Incidents at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, Pontville facility, refugee accommodation in Newcastle
Thursday, 21 April 2011
Doorstop interview, Newcastle
Chris Bowen: Thank you for coming everybody. Obviously last night we had a very serious disturbance at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. I would like to provide you with an update on the situation.
It is clear that around 100 protesters, detainees, engaged in very serious action last night. There has been what appears to be extensive damage to several buildings. Those buildings are the kitchen, support and recreation rooms. At this stage it appears that there has been no substantial damage to actual accommodation buildings. Obviously this is very serious, Australian's have a right to be angry at those who have conducted this sort of damage, I share their anger.
There are a number of points to make about this. Obviously there will be an Australian Federal Police investigation. This action is not only completely unacceptable, but it is very clearly potentially criminal as well and potential charges may well be laid following the Australian Federal Police investigation, and those people who have engaged in this action would therefore be dealt with under our justice system, just as any other person on Australian soil would be.
In addition, for those who may have visa applications pending, it is open to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and me as Minister, to consider matters of character in determining whether to grant them a visa and what type of visa to grant. As I said in relation to Christmas Island, I will be applying the character test to those who may have been involved in this incident and I'll be applying it vigorously.
As you know, in relation to Christmas Island, during that protest – that disturbance, I instigated an independent arms-length review, to be conducted by two respected former Commonwealth departmental secretaries, Dr Allan Hawke and Ms Helen Williams. I have this morning arranged for the terms of reference for that review to be extended to cover the incident at Villawood last night, that will go to the preparedness and response of my department and Serco, the manager of the centre.
Of course, we continue to monitor the situation at the centre. The Australian Federal Police will soon be re-entering the centre and at that stage if there's any further advice that either I or my department are able to give the media, of course we would do so.
Happy to answer questions.
Journalist: Is it true that some of those responsible were the ringleaders at Christmas Island?
Bowen: No, that is not true. We have transferred 11 people from Christmas Island to Villawood since the Christmas Island disturbance. Nine of those are potential persons of interest in relation to the Christmas Island disturbance. They were kept in a separate part to the facility which was part of the disturbance last night. The advice I have to me is there is no evidence at all that anybody who was a person of interest in relation to the Christmas Island disturbance was in any way involved in last night's disturbance. I've seen that speculation from Mr Morrison – I can assure you that my advice is that's not the case.
Journalist: Mr Morrison also says this is the Government's fault because of the state of our detention centres.
Bowen: Well Mr Morrison is able and very willing to make political points out of these issues. I am focusing on managing the issue, which is my responsibility as Minister. This is a difficult situation. I should make the point, that I am sure some people will say this is due to overcrowding. Villawood detention centre was actually under-capacity. It has a capacity of over 400 and under 400 people accommodated at the Villawood detention centre.
In relation to those people who have been protesting on the roof, and it can be reasonably assumed, have been instigators of the broader protest. These are by and large, I'm advised, people who have received negative refugee assessments. So this is not a matter of timing, of people protesting that they have not received enough speedy response to their claims, these are people who have been considered by the Department of Immigration, have not had their refugee claims accepted and then, in many cases, have had their claims also considered by an Independent Merits Review and again had their refugee claims rejected – and in some cases have begun court action and were waiting for a result from that court action.
So these are people, in many instances, who are not happy that they have not been accepted as refugees. If they think they will change their visa outcome, if they think they will be accepted as refugees because of this sort of protest action, they've chosen the wrong Government and the wrong Minister, because that won't be happening.
Journalist: Where will the detainees at Villawood go now, given that nine buildings have been destroyed?
Bowen: As I said earlier, it appears that the damage to the buildings has not been accommodation. Obviously we'll continue to monitor the situation at Villawood and we will make further decisions in relation to accommodation as more information comes to light, and as we continue to assess the situation in relation to security at Villawood. If there's further announcements to be made about that then I would make those announcements.
Journalist: Mr Bowen, six buildings destroyed. I'd imagine the damage bill could top the millions?
Bowen: I would envisage so but we, of course, are focused on managing the situation at the moment. There's as yet no dollar figure on the damage bill, but I do regard it as being substantial.
Journalist: Does there need to be a broader inquiry into Australia's detention centres?
