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Letter to Mr Philip Ruddock MP Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, 3 April 2002.

Mr Philip Ruddock MP
Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs
Parliament House
ACT 2600

Since I last wrote on 21 March 2002, I have completed my national speaking tour and my third visit to Woomera. I had the opportunity to spend over a week at Woomera though access to the centre was denied on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I was conducting a church service for Good Friday in the Oscar compound when the "break-out, break-in" occurred. I then spent the next couple of hours in company with Christians and Sabean Mendeans from other compounds who were unable to return to their accommodations.

I had the opportunity to speak with the three-member Opposition parliamentary delegation of Ms Julia Gillard, Senator Rosemary Crowley and Mr Leo McLeay who visited the Woomera IRPC last Thursday. Also I met with Philippa Godwin from your department and Mr Gerry McCormack of ACM. I have had ongoing discussions with Mr David Frencham, your Woomera manager and Mr Peter McIntosh, the Centre Manager from ACM.

My protracted presence in the centre last Friday night brought a number of issues into sharp relief for me. No doubt, there will be many reviews and complaints about the actions of all the various actors on either side of the fence that night. I am prepared to assume and to state publicly that all authorities including ACM, DIMIA, APS and the South Australian police were acting as best they could and in good faith. Throughout the week I was impressed by the professionalism and commitment of the senior ACM and DIMIA management. No matter what the professionalism and commitment of senior management, I think the regime at Woomera is fraught with ongoing problems which are insuperable and which are wreaking havoc with the lives not only of detainees but also of those charged with the supervision of their detention and processing.

I spent two hours with men, women and children who had come from church and who were unable to return to their accommodation and unable to find sanctuary in an alternative compound because they were threatened by another detainee disturbed by their religious practices. That detainee was finally apprehended by half a dozen ACM officers in full riot gear backed by a water cannon truck which had been moved into position. Meanwhile two other detainees were on the roof threatening self-harm exacerbating a situation of mass hysteria. Children in my midst were highly traumatised. One child remonstrated with his mother saying he should attack an ACM officer because that is the only way that you get a visa! Yesterday I learnt that these church goers had suffered the same fate as other detainees having their clothing and property strewn about by ACM officers presumably searching for contraband, while they were then held in the compound mess overnight with no possibility of sleep. I understand one five-year-old child was abandoned in one compound that night as the mother and other siblings had escaped. Yesterday, I met a mother with her seven-year-old son. She was adamant that she would not attempt escape on the Friday evening but she wanted to exercise her rights and show the protesters and the media that there were women and young children being held behind razor wire. The young boy carries bruises on his left knee and right ankle from the baton blow he received last Friday. Children whose parents had no interest in escaping were hit by tear gas and witnessed scenes of extraordinary violence.

In such a situation, ACM is expected to apply all force necessary to detain those intent on escape while respecting the rights and dignity of those, including children, who are patiently awaiting migration decisions from your officers in Canberra. This is an impossible task. Let me highlight some of the structural problems which are insuperable no matter what the training and cultural sensitivity of ACM staff. These problems are further exacerbated by your remarks about the South Australian police.

At times such as last Friday night, the Woomera IRPC is like a Commonwealth privatised prison. In the past the Commonwealth has not been in the business of running prisons. The detainees, including the children, are entitled to a range of services which in Australia are usually provided only by State governments and not by the Commonwealth. You will recall the Commonwealth standoff with Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen in 1978 over the management of the Aboriginal reserves in Cape York. In the end, Prime Minister Fraser was stymied because the Commonwealth was unable to deliver the basic community services such as police, health, education, local government and child protection. An institution such as the Woomera IRPC cannot be conducted with due regard for the rights and dignity of detainees unless there is coordinated service delivery by Commonwealth and State officials. Having imputed political motivations to the South Australian police and their superiors when APS was caught flatfooted, you have jeopardised the prospect of non-partisan co-operation in the delivery of welfare and security services to detainees in a remote part of South Australia.

