Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Matters of Public Interest

Asylum Seekers

1:13 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak about a matter that is very important: the way Australia treats some of the most vulnerable people who arrive on our shores seeking our protection. We know that, despite Australia's current policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, over 90 per cent of those people who arrive on our shores seeking protection as refugees are found to be in genuine need of that protection. They are found to be genuine refugees: men, women and children from many parts of the world but in particular from across the region that we in Australia are part of. These people are subject to mandatory detention while their applications are being assessed. This mandatory detention in every way resembles a type of prison-like environment. We know that when people are detained there is no length of time on that detention and that there is also no appeal to allow those people to be released from detention before their application process is completed or, indeed, the minister decides of his own will that those people can be removed. Men, women and children are subject to mandatory detention simply for seeking asylum.

I know that many in this place—and, of course, the government—like to argue that these detention centres are not prisons and that people are not detained in the same way as prisoners are. But I would argue that the truth is that they are. I have been to many of these detention centres across the country, here on the mainland and on Christmas Island, and the very look and feel of these facilities are as prisons. Men, women and children who are simply seeking asylum are detained as prisoners, as people who have somehow broken the law, yet all they have sought is Australia's protection under the refugee convention.

Not only do these facilities look like prisons, it is fairly clear that these places are being run like prisons. The reason I say that is that I have a copy of the staff training manual that is used by Serco, who operate these facilities. This document goes through, step-by-step, how officers engaged by Serco—the private company that Australian taxpayers are affording in the vicinity of $1 billion to run our detention centres—are to base their entire operation on how staff at a prison should be trained and how prisons should operate. The document goes through talking about how asylum seekers are 'offenders' and that they are serving sentences. You might think that is strange, Madam Acting Deputy President Boyce, but it is because the Serco training manual seems to be doing a somewhat sloppy job trying to rehash a training document for prison guards.

I would argue that with $1 billion of taxpayer money at stake you would think that the company who runs our detention centres could have come up with a better and more appropriate document that related directly to the needs of running an immigration facility that is processing people's applications. Let us not forget that it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia, despite the fact that in this training document it suggests that these people are seen as having arrived illegally. It says that in Serco's own training document. It refers to people, as I said, as 'offenders'.

This has been reported in today's papers already. Serco has suggested that this is perhaps a technical malfunction—a typo. I would argue that maybe that is because they could not work out how to do the 'control/find/replace' function properly to replace the words in this document. The point is that step-by-step through this particular training manual the officers who deal with asylum seekers—children, men and women—are not trained to deal with the needs of asylum seekers, people who have fled their countries because of torture, persecution and war. They have not been trained to deal with issues of post-traumatic stress that come with fleeing those types of circumstances, not trained to deal with issues of torture and trauma and not trained to deal with the needs of children who have had to flee their homes in order to seek protection. No, this document talks about how to restrain people, how to do strip searches, and how to deal with confrontation with prisoners. Nothing in here deals with the real needs of dealing with asylum seekers.

I think it is appalling that the people running our immigration detention facilities are training their officers as prison guards. And even then, we know that the training itself is dubious. Of course I sit on the Joint Standing Committee on Migration that is currently looking into Australia's immigration detention network. Throughout that inquiry—and anybody who has been watching this would know from the submissions and, of course, the Hansard transcript—there have been big questions over the abilities of these officers to do their jobs. Officers in the centres themselves have put on the record that they do not have the skills to deal with the escalating and skyrocketing mental health issues in immigration detention centres. Officers themselves have said that they are not taught to deal with issues of attempted suicide and self harm.

No, they are not. This training manual proves that. This training manual proves that they are taught that these people are just like offenders in a prison who have been given a sentence, and that they should be treated as such. Eighty per cent of this document focuses on how to restrain and use force against asylum seekers in these facilities, rather than deal with the needs of refugees who have fled to Australia seeking our protection.