Bowen: No, as I say, I have instigated an independent inquiry into the Christmas Island incident and extended today the terms of reference to cover the Villawood incident, I believe that's appropriate. Of course the Ombudsman has flagged his intentions on Christmas Island, he is able to investigate things of his own motion. But whether there's lessons to be learned from either Christmas Island or Villawood, they will be learnt. The appropriate way to do that is to let the Hawke-Williams review run its course, as well of course as the Australian Federal Police investigation.
Journalist: Was there any conflict between the Serco staff and emergency crews who got there? Some fire-fighters said they couldn't get inside to put the fires out.
Bowen: I understand as I'm advised, fire-fighters attempted to go inside the centre, they had to withdraw from the centre because of violent action on behalf of some detainees. I am certainly not aware of any conflict between Serco and emergency management staff. I think that underlines the seriousness of these events. As I say, this is completely unacceptable behaviour, and very clearly potentially criminal behaviour, and will be dealt with through the criminal justice system.
Journalist: Are you satisfied that security at Villawood was adequate last night?
Bowen: Well again, I don't think we should leap to conclusions. Obviously we have a very serious event at Villawood. Obviously, as I say, there will be a Hawke-Williams review which will go into the preparedness and response, including the preparedness and appropriateness of security from my department and from Serco. I note my advice is that no-one breached the perimeter of the Villawood centre, that it was a serious event, but one that was contained within the Villawood centre.
Journalist: What's the timeframe for the review?
Bowen: That would be reporting at the middle of the year.
Journalist: Is that soon enough?
Bowen: I think it's appropriate that there be a thorough review, that it go through all the issues and that it will not be rushed in its deliberations. Of course if Dr Hawke and Ms Williams choose to provide me with any advice earlier than that, by way of an interim report, that is a matter for them, but they have not yet indicated that to me.
Reporter: There's been comment today that these are desperate actions by desperate people. What would you say?
Bowen: I understand, certainly, the frustration of asylum seekers, but I make this point: there is no justification at all, ever, for this sort of violent action, violent action against emergency workers. In some cases I've seen reports of threats and intimidation of other detainees. That is not acceptable behaviour under any circumstances. And I reiterate the point that, at least in many cases, of the people protesting on the roof, these are people who have been rejected as genuine refugees and they were in the process of course of either launching court appeals or beginning the process of attempting to return them to the country from whence they came.
Now I understand they're not happy with that outcome, but Australia does not make its visa decisions based on protest action. We base it on the information we have available to us, as regards the risk of genuine persecution and danger if they are returned to the country from whence they came.
If the Department of Immigration and then the independent merits review, and indeed the courts, have the view that they are at risk of persecution or there is serious risk of persecution, then they will not be returned. But if that is not the outcome of that consideration, then they will not be accepted as refugees and no sort of protest action – and certainly not violent protest action – will change that.
Reporter: Just on to another centre, the proposed Pontville one in Tasmania. I understand at a meeting last night, concerns about a lack of consultation there. Are you going to, I guess, advise for more consultation.
Bowen: Certainly, I've seen the reports of that meeting and can I say that the response from the broad Pontville community, I think, since that announcement a couple of weeks ago, has been encouraging. Certainly, I spoke to the Mayor prior to the announcement and he has welcomed the sighting of the detention facility at Pontville – a temporary detention facility at Pontville. As I said at the time, I expected it to be controversial, I expect a range of views in the community and I expect some concerns. What we do is, we sit down with those local community members, talk through their concerns. We certainly – whether it's a permanent centre or a temporary centre – we want to be good neighbours in the community and we want to leave a positive legacy when we eventually move out of that centre, which in the case of Pontville, as I say, it will be temporary centre, and one that's not there into the medium term.
Reporter: (inaudible) …the refugee resettlement program in Newcastle which you launched an inquiry in to. What was your initial impression of the allegations that were raised?
Bowen: I was very concerned, very concerned by those allegations. They are extremely serious ones. That is why I acted to appoint the Ernst & Young review after Sharon Grierson telephoned me and then wrote to me to express her concerns. I've received a briefing on progress of that review. Ernst & Young have requested a week's extension to their review to make that they are able to thoroughly examine all the issues, which I've agreed to because I do believe it's appropriate that there be a very thorough examination. I don't want to pre-empt the results of that Ernst & Young review. I think it's appropriate, given that it will be with the Government soon – and I will release it soon – that we just wait and see the result of that very thorough and arms-length review.
Reporter: When will you receive that sorry?
