEN: We have a range of facilities in place. There are other administrative and recreational facilities within the North West Point centre. We also have the Phosphate Hill site and we also have, being made available to us, a community hall which is currently housing some people.
JOURNALIST: Just to follow up on that, what I’m getting at is will they all be returned to the centre tonight? If you do return them to the centre, doesn’t that create a pressure-cooker situation?
BOWEN: Well, obviously that will be an operational decision taken into account. The factors that you point to and what is in the best interests of the detention facility, the island and detainees.
JOURNALIST: Minister can I clarify your answer to Kirsten’s question? You said that, as I understood it, some of the people are – on the island – who have had their asylum granted and are just waiting.
BOWEN: For ASIO security checks.
JOURNALIST: That sort of thing. If they are involved in these actions, is it possible now that they could have that reversed?
BOWEN: They will still be subject to the character test.
JOURNALIST: Which, that means, they could be reversed?
BOWEN: That would be a consideration. It wouldn’t be a reversal. There’s a process to take place: you have your refugee status accepted, and then security test and then you apply under section 46A, you are considered under 46A. So there is a range of tests to be done. I’m not pre-empting any of that Phil and I don’t want to overstate it. I’m simply making the point that there is still character tests; there is still the opportunity to apply the character test.
JOURNALIST: Minister, with no timeframe of the AFP being on Christmas Island surely you must concede it’s at breaking point?
BOWEN: Well, clearly it’s a very difficult and tense situation and clearly it’s appropriate that the AFP be in control; and until the AFP and my department feel it’s appropriately equipped to hand it back.
JOURNALIST: If these people, if you use the powers of the character test not to give them a visa and they’ve been found to be refugees; you can’t send them back home to their country then. What happens then?
BOWEN: That will be a factor for consideration at the time.
JOURNALIST: Clearly, though, Christmas Island’s out of control and you’re the Minister responsible.
BOWEN: You can make whatever observation you wish. The detention centre is in the control of the Australian Federal Police and it’s being handled appropriately.
JOURNALIST: Is it correct that the 20-year-old Afghan man found dead in this morning in the Queensland facility had harmed himself?
BOWEN: Look, I have been advised of the circumstances but because there’s a police and coronial investigation, I’m obliged not to comment further. It is a tragic set of circumstances. The police and the coroner are in the best position to comment further.
JOURNALIST: Minister, earlier you said that you take responsibility for the actions of the Department. The Department employs Serco, Serco lost control and called the AFP in. Doesn’t that therefore mean that you have overriding responsibility for the whole situation?
BOWEN: I’m the Minister. I take responsibility.
JOURNALIST: Will you quit then? You’ve got responsibility.
BOWEN: I take responsibility for it and I take responsibility for making sure the situation is under control going forward. It’s my job, of course, to work with the AFP and my department and Serco to ensure that the detention centre is appropriately administered from here on in. I have not seen any evidence that anybody in my department or in Serco has behaved in any way inappropriately or the necessary preparations have not been made. But that is why I’ve appointed this independent review to ensure that this situation is appropriately handled and has been appropriately handled; and if there are any lessons to be learnt, they are learnt.
I think we’re starting to exhaust the questions, but yes?
JOURNALIST: One of your other answers, you said that you were given the advice that beanbag rounds only bruise. If it’s true that they can cause serious injury and death, doesn’t that mean you’re getting bad advice?
BOWEN: Well, no, look, again, and the AFP may wish to provide further information; I have been advised by the AFP that the likely most serious result of the use of beanbags bullets is that bruising; and that’s the advice I’ve been given. That’s the advice I’ve passed on.
LANCASTER: When they are appropriately deployed, the expectation is that bruising will no doubt occur. It is similar to being hit with a baton or struck with a baton at an extended range; where you do not need to get close enough to sustain injury yourself. Now, these people are appropriately trained and deployed to do that.
BOWEN: And if I can just follow on from that, it’s an important point. Where the weapon is appropriately deployed, that is the impact; and all the evidence is that the weapon was appropriately deployed.
