HREOC National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention
Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO
Tuesday 16 July 2002, 2.30pm
Cnr Liverpool and Pitt Streets
I simply want to present a Case Study in:
- the Assault of a Seven year Old Child at Woomera with baton
and tear gas
- the Failure of All Authorities to investigate adequately
- the zealotry and dilatory behaviour of DIMIA concerned more
with media management and spin doctoring rather than care of children
- the institutional incapacity of the system to honour the dignity
of a mother and child in detention
This incident amounts to institutionalised child abuse.
1. What I saw and heard on Good Friday night, 29 March 2002
Inside the Woomera IRPC, during the riot and breakout, 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!
2. My Meetings with Woomera Detainees, 2 April 2002
I was allowed access to the Woomera IRPC again on the morning of
2 April and I learnt that the church goers had suffered the same
fate as other detainees having their clothing and property strewn
about by ACM officers presumably searching for contraband. They
were then held in the compound mess overnight with no possibility
of sleep. I was told that one five-year-old child was abandoned
in one compound that night as the mother and other siblings had
escaped. 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 carried bruises on his left knee and right ankle
from a baton blow. His mother said he and she had also been hit
by tear gas. Children whose parents had no interest in escaping
were hit by tear gas and witnessed scenes of extraordinary violence.
3. My Letter to Minister Ruddock, 3 April 2002
I reported all the above matters to the Minister.
4. Medical Report by ACM Medical Centre, 3 April 2002,
notes "bruise of few days duration on medial aspect of left
knee" and "abrasion & small bruise on R shin".
5. DIMIA's response posted on the government website, 18
Contrary to Father Frank Brennan's claims in the media (PM just
like Sir Joh, says advocate, 18 April, p2) this Department has no
record of injuries to a 7-year-old sustained during the disturbance
at the Woomera detention facility on Good Friday.
In fact, the only reported injuries to detainees were to adults
- all with minor injuries. The most serious injuries were to 17
ACM officers who sustained injuries ranging from bruising from thrown
missiles to lacerations inflicted from a detainee armed with a razor
If Father Brennan has information or evidence of mistreatment
of detainees he should report it to the appropriate authorities
Detention is not punitive. It is administrative in nature and
is a result of arriving in Australia without authorisation, that
is, illegally. It has nothing to do with subsequent claims for asylum.
6. I sought correction of the government website, 22 April
7. DIMIA withdraws letter from website, 24 April 2002
8. DIMIA letter published in Canberra Times, 25 April 2002
9. I published my correction in Canberra Times, 29 April
10. Minister's Chief of Staff writes, 29 April 2002,
and for the first time someone from either the Minister's office
or the department seeks further details about the matters raised
on 3 April 2002:
Mr Foster is correct in asserting that there were no reported injuries
of detainee children at Woomera - you assert differently. This does
not necessarily mean that there weren't any, just that they weren't
reported. Nor were any detected during the usual post-incident medical
However without details of the names of the people involved it
is impossible for us to check with them about the nature of their
injuries. You may wish to continue to assert that people have been
injured, however unless you are prepared to give names and dates
and any other relevant details, we are unable to verify your assertions,
and will continue to assert that none were reported
11. Minister's Chief of Staff issues correction at 9pm,
29 April 2002:
ACM have just concluded a wider search of the medical files of
all children detained at Woomera and present in the week preceding,
during and in the week following, the riot on Good Friday. Whilst
there were no incidents reported that night, or indeed over the
whole Easter weekend, there was an incident reported five days later
where an 11 year old child presented with bruising. We have referred
the matter to Family and Youth Services in South Australia and the
investigation is continuing.
If you could provide us with the name of the child you referred
to in your comments, it would assist us in identifying whether or
not the case is one and the same.
Thank you for your cooperation in this matter.
12. Minister's Chief of Staff speaks with me, 30 April
2002, and confirms that there are medical records which
in fact relate to a seven-year-old child. I provide her with the
names of the child and mother and some further details about the
13. I lodge letter of complaint with Mr Bill Farmer, Secretary
DIMIA, 6 May 2002.
14. Minister apologises to me for the publication of the
letter by the departmental Director of Public Affairs, 3 June 2002.