I question how seriously Serco, the company who is running our detention centres, really takes this issue when they could not even be bothered putting together a training manual for their officers which goes to the heart of the needs of asylum seekers. It is a cobbled-together document—they have not even replaced all the words properly and they put it down to a 'technical fault'. Madam Acting Deputy President, I will tell you what the technical fault is: the technical fault is that we never should have outsourced the running of our detention centres to a private company in the first place. Australian taxpayers are footing the bill, a bill of $1 billion, to pay this company to run our centres and yet they cannot even train their officers properly.

Of course we know that Serco does not like us talking about the operations in their detention centres and, of course, the government does not like us talking about what goes on in there either. Also today, there has been the revelation that the media access guidelines and protocols to detention centres have been formed on the media access rules to Guantanamo Bay. I kid you not! You would think this was a joke if it were not actually serious. The running of our facilities, the approach to our immigration detention system and our approach to Australia's obligations to individuals seeking our protection and care, really are summed up by the fact that the training manual for officers working in our facilities dealing with asylum seekers—client service officers is what they are referred to by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship—in conjunction with their own media guidelines, suggest that they really just see the centres as prisons and asylum seekers as somehow just another group of criminals. I would like to go to some of the broader issues concerning Serco. Australian taxpayers foot the bill for this private company to run the centres. This is a company that also runs prisons right around the world, particularly in the United Kingdom. Its profits have been going down a little lately in the United Kingdom and the latest posting of its $10 billion portfolio includes a big shout-out to the fact that its share profits have been boosted by its Australian operations. We know that Serco has been awarded an extra $300 million in its contract and the contract value has soared beyond $756 million as detention sites have quadrupled to 24 and the number of detainees, in Serco's own words, 'ballooned'. We know that the company Serco is in the business of making money. It cannot even train its staff properly to deal with the needs of vulnerable asylum seekers and it is cashing in on people's misery. We have heard that saying before: when the government talked about people smugglers trading in the misery of other people's lives. I would suggest that the private company Serco, which is making millions and millions of dollars profit on the back of Australian taxpayers, which cannot train its staff properly, which cannot put together a training manual properly and which cannot even bother to do spellchecks, is trading on other people's misery.

It is absolutely concerning that the government of the day is allowing a company like this, shambolic as it is, to run our detention centres with staff who clearly do not have the skills to deal with the needs of asylum seekers. We know that people are suffering hugely in these places, especially because of the length of time they have been there. This training manual talks about offenders having sentences and being able to work off their sentences or get extra things through good behaviour. That is the way prisons are run. The sad thing about what happens in immigration detention centres is that asylum seekers have never faced a court. They have no way of challenging their detention and, indeed, they never know when their 'sentence' will end, because it is administrative detention that these men, women and children are subjected to. They are subjected to a mandatory detention system that is funded by Australian taxpayers and which wastes in the vicinity of $3 billion. A billion of this goes to a private company which trains its staff to run a prison, not to deal with children who have fled war, torture and persecution.

I hope that the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship is listening to this. I hope he has the time to look through this induction course training manual, because it is important to understand that the people who we ask to look after the people who have come to this country seeking our protection have a duty of care. They have a duty of care to people, many of whom are very fragile and very vulnerable and have fled war, torture and persecution. Many of them are suffering greatly not only because of their long-term detention, but also because we do not give them the assistance they need on the ground. I also think that we owe a duty of care to the individual Serco officers in these facilities who, based on this document that I have in front of me, are clearly not trained to deal with the needs of asylum seekers. They are trained as prison guards, and I would point out that that training is not accredited. It is Serco's own manual and many of these people do not even have the qualifications of a nightclub bouncer—a certificate II in security. These people are working in these facilities without the appropriate training, and we wonder why we have a crisis in our immigration detention system.

A doctor in Darwin only last week recalled publicly that there are children in the Darwin Airport Lodge immigration facility who have attempted suicide—children as young as nine years old—and yet the people who look after these people are not trained to deal with this. It is a shame; it is shameful and it must be an absolute embarrassment to this government that the people we pay $1 billion to do their job cannot even write a manual properly.