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Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
Manager at Woomera in 2000
of the WIRPC
of the WIRPC
for Education and Recreation
I, [the Department
Infrastructure Manager at Woomera in 2000], of [address removed], do solemnly
and sincerely declare as follows:
1. I make this statement
for the purposes of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.
2. I have asked for
my evidence to the Inquiry to be confidential.
3. I was employed
by what is now the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous
Affairs (DIMIA) for 37 years. I started with the Department after leaving
school and was employed with them until January 2002 when I resigned.
4. I worked for DIMIA
at the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre (WIRPC) from
about November 1999 to the December 2000. I was the Infrastructure Manager
during that time, as well as the Operations Manager for the period November
1999 to approximately March 2000.
5. Prior to my appointment
to the position at the WIRPC I was Acting Assistant Director in Adelaide,
working in the business migration portfolio. I was sent to Woomera to
set up the WIRPC and arrived there approximately 6 weeks before the centre
6. I was awarded
an Immigration Medal from the Department in March 2000 for my work at
Woomera. This was the second time I had received this award for my work
7. Working at the
WIRPC was very stressful, especially when there were riots and tension
in the camp. I was threatened on a number of occasions by detainees and
felt that my life was in danger. As a result of the stress of the environment
under which we were working, I went on sick leave in January 2001 and
was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I have no history
of depression and have not been diagnosed with PTSD before.
8. I remained on
sick leave for approximately twelve months and ultimately resigned from
DIMIA in January 2002.
of the WIRPC
9. Woomera was chosen
as a site for an IRPC largely because of the availability of land for
the centre and facilities in the town to service it. The idea had been
previously suggested when safe havens were being established for Kosovars
who came to Australia on safe-haven visas.
10. It was considered
a suitable place for an IRPC because there was a large area of Commonwealth
land on which a centre could be built and the town had significant infrastructure
by way of schools, a hospital, shops, recreation and accommodation that
were not being fully utilised because of the significant reduction of
the population in the town that had occurred. It was understood that the
township were supportive of having an IRPC there as it would bring more
people to the town by way of staff working at the centre.
11. A significant
advantage of the site was also that it could be ready quickly to meet
the need for an IRPC facility following the large increase in arrivals
of asylum seekers in late 1999.
12. The WIRPC was
set up, as the name suggests, as a reception and processing centre rather
than a detention centre. In broad terms, the centre was initially designed
as a “soft camp” to house primarily single men for short periods
of time while their applications for protection visas were being assessed.
The WIRPC was not designed for families or children and was not designed
for long-term detention and very little was done to make the camp appropriate
for children before it commenced operation.
13. The intended
use of the WIRPC for processing (predominantly) single men was based on
the demographics of the asylum-seeker population who had arrived as unlawful
non-citizens in the period prior to the establishment of the WIRPC. However,
because of the removal of the ability to seek family reunion for those
holding temporary protection visas in 1999, these demographics changed
and increasingly women and children arrived in Australia unlawfully seeking
14. The numbers of
people arriving who were to be accommodated also far exceeded the intended
capacity of the WIRPC. It was significantly overcrowded in its early days
with in excess of 1100 people living in accommodation initially designed
for about 650.
15. When the numbers
of children started to increase throughout 2000 the inappropriateness
of the WIRPC as a place to hold children and families became clearer.
While efforts were made by those working at the WIRPC for DIMIA and Australasian
Correctional Management (ACM) to meet the needs of children and families
with the resources available, it is my opinion that the detention environment
at the WIRPC simply cannot meet those needs and it was not a safe and
healthy environment for children.
16. In developing
the infrastructure at the WIRPC, we did not have any input from people
with expertise in the needs of children. This was not an area in which
I had any experience or training, and the pressure under which we worked
at the WIRPC to keep the centre running, especially following riots, meant
that it was not a priority in the work I was doing.
17. I was not aware
of any Immigration Detention Standards, such as now exist, when I was
involved in setting up Woomera.
of the WIRPC
18. In about late
March or early April 2000 there were the first serious disturbances at
the WIRPC which ended in rioting and a break-out. This seemed to have
been caused most significantly by the frustration of detainees at the
time taken to process their claims. I was aware that the first group of
detainees were held in detention for almost four months before they had
their first proper interview with DIMIA to assess their claims for a protection
19. From my experience
in the Department I am of the view that, although the large increase in
the number of people arriving unlawfully created difficulties for the
processing of protection visas, resources could have been made available
to quicken processing but were not. There was a view held within DIMIA
of which I was aware that to quicken processing would be to “give
in” to the detainees, especially following the disturbances.