15. The mother addresses letter to HREOC in the following
terms, 10 July 2002:
My son & was with me in Oscar compound during the disturbance
in the early hours of Saturday 30 March 2002. He and I were both
hit by tear gas even though we were not trying to escape. I was
blinded for about a minute and I took & to my chest and embraced
him to protect him. I started to move away from the scene with &..
Then an ACM guard came and bowed over me and struck & with
On Tuesday 2 April 2002, I told my story to Fr Frank Brennan and
the lawyers at Woomera. I then went to the doctor on Wednesday 3
April 2002. The doctor made a report which I attach to this letter.
I asked the lawyers to make a complaint.
One and a half months later, two policemen came to see me. I told
them what happened to ...... They said they would return with an
interpreter from Adelaide and with Federal Police and someone from
Childrens Services and with a camera for interview with ...... Then
about one week later, and before the United Nations came to visit
Woomera, I was interviewed by Geoff Cardwell of the South Australia
Police about the incident. He said he was the boss of the other
police who had come. He said it was not the responsibility of Federal
Police because they would come only for damage to property. He said
Child Service would not come because their responsibility is child
abuse and relationships between children and parents. He gave me
a card with the reference PIR/02/966813. He recorded our conversation.
He was interested only in the events which occurred on the evening
of Friday 29 March 2002. He told me that the doctor and ACM had
not made any report of .....'s injury to Children's Services. I
asked him about my rights. He told me, "You can't do anything
because you are captive in here and when you get out and get your
visa, you can continue your protest and maybe you can get your rights."
He asked whether I saw who hit ...... I said I did not see because
the guard was wearing a mask. He said, "We can't catch him
because you didn't see him." I said, "It is not important
who hit ....., just it is important that ACM action that they hit
children, because it is their habit in our compound."
When the United Nations came here, I told them what happened to
..... and showed them the medical report. I was a patient in hospital
when HREOC came to Woomera. Then I came back to Woomera and I was
in the observation room when HREOC was here, so I could not see
I trusted the government to protect my son. I hope my complaint
can help other mothers and children. I am only a single in mother
in detention who wants the government to care for us.
GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO CLAIMS OF INJURY TO CHILD
The only written response I have had from the Minister to my letter
of 3 April regarding the injury to the seven year old boy and the
Department's reportage and failure promptly to have the injury investigated
was his letter of 3 June 2002:
I note also your concern for children in detention. I do not accept,
however, your statements that Woomera is a form of institutionalised
child abuse. The Department is committed to ensuring that children
held in migration detention receive appropriate care and protection.
The Department requires the detention services provider to provide
appropriate facilities and services to meet the special needs of
children. State authorities with responsibilities for child welfare
and protection also have responsibilities for all children in detention
centres in their State/Territory.
The Department is working to conclude appropriate protocols with
State child welfare authorities. The aim of these Memoranda of Understanding
(MOU) is to provide the framework for collaborative and cooperative
relationships between DIMIA and the State authorities and to clarify
the roles and responsibilities of the agencies to ensure that the
best interests of all children in detention are met. A Memorandum
of Understanding (MOU) was signed last year between my Department
and the South Australian Department of Human Services (DHS) relating
to child protection notifications and child welfare issues pertaining
to children in immigration detention in South Australia.
A permanent working party of senior Departmental officers meets
regularly at the my (sic) Department in Canberra to undertake an
administrative review of all detention cases and, in particular,
causes of concern such as long term detainees and children.
Though it took DIMIA less than six hours to publish a false refutation
of the claims of assault which had been formally communicated in
writing to the Minister two weeks before, after sixty days the department
has still not communicated the results of its inquiry into the alleged
breach of the APS Code of Conduct by its Director of Public Affairs.
The MOU with the State Government and the permanent working party
of senior departmental officers have not effected a satisfactory
investigation of this instance of institutionalised child abuse.
Given the change to the caseload at Woomera (with most being "rejectees"
with nothing to gain and nothing to lose) and the despair inculcated
in this remnant group of detainees (now less than 200), it is even
more necessary that the department ensure adequate investigation
of complaints (such as the administration of baton and tear gas
to a seven year old child) and that an apology be offered by the
department and ACM for the needless (witting or unwitting) assault,
obfuscation and cover up which have ensued.