The People's Inquiry into Detention


RRT Member: What is it about you that looks Hazara?
Reza*: From my cheeks, from my eyes, from my nose.
RRT Member: (provocative, sharp) Well, what about them?
Reza: Yes, Hazara people have got very small eyes as well as a flat nose.
RRT Member: (disdainful) But you don’t seem to have a flat nose…(and later) you don’t look like some of the Hazaras I’ve seen.

This is an excerpt of a transcript from the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT), the appeals body for refugees seeking protection in Australia. This dialogue formed the verbal evidence of refugee supporter Helen Lewers in her submission to the People’s Inquiry into Immigration Detention, which held public hearings in Melbourne last weekend. Lewers questioned the intent of a tribunal she described as ‘intimidating’ and ‘treacherous’, and which required an applicant to describe his own racial features to verify his claim to be a Hazara. How can this be considered a ‘serious inquiry into Australia’s protection obligations to Reza?’ she asked.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

The narrow terms of reference imposed on the Palmer Inquiry were a disappointment to many refugee supporters who hoped a wider examination of immigration policy would emerge. Former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer’s report, released on Thursday, has been criticised for failing to compel witnesses, subpoena documents and for limiting itself predominantly to the cases of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Salon. This frustration was the impetus for the People’s Inquiry into Immigration Detention, a citizens’ driven inquiry (headed by former Federal Court Justice Marcus Enfield), which will examine the system of mandatory immigration detention, and hold public hearings throughout Australia.

During three days of verbal testimony in Melbourne, common themes continued to surface: a systematic and deliberate policy of cruelty in detention centres, an intention by the Department of Immigration to deny detainees’ legal rights, and extreme physical and psychological negligence of detainees’ health. Journalist, Madeleine Byrne, who submitted research from multiple interviews with former detention centre staff, told the inquiry of a need to ‘move away from the discourse of the “traumatised refugee”‘. She referred here to consistent media representation of refugees as people who ‘suffer’, as if their anguish were intrinsic. The People’s Inquiry moves towards restoring the link between this suffering and the institutions responsible for it.

Immigration decision-making procedures remained a feature of the inquiry’s proceedings. Former detainee Abdul Baig, imprisoned in Maribyrnong Detention Centre (MDC) for three years, gave evidence of the intent of the Department of Immigration (DIMIA) to deprive detained people of all legal rights. He gave evidence of detainees being kept in solitary confinement after their arrival in Australia and of inquisitional interviews carried out under ‘stress’ and ‘fear,’ with no information provided by DIMIA officials ‘that you have a right not to be interviewed and a right to legal representation.’ He also cited cases where DIMIA exploited the vulnerability of non-English speaking applicants, attempting to deport them before they could make a formal refugee claim. He stated that a Sri Lankan man had signed a deportation letter after an interpreter assured him he was just signing ‘a formal thing’ related to his refugee case. Abdul Baig also gave evidence of refugees he knew who had been murdered in their country of origin after forcible deportation from Australia. Brigid Arthur, co-ordinator of the Brigidine Asylum Seeker project, who had visited MDC for four years, stated in separate evidence that it was ‘general practice’ to keep detainees in isolation cells when they arrived, to prevent them being ‘briefed by other detainees’ about their legal options. She said that this practice and detainees’ distrust of officials had an adverse effect on their initial refugee application, ‘the most important in terms of [their]legal rights.’

Helen Lewers made one of many submissions to the inquiry highlighting the obstacles against a fair trial for refugees facing the RRT. Refugee supporter Peter Job, (quoting from cases where he had mounted successful appeals to the Immigration Minister based on errors in RRT decisions) said that a ‘wealth of available information’ proving the truth of an applicant’s testimony was ignored. One refugee was ‘discredited for not knowing his own political system’ when the RRT Member’s information was wrong. In another case, information about an applicant’s country that was ‘years out of date’ was used to refute a current claim of political persecution. This was information that could have been accessed ‘in minutes on the internet’, Job said. The integrity of refugee claims to persecution was attacked in a multitude of cases discussed at the hearing, as if the intention of refugee policy was to deny asylum, irrespective of the merits of a case. Refugee supporter Susan Latham recounted the story of several Iraqi men whose asylum bid was rejected because DIMIA and the RRT proclaimed them to be Iranian. After several years in immigration detention the men consented to return home. They were subsequently issued travel documents by DIMIA with Iraqi written as their nationality.

There was also overwhelming oral testimony at the inquiry outlining examples of cruelty against detainees and of physical and psychological mistreatment. Father Peter Norden, a Chaplain at MDC for four years, reiterated the well-documented psychological effects of indeterminate sentences on detainees. Instances of punitive handling of detainees are less publicly known. Detainees who complained they were cold were denied additional blankets during winter, according to Brigid Arthur. They were also ‘woken in the middle of the night’ for humiliating room searches. During one search, a detainee’s favourite food was held over the bin. ‘Now you beg, you beg me for this,’ the guard is alleged to have said. The use of prolonged periods of solitary confinement was also discussed. A former detainee, who was kept in solitary confinement for several weeks, told of being denied initial access to his lawyer, during which time he was handcuffed for a number of hours on the floor and prevented from using a toilet for eighteen hours. Another mentally ill detainee told Asylum Seeker Resource Centre volunteer Jemma Stellato that his ‘last bout of solitary nearly drove him to distraction.’

Requests for medical attention also appeared to be universally ignored, according to a range of testimony. Susan Latham described a friend with severe stomach and back pain, who was turned away by detention centre medical staff for three days. On the last day, he ‘couldn’t move’, she said. The man’s appendix then burst and he developed pancreatitis. Journalist Madeleine Byrne, in submitting her research to the inquiry, described the extent of this medical neglect when she alleged that during the year 2000 at Woomera Detention Centre, nursing aides ‘were dispensing drugs’ and a former cook was ‘conducting psychological assessments on detainees’. She said that detention centre staff lacked autonomy from DIMIA and the contractor, and that the centres suffered from severe staffing shortages. She also stated that untrained and junior employees were often used in crisis situations to undermine experienced staff as a form of bullying. Byrne concluded that there was ‘almost nothing in place in terms of protecting the civil rights’ of detainees in detention centres.

The extreme and visible suffering of refugees (and others detained under immigration law), has long been represented by the government as an adverse side-effect of a ‘tough’ but otherwise benign immigration policy. In this sense the People’s Inquiry is more important than ever before. The inquiry’s final report, to be released in March 2006, will finally put some previously concealed information about the immigration system on the public record.

*Name has been changed to protect the person’s identity.

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.