20. It is my opinion
that the processing of protection visa applications in a transparent and
efficacious way would have significantly changed the dynamic of the WIRPC.
Even if the physical conditions in the centre had been improved, the frustration
of the detainees at the time taken and the lack of information provided
about the process made the conditions for all detainees far more difficult
that they needed to be. The sometimes severe psychological stress being
felt by detainees was obvious.
21. To my knowledge,
no priority was given to the processing of protection visa applications
by children, including unaccompanied minors and children in family units.
People were interviewed in turn.
22. After the first
rioting and break-out in April 2000, the main concern with infrastructure
was security, such as trying to ensure that the fences could not be breached.
The needs of children were, again, not a priority. It was following this
time that the WIRPC became more like a detention centre and its conditions
came to be that of a medium to high security detention facility.
23. There seemed
to be great concern politically with making the conditions in the camp
such that others may be deterred from coming to Australia, and this influenced
the development of the WIRPC by DIMIA. Children were basically caught
up in this.
24. I was in the
WIRPC compounds every day and could see negative effects of detention
on the children such as crying, distress, signs of depression, inappropriate
attachment to female figures such as nurses. Sometimes I raised particular
things I had seen with the centre manager, but found that I had to divorce
myself from operations and concentrate on infrastructure.
25. Security for
children at the WIRPC was a problem because, although families had separate
rooms, the main compound had a mixed population which still included many
single men. I was aware that ACM officers did patrol the compound with
a view to minimise the risks to children’s safety, but the arrangements
did create problems for children and families.
26. A separate compound
was developed while I was working at the WIRPC for women and children
but it was then used for accommodating Afghani detainees. I understand
that there may now be a compound for families operating at the WIRPC.
27. I had suggested
that the area opposite the WIRPC be made into a walk-in, walk-out centre
for women and children so that they could be accommodated separately and
visit male family members daily in the main camp. I thought this would
be a significant improvement but the proposal was rejected. I believe
cost was a prime reason for this rejection.
28. Cost was always
a governing factor in infrastructure decisions, and this significantly
limited the ability of staff on the ground at the WIRPC to readily remedy
deficiencies in the infrastructure of the WIRPC.
for Education and Recreation
29. Initially it
was thought that children would be able to attend the local school. However
it was decided to provide education in the WIRPC because this required
less staff to facilitate it, and also because there were concerns from
people in the Woomera township about having children from the detention
centre in the mainstream school – for example, there were concerns
expressed about exposure of local children to infectious diseases.
30. It took a long
time to establish an education block. There was a kindergarten set up
fairly early in the operation of the WIRPC, but most education took place
in the open air and under shade-cloths. There was not a lot of push for
education facilities from ACM because school was not generally well-attended
and there was, to my knowledge, no real curriculum in the early stages.
31. When an education
centre was set up in a demountable building, it was the target of vandalism
and burnt to the ground before it came into commission.
32. Further attempts
were made while I was working at the WIRPC to have education provided
externally. In particular, the Catholic school in Woomera which had closed
to students, was suggested. However, the idea was rejected by DIMIA management.
I believe the rejection was because ACM believed schooling should be provided
within the detention facilities and because additional staff resources
would be required to manage school attendance out-of-centre.
33. Playground equipment
that had been dismantled from the town had been made available to the
WIRPC but it sat dismantled for many months because ACM had concerns about
legal liability in the event that children were hurt. Ultimately DIMIA
insisted that it be put up to give children something to play on. It was
modern, plastic equipment that had been in use until recently in the town
before the downturn in Woomera’s population made it surplus to requirements.
34. There was no
grass and children played on gravel at the WIRPC. It would have been,
in my view, difficult to have established a lawn in the centre and we
did try to put down some softer sand but that was too difficult for children
to run and play on. I thought that a solution to this would have been
to use the town oval, which was hardly used, for recreation. However this
was resisted by ACM and DIMIA again essentially on the basis of extra
staffing and compromised security.
35. Kids did have
some excursions to the park in town, but these were infrequent –
perhaps once every 10 days. However, they became less regular and were
temporarily cancelled when there were disturbances in the centre.
36. My overriding
concern with the detention of the children at the WIRPC relates to the
inappropriateness of the environment that exists there for children. While
I believe that I did the best I could in the circumstances, the parameters
are fundamentally flawed when it comes to providing for children’s
I make this solemn
declaration by virtue of the Statutory Declarations Act 1959
as amended and subject to the penalties provided by that Act for the making
of false statements in statutory declarations, conscientiously believing
the statements contained in this declaration to be true in every particular.
Updated 30 June 2003.