Bowen: I was due to receive it at the end of April, so in about 10 days time, and now they've asked for about a week's extension. So I'll certainly receive it early in May and I would envisage releasing it soon after I've received it.
Reporter: Clearly, Mr Bowen, taking this issue as well, very seriously and of course the provider Navitas, I imagine a lot of allegations there, if any are proven, is there opportunity to strip them of that contract?
Bowen: With respect, I really don't want to pre-empt the results of the review. I take the matter very, very seriously. I'll be looking at the review. If there is action to be taken – of course, I will be taking legal advice on what action is available to me to take – and I will be acting accordingly. But let's just let the review take its course. Ernst & Young is a respected, independent organisation and I would like to wait to see what they report to me.
Reporter: Minister, is that whole issue one of the reasons you're in Newcastle today?
Bowen: No, actually I happen to be in Newcastle on private business, which obviously, I've had to cancel to deal with this matter.
Reporter: Minister can you just confirm for me, sorry, in the short-term what will be happening at Villawood? Is it still operating at the moment?
Bowen: It is operating and, of course, as I say, once the Australian Federal Police have re-entered the site, we will then be in a position to better assess whatever damage has been, has occurred at Villawood. As I say, the kitchen, it appears, has been destroyed. There has been action taken to source a temporary kitchen, for example. We will be making an assessment about how many people we can accommodate at Villawood under those circumstances, and what further action might be necessary. But certainly in the very immediate-term, over the next hours and days, those people will continue to be accommodated at Villawood. I'll make further decisions – and my department will advise me further – as more information comes to hand and as we confirm and assess the situation at Villawood.
Reporter: Is there room at other centres if some detainees do have to be moved?
Bowen: Our detention network has been under considerable pressure, which is why I opened – or announced the opening of – the Pontville centre to relieve some of that pressure. That will open in coming weeks once work has commenced on the fence and other appropriate measures to be taken there. Of course there is some capacity in various centres at various times.
We are continuing to progress the security clearance of those people who have been regarded as genuine refugees and they are being released into the community as that occurs. But we'll continue to assess the availability of further accommodation across our detention centre network.
Reporter: Just back to the local refugee issue. Have you seen pictures of the living conditions that the local refugees were living in, and if so, what was your reaction?
Bowen: I personally haven't seen those pictures but certainly they have been described to me by Sharon Grierson, in terms of the allegations about the living conditions. I'm sure that when I receive the Ernst & Young report, it will be very full, it will take into account all of those issues, and wherever appropriate, it will provide me with pictures and other necessary evidence of their concerns.
Reporter: Mr Bowen, of course concerns, not just about the squalid sort of conditions but the high rents. Is that something that's out of (inaudible)
Bowen: There are always issues around that sort of concern, not only in Newcastle but more generally. I don't think that is necessarily a core matter of business for the Ernst & Young review, but of course if they have a comment to make about it, they'll be open to do so in terms of their report to me.
Reporter: Because clearly it's not just here as you say. I think on 730 New South Wales in Sydney, major problems with foreigners trying to get accommodation, taking advantage of vulnerable people.
Bowen: Yes, as I say, they are issues which are brought to our attention from time to time. We deal with specific instances, as appropriate. If there are particularly instances that would be something that would be perfectly appropriate for Ernst & Young to comment upon.
Reporter: And it would concern you, obviously, if refugees were being taken advantage of in this way?
Bowen: By definition, yes.
Reporter: Minister, is your government's asylum seeker policy tough enough?
Bowen: Look, I believe that we have an appropriate policy. I believe we do need to reach an international solution to break the people smugglers business model. I think we made good progress on that in Bali, and we continue to progress that.
I don't believe that you can simply make your domestic arrangements more punitive and harsher and think that's going to end in some sort of different result. I do believe that you detain people in an administrative sense, while you process their claims where they have arrived in an unauthorised fashion and in many cases, without any documentation. I think that's appropriate. We try to do that as quickly as possible. I've instituted a new system for that, which came into place on the first of March, designed to do that more quickly.
We've also working very assiduously with ASIO to make sure that people, once they're regarded as genuine refugees, received those security clearances as quickly as possible, and that has had a very considerable impact. But I do believe that our policy settings are appropriate, and that we continue to pursue an international outcome.
Nothing else? Everybody done? Thank you for your time.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Tuesday, 30 August 2011 at 13:24 AEST