As bad as it gets? Don't count on it.


The cases of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez both give an unsettling insight into the Department of Immigration. The cases are not isolated instances of errors which might occur in any large bureaucracy they are symptomatic of a department which is pathologically dysfunctional.

The Immigration Department exercises awesome power. It can detain people indefinitely without the intervention of a court. It can effectively isolate detainees from proper medical or legal help. It can deport people from Australia without judicial supervision. The Department often deals with people who are vulnerable or traumatized, people who need special protection; people who need ready access to medical and legal help to ensure that their health and their rights are not ignored or overlooked..

Thanks to Bill Leak

Thanks to Bill Leak

The Rau and Alvarez cases demonstrated plainly that these are not abstract, theoretical concerns: they are all too real.

A recent Federal Court decision of Justice Finn showed that the Department had failed completely in its obligation to take proper care for the psychiatric needs of two asylum seekers who had, in essence, been driven mad by long-term detention. The same case revealed details of the systematic, unregulated use of solitary confinement in immigration detention centres.

Solitary confinement is properly regarded as the worst form of punishment legally permitted in Australia. Although asylum seekers have committed no offence at all, they are regularly subjected to periods of solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time. The Department of Immigration answers this by saying that detention (including solitary confinement) is administrative, not punitive.

The Department of Immigration can issue its own search warrants. If police want to raid a suspected murderer’s house, they must apply to a magistrate for a warrant. If officers of the Department of Immigration want to raid premises, they can get a warrant from another officer in the Department. In early 2002, Department officers raided a house armed with a warrant issued this way. It turned out that the warrant was issued because an anonymous caller had told them that there were ‘some Middle Eastern people’ in a street in Armadale, one of Melbourne’s ‘leafy suburbs’.

As the blundering of the Department continues to be revealed, Senator Vanstone said that ‘relentless criticism’ from refugee advocates and journalists had produced a ‘defensive mind-set’ in the Department. That candid observation reveals something of deep concern. It suggests that, when criticized, members of the Department either ignore the criticism or react against it. Those who deal regularly with refugee cases recognise the widespread belief that, if an individual case gets publicity, the Department will single out that case for adverse treatment. If there is any substance to that belief (and it is certainly consistent with Senator Vanstone’s comments) then we have the unhappy spectacle of a department with vast powers which is behaving like a petulant teenager given to making terrible mistakes, unwilling to learn from its mistakes and unwilling to admit error.

A department with such great powers, a department which daily makes life and death decisions, should be dedicated to error-free performance; it should have a culture which is responsive to the human reality of its functions.

What sort of people are they who run this Department? The Secretary of the Department, Bill Farmer, gave evidence during the Tampa case on 2ndSeptember, 2001. Although the Afghans rescued by Tampa had written an open letter begging Australia for protection from the Taliban, Mr Farmer gave evidence that (once the Pacific Solution had been announced) he did not know whether the people rescued by Tampa still wanted to enter Australia. Assuming, as we must, that he was telling the truth his evidence reveals a staggering lack of simple human imagination.

In April 2002 Philippa Godwin (first Assistant Secretary of the Department) publicly denied that the Baxter Detention Centre was to be surrounded by an electric fence: it was, she insisted, ‘an energized fence’. These are the people at the top of the Department. Under the leadership of these people, mistakes are being made which have a devastating impact on the lives of innocent people. Until the Department is overhauled, we have to expect more Cornelia Rau cases, more Vivian Alvarez cases.

It is time for an open, public inquiry into the Department before it inflicts more harm.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.