The Immigration Department Responds


On Wednesday New Matilda published the first publicly available version of the 2009 Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) contract with British multinational Serco. The contract was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and reveals the most comprehensive information yet about the running of Australian detention centres.

There are a number of very worrying terms in this contract. These include the hiring of unqualified guards and the classification of unauthorised visits from the media as "critical" incidents and clinical depression as a "minor" incident. This material attracted a huge response from NM readers, and was picked up by a number of other outlets.

NM contacted DIAC for comment before publishing the contract but received no response until yesterday. Today we’re publishing DIAC’s side of the story. Here are their responses to some of our questions about the contract signed with Serco in 2009.

We asked DIAC why, under the terms of the contract, general security guards with no security qualifications can be employed at Australia’s immigration detention centres for a period of six months.

A spokesperson for the department said:

"Client support officers must hold a minimum of a Certificate level II in security or equivalent, or obtain a Certificate II in security within six months of commencement. The six months represents a maximum period that client support officers have to obtain a Certificate level II, and is not a period when no security training is undertaken. New staff are mentored by a qualified Serco officer during this time."

The spokesperson continued:

"The department has contracted Serco to deliver service to people in detention in a range of detention facilities. Serco must ensure that all service provider personnel who carry out work under this contract are appropriately skilled, trained and qualified."

The language is highly bureaucratic — but it doesn’t say much. We asked for more detail on what that training involves and were told that that was a question for Serco. We received a similar response to a number of our requests for clarification. However, as NM reported on Wednesday, Serco is bound by its contract with DIAC not to talk to the media.

Under the contract, Serco employees, agents and contractors must not "Make any public statement; release any information to, make any statement to, deal with any inquiry from or otherwise advise the media; [or]publish distribute or otherwise make available any information or material to third parties".

NM also asked DIAC why was there no requirement for security specific training in the induction training section of the contract.

The spokesperson told us: "The section on induction training should be read in context with all aspects of Annexure A — induction training is under 1.1, with security under 1.5."

Here DIAC appears to be suggesting that the rest of Annexure A contains more details about security requirements than those reported by NM. In fact the other heads in the Annexure relate to: first aid, caterers, dietitians, drivers, linguists, migration officers, gymnasium staff. On our analysis, none of these other sections have any more information about security training.

The spokesperson continued:

"The induction training course is aimed at equipping officers for their role of ensuring the safety security and well-being of all of those within the facility — including clients, staff and visitors — as well as the physical security of the facility."

Once again, the response fails to provide any details about what is actually involved in induction training. The vagueness of the training requirements is exactly why we put the questions to DIAC, who have provided us with more vagueness in kind.

Next up we asked why clinical depression and childbirth are considered "minor" incidents under the contract, while unauthorised media access or a high profile visitor being refused access are considered "critical".

We were told:

"A critical incident is an incident or event where there is serious injury or a threat to life, or which critically affects the security or safety of the facility. Unauthorised media presence and high profile visitor refused access fall into this category for a number of reasons, including impact on security and flow-on effects for asylum claims under the Refugee Convention."

The spokesperson clarified this statement to tell us that the department is concerned about asylum seekers being identified by the media, as this may affect their claims for asylum.

However, given that the media are capable of respecting other reasonable requests for anonymity, we fail to see why this extra level of protection is needed for detained asylum seekers.

The spokesperson continued:

"Minor incidents are incidents or events which affect to a lesser degree the welfare of people in detention or which threaten the success of escorts, transfer or removal activities or the safety and security of the facility. Clinical depression and the birth of a child fall into this category."

So according to the department, unauthorised media access raises duty of care issues that clinical depression, child birth and starvation do not. It’s hard not to conclude that DIAC’s priority is the protection of their public image rather than the well-being of asylum seekers.

As NM reported on Wednesday, although Serco is answerable directly to DIAC, the contract contains no requirement for periodic independent audits of Serco’s performance. We asked the department why not — and whether there had ever been an independent audit of Serco’s management of Australian detention centres.

We received no clear answer to the second part of the question, but we were told:

"DIAC ensures that Serco’s performance is rigorously monitored. We undertake an ongoing internal audit program, to ensure that Serco meets its contractual obligations.

"Immigration detention centres and alternative places of detention are assessed every month as per the Serco contract. Immigration residential housing and immigration transit accommodation are assessed quarterly.

"At the department’s option, the audit can be undertaken by a review team comprising of the following: departmental representatives, departmental facilities personnel, departmental regional or state office personnel, and/or an independent third party".

However, all of this remains at the department’s discretion — there is no requirement for there to be third party oversight.

Once again, DIAC referred NM to Serco for more details on this. We were told that Serco had reported to the department that NGOs such as Amnesty and the Red Cross often conducted audits of detention centres. It is deeply concerning if this is a suggestion that human rights groups, acting on their own volition, are seen by DIAC as an adequate alternative to mandatory independent oversight.

DIAC’s responses to our questions are couched in the vague and sterile language of bureaucracy. Untrained security guards who are thrown into the volatile environment of a detention centre are provided with mentors — but there’s still no indication whether they’re provided with the training and support needed to cope such difficult situations. There’s no sense from DIAC that the welfare of guards and detainees is at stake here.

The response to our question about incident reporting strikes a similarly dull note. Even if concern for the fair processing of claims for asylum is the primary reason why unauthorised media visits are classified as critical incidents — and we don’t believe it is — the distrust of the media is misplaced. It’s a blow against transparency to present media outlets as so untrustworthy they can’t talk to detainees unsupervised.

NM will keep publishing on Serco and maintain our focus on Australia’s detention system. We’re concerned about the welfare of asylum seekers held in this system without due oversight and we’re concerned for the health and safety of staff. We’ll keep pushing DIAC for more transparency, too — but after their responses to our questions about the Serco contract, it’s hard to believe that we’re working for the same ends.

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.