Unaccompanied minors held in immigration detention on Christmas Island were subject to “unnecessary” force, with one put in a chokehold after Serco security guards were given the authorisation to move them using force, according to evidence presented at a human rights inquiry today.
Deborah Homewood, Managing Director of MAXimus Solutions, which provides services and reporting on unaccompanied minors held in detention, confirmed that the incident had taken place on Christmas Island in March this year.
Homewood said her organisation had not been made aware that security firm Serco was planning to use force on the boys, who were upset they were being moved to a new compound on the Island.
With some of the boys resisting orders to board a bus to transfer them, Serco staff were given authorisation to use force on the children.
Homewood, who had been briefed on the incident by MAXimus staff, described what followed as “disturbing”.
“I think force was overused, I think it was unnecessary,” she said. “I think the whole thing could have been handled very differently form the start.”
Homewood provided the testimony at the fourth public hearing of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Inquiry into Children in Detention, held in Canberra.
Before questioning Homewood on the incident, Counsel Assisting the Inquiry said a video showing three boys being held in wrist locks had been seen by the Commission, but that the Department had not been able to provide the material in time for the day’s hearing.
President Gillian Triggs said the Commission had also seen graphic images of the event, which showed multiple guards surrounding individual children.
According to Homewood, MAXimus staff attempted to find an alternate outcome to moving the children by force but were left distressed after witnessing guards place one child in what was referred to as a “chokehold”. She said staff who witnessed the choking incident yelled at the guards to try to get them to stop.
During the incident, which lasted two hours, some of the boys became extremely agitated, spitting on staff and attempting to flee.
Homewood said it had been very difficult to re-establish a relationship with the boys after the incident, who complained MAXimus had failed to help them be released from detention or be kept safe while incarcerated.
The night before the incident took place, MAXimus tried to warn the Department that the move was likely to upset the boys.
“We noted that the boys seemed to be aware that something was up, that they may be moved, and we sent an email to the Department and service providers saying we thought it was going to be difficult. The boys were very agitated and upset,” Homewood said.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who appeared before the inquiry earlier in the day, is the legal guardian of all unaccompanied minors held on Christmas Island and in Australia.
Morrison was forced to explain why the average period of detention had increased since he became Minister.
He told the inquiry the number of people held in detention had fallen and that he did not wish to see children remain detained.
Homewood also gave evidence of a separate incident on Christmas Island, in which a child had attempted what she agreed had been a “very serious suicide attempt”. The boy had previously self-harmed, and a friend had warned Serco staff he had since complained of feelings of sadness and suicidal thoughts.
Homewood said that after the incident, health staff were quick to treat the child, who has now been relocated to mainland Australia.
Earlier in the week, New Matilda revealed a Serco guard had been dismissed after posting anti-Muslim images on social media.
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