LANCASTER: And I will say, sorry I will say that there is a process in place upon a deployment at any of those of force options, that we have to report that transparently back by way of a ‘use of force report forms’. That then is reviewed through our officer safety committee and also through to our professional standards. So if there is any significant injury or if there is any inappropriate or alleged inappropriate conduct on how they were deployed; then there are appropriate processes in place in which to investigate that and just to reassure everyone that they were used properly.
BOWEN: I thought we were starting to exhaust them and you’ve got a second life. That’s okay but we’ll keep going.
JOURNALIST: Was the broken leg caused by that round? And when you say, ‘appropriately deployed’; can they be appropriately deployed in a controlled environment in a riot situation?
LANCASTER: I would expect, in situations like last night and the previous night where they escalated and they had to be deployed, my expectation is that there is a higher volume of deployment of those tools. They satisfy a gap between a baton and personal hand-t-hand combat and actually firing a weapon, and these actually allow you to – commensurate to the risk – allow you to resolve the situation without anyone getting hurt.
BOWEN: Okay. Guys, we will take a few more questions. Deputy Commissioner Lancaster’s got a job to do, but we will take a few more questions.
JOURNALIST: Who made the request for the 70 additional officers? Was it the AFP or did you order them in, Minister?
BOWEN: No, no, that’s a decision for the AFP.
LANCASTER: As I stated earlier, at the moment there is a group of around about 200 to 300 who seem to be the major problem. We have at this stage 118 people on the island; they can deal with that situation on the island and dealt with it very effectively to this point. However, we must realise these are long days and these people are putting themselves under great stress – and that includes the police – and their lives at risk by dealing with these situations. We need at some stage to get sustainability and get a fresh set of people in there so that we get proper rostering and enable them to perform at their optimum levels.
JOURNALIST: [inaudible] the violence, at all?
LANCASTER: My assessment and what I’ve been informed is, with the strategy we’ve put in place at the moment, we should be able to deal with the incidents that could occur tonight. However, at this stage it is going to be tense and I don’t want to speculate on what may happen tonight. Police deal with what happens in front of them and we plan for what the worst case scenario is. I believe that we have the appropriate tools and people in place, with specialist capability and general duties, to deal with whatever is placed before police.
JOURNALIST: Have beanbag bullet rounds been used on mainland Australia before?
LANCASTER: Beanbag rounds are accepted and approved munitions that are actually used by state and territory police, who train with them and deploy them, and Australian Federal Police. I will say that domestically they are clearly not deployed that often. But certainly internationally, the operational response group have used them on such occasions as 2006 in East Timor and also on Solomon Islands, and they are well practised in their usage, in training and in practical application.
BOWEN: A couple more questions.
JOURNALIST: How many were fired? Was it one or two, was it hundreds of rounds? I mean, how was the situation brought under control?
LANCASTER: At this stage, I cannot give you an exact number. These people have worked all night and they have to put in their use of force forms and they have to do such things as to ensure that safety remains at the site. We are actively trying to make sure those report forms come in and this comes down to counting ammunition and counting weapons use, and what was the debrief from that event. So in saying that, I can say the expectations last night, there would have been a higher volume of usage of these munitions.
JOURNALIST: But is that so many you can’t count? I mean, could you give us an approximation of how many?
LANCASTER: [inaudible] because I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t counting them as they were going off.
JOURNALIST: Sort of, was it in the tens or –
BOWEN: I think the Deputy Commissioner’s answered that question.
JOURNALIST: I guess people are just trying to, obviously, you hear about all this going on, you hear there’s been violence.
BOWEN: I think you’ve got to understand that it was last night, it’s still early hours, there are reports to be given to the Deputy Commissioner. I think he’s answered the question with the information he has available.
JOURNALIST: What is Plan B if you cannot restore control, though, on the island?
BOWEN: We’ll be restoring control. It’s under the control of the AFP and it’s being managed appropriately. Last question.
JOURNALIST: Just on the question I asked earlier, do you know if the broken leg was caused by one of these rounds?
LANCASTER: The broken leg was occasioned during the incident where those munitions were deployed. Now, whether that caused that is subject to an investigation.
BOWEN: Okay. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Friday, 18 March 2011 at 18:04 AEST