Joint Select Committee Report on Australia's Immigration Detention Network, community detention, bridging visas
Friday, 30 March 2012
Interview with Emma Alberici, ABC Lateline
Emma Alberici: I'm joined now in our Sydney studio by the Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen.
Thank you very much for coming in this evening.
Chris Bowen: Evening, Emma.
Alberici: Now the bottom line, I guess, of this report is that why should people be in a cell if they're not a criminal? In other words, it's not a crime to come to Australian shores seeking asylum.
Bowen: Well, look, firstly, can I say, I think the majority report is a good one. It's substantive and considered. Obviously, I received it today and I'll work through it methodically, but it's a well-constructed report, which I thank the committee for.
In relation to mandatory detention, we believe that when people arrive in Australia without documentation usually, they don't have any evidence as to who they are, we need to establish their identity, we need to establish character and security checks and health checks.
That's appropriate and we need to do that in a detention environment because we simply don't know, as opposed to say, an asylum seeker who has arrived by plane who has a passport, a visa and documentation. We simply don't know enough about those people, but I do accept that we do need to do that quickly and we need to move people into the community.
Hence, the reforms that we've made: community detention; bridging visas which are recognised in this report; 3400 people moved into the community, mainly families and children.
Alberici: It's going too slow though, with respect. That's the problem, isn't it? And you've still got around 1000 or thereabouts who have been in detention for 18 months or thereabouts.
Bowen: Well, those figures include people in community detention, so that's people not in detention in any meaningful sense, but living in the community. But let me just run through a few things. Firstly
Alberici: How many people have you got in detention centres?
Bowen: Around 3800 and we've got
Alberici: And how many have been there longer than a year?
Bowen: Well, can I just run through: we've got around 3800 people in detention centres. We've issued 1100 bridging visas. Now, they have concentrated on people who have been in detention the longest.
In addition, we've released 3400 people since I made the announcement a month after I became minister in October 2010 of community detention, that's concentrated on families and children.
Alberici: But this report identified that there is still a major crisis going on. I mean, since Labor came to power, there's been six suicides, seven other deaths. I mean, there is a serious problem in those detention centres that needs to be addressed, I guess more urgently than it is being.
Bowen: Well, what we don't do Emma, is drop people at Central Station and say, There you go, so we're going to release you from detention, we're not going'
Alberici: Nobody's suggesting that, I don't think. I think community detention is definitely what people would prefer, much more so than under lock and key.
Bowen: Well, what you've got to do is then source the accommodation and the carers. Now, it's all very well for people to say everybody should be released. What we don't do in Australia is just release people without knowing that they can be cared for, without knowing they have accommodation. So we have community detention
Alberici: But your first pardon me your first point was about security, the inference there being we don't want to let people out if they're undocumented, we don't know who they are. But ASIO says that they can do their checks within a matter of days, that they don't believe people should be in detention centres past the time it would take them to establish whether they do present a risk to the community.
Bowen: And they do, and they do do those checks, and we do release people. They're the checks. The reference to a matter of days refers to the checks we do, that ASIO does, for people we're releasing into community detention or bridging visas.
Other security checks, which are for a permanent visa, can take a lot longer and be a lot more complex. We've significantly sped up the security process between the Attorney-General and myself. It's a lot more efficient, and that's reflected in the detention population being a lot less than it was this time 12 months ago. Emma, we have less than 200 people on Christmas Island, 3800 people across the detention network. That's around 2500 less than at this time last year.
Alberici: You've still got 500 children in detention.
Bowen: Every child, every unaccompanied minor who has arrived in Australia since late November is now living in the community. I mean, this has been
Alberici: Every single one of them?
Bowen: Every eligible unaccompanied minor.
Alberici: What makes them uneligible, ineligible?
Bowen: Only those who would have, who have been, in relation to children, the only ineligible children are those in relation to adverse security clearances for their parents or who have been released into the community and then have behavioural issues.
So this has been a very substantial program, Emma, and I'd like to put on record the work of my department, of Red Cross
Alberici: Australian children with behavioural issues don't get put into prisons.
Bowen: No, no, we're talking about a very small number and what we do is then some of those are then released back into the community once we have established, for example, I'll give you one example. We had an incident last year where people who were released into the community by me then got on a roof in Victoria. There were knives involved, threats to police officers. A very serious incident and that had to be dealt with. So you do have those incidents. They're very rare.
But the point I'm making, Emma, is this: we've had a very substantial program to release people into the community both through community detention and through bridging visas. And they're different programs for different people: community detention, which as I say, is not detention in any meaningful sense, for families and children and vulnerable adults; bridging visas for those who would be better able to look after themselves and get work rights.
Alberici: But is the aim of this government is to have everyone, at least, into community detention?
Bowen: Well, community detention is mainly for families and children. Bridging visas, as I say, 1100 have been issued for those who would be better able to care for themselves without that intensive level of support which goes with community detention.
But this comes back to the point I was making before. What you don't do is just simply release people without the plan in place. We've had to source housing
Alberici: But this report is about timing, isn't it? Can you do it within 90 days? Can you establish what you need to within 90 days?
Bowen: Well, we can certainly aim to. In some cases we can; in some we can't.
Alberici: This report says that you as the minister or whoever would come after you would have to front a court to justify why you would need longer than 90 days.
Bowen: With respect, Emma, that's not what the report recommends at all.
Alberici: It does. It says if you require more than 90 days for any particular person that you should have to go and apply for that extra time to a court.
Bowen: No, it doesn't say that. It says that it should be publicised, the reasons why we couldn't meet a 90-day timeline for individuals should then be made public. It doesn't say and I would not accept that the government should then have to seek permission from somebody else.
So we have got somebody whose identity couldn't be established in 90 days for complex reasons, there'd be special cases. Now, we do aim to process people as quickly as possible, hence all the reforms that we've put in place that have seen the number of people in detention fall despite a very big surge in boat arrivals at the end of last year, in the last few months of last year. We've still seen a substantial reduction in number of people held in detention as a result of the reforms that we've introduced.
These things didn't happen by accident. They just don't happen that people get released into the community without changes and without hard work from my department, from people like the Red Cross and other charities who we work with on these programs to ensure that people receive the care and support they need as they move into the community.
Alberici: Now, a big part of the problem identified in the report lies in your relationship with Serco, the multinational company that the Australian Government pays billions of dollars to run detention centres in this country.
Now, the committee criticised their staff to detainee ratios for being too low. It said staff at Serco weren't properly qualified to carry out the roles they were taking on. Overall, it urged that the contract between the government and Serco be urgently revisited. Is that something you'll commit to?
Bowen: Look, I will certainly examine that closely. I think that the committee has made some sensible recommendations about contract management. Again, we've made substantial changes in contract management across the board over the last couple of years, but I'm always open to constructive suggestions. And I think the majority on this committee have taken, by and large, a constructive approach.
Alberici: Alright. The report says that you should be reporting back on your responses by September of this year. Is that likely?
Bowen: I certainly will be endeavouring to do that, yes.
Alberici: Thank you very much for coming in.
Bowen: Thank you, Emma.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Monday, 02 April 2012 at 09:30 AEST