The detention regime at Woomera is no longer, if it ever was, designed primarily to facilitate the processing of migration claims and the removal or deportation of persons from Australia. Last Friday night, it had all the hallmarks of a prison. The treatment of all detainees since then with the withdrawal of privileges and the punitive and indiscriminate soiling of clothes and other possessions highlight the problem. In an ordinary prison, you can institute a regime of rewards and punishments. At Woomera, you cannot. People's eligibility for a visa and the length of their detention is completely unrelated to their good or bad behaviour in detention. The bad behaviour of a minority of detainees is sure to test the patience and judgement of ACM officers especially at times of great tension and sleep deprivation.

You are now running a detention centre with a remnant caseload of detainees who understandably are getting more restless. Last year, there were up to 1,500 detainees. Now it is almost down to 300. As you have rightly pointed out, all but one of those who escaped and who have not returned to detention were persons who had already been rejected as refugees. Because of the post-September-11 situation, you have an increasing caseload of rejected applicants who remain in indeterminate detention because you cannot move them to any other country and you cannot send them home. Of course, these persons will get restless and take any opportunity to escape. And of course they will become more of a disciplinary problem in your detention centre. They have nothing to lose and nothing to gain. And as I have written previously, there are good grounds for thinking that their detention without judicial warrant or supervision is unconstitutional. It is worth noting that the unreturned escapees are in no way representative of the large remaining Afghan and Iraqi caseload almost half of whom are yet to receive a primary decision after more than seven months detention.

I had several meetings this past week with the three Palestinians who have now written to you again. In the last month, they have become more restless because each of them has family, including children, in the Gaza Strip. Your officials can offer them no advice or assistance except for the assurance that they will be released from detention when they can be taken to another country. Meanwhile, in detention in Woomera they are completely isolated and unable to help their families. Over some days, I assisted them in the preparation of their letter to you where they have written:

[A]re we to presume (given the present situation in Palestine and the predicament of stateless Palestinians elsewhere seeking a place to live) that we are to stay in Australian detention without a court order or review for the term of our natural lives? Can you give us any indication when we might be allowed to go free? Even criminals have the right to know. Please help us. We are desperate to leave Woomera. Each of us has family members living in the Gaza Strip where the situation is presently very dangerous. We want to be released quickly so we can help our families, especially our children who are living in war conditions at this time. While your government keeps us locked up and tells us there is no solution for us, our children are at risk. Let us go free so we can perform our duties as parents.

During this past week, I have come to appreciate more the enormous strain under which ACM staff and your own officers are working at Woomera. Your policy has now resulted in tear gas and baton being applied, even if it be unwittingly, to children as young as five years. The "state" being their protector and their warder, this is now properly classified as institutional child abuse. Your policy is also resulting in oppressive work conditions for staff. The legal federal framework for maintaining law and order and for delivering basic services in the centre is as flimsy as the security fences that were breached on Friday. As the detention population at Woomera declines, the mix of disaffected "rejectees" and patient applicants awaiting a decision will get worse. Your recent comments regarding the South Australian police will not improve federal-state relations with the delivery of services especially when your policy is resulting in proven child abuse. The discrimination suffered by the 50 or more Sabean Mendeans will increase unchecked. My three hours in the detention centre on the evening of Good Friday convinced me that it was time to put the message to you very plainly despite its public unpopularity and despite your government's immunity to moral outrage: "Minister, this is no place for kids." When children end up in the sterile zone against the razor wire with tear gas and batons around them in Australia, it is time for all parties including the Commonwealth government to stop blaming others and to effect policy changes so that it can never happen again.

With the post copy of this letter, I will enclose a copy of the April issue of Eureka Street which carries the published version of my speech from the national speaking tour. I noted your remarks on ABC Radio on 22 March 2002 when you dropped the March 20 defence that asylum seekers are not detained on Manus Island or on Nauru and when you expressed reservations about my giving gratuitous advice to Pacific countries about the interpretation of their Constitutions. You will appreciate that I have no interest in offering advice to other countries unless that advice be sought. As an Australian citizen and lawyer, I am anxious that my government abide by the constitutional provisions of other governments when a breach would work an interference with the rights, liberties or dignity of persons invoking the protection obligations of my government. Once again might I express my gratitude to your office for the assurance that the "many other inaccuracies in (my) speech" will be dealt with "more formally in a letter in due course". I hope we will have the opportunity to meet again during my forthcoming month in Canberra commencing on April 8.

Yours sincerely,

(Fr) Frank Brennan SJ AO