Submission to the National
Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention from
My name is Katie
Brosnan. I am a permanent resident of Australia and a citizen of Ireland.
I qualified as a high school teacher in Ireland in 1995 with a bachelor’s
degree in education. I have taught in Ireland, Poland and Australia in
mainstream educational facilities as well as with marginalized groups
e.g. refugees in Ireland, gypsies in Ireland.
I worked at Port
Hedland IRPC from August 2001 until April 2002 as a teacher. I was employed
through an agency named [name removed]. The man who runs this agency is
[name removed]. After a brief interview, I was contracted to ACM for a
six week period. I was to be paid $27 per hour, have my accommodation
paid for in [a] Caravan Park in Port Hedland and have return airfares
to and from Perth.
I received a thirty
minute induction upon arrival at Port Hedland IRPC. This induction largely
dealt with security issues e.g. what to do in a hostage situation, how
my keys were now “my life”, not to bring anything in or out
of the centre and always to be on the lookout for potential weapons. There
was no information regarding cultural awareness or the nature/ nationalities
of my students. This induction was conducted by the training officer,
In August 2001, there
were approximately 120 children in detention in Port Hedland. They either
came to school in H Block or received instruction in “separation”.
I was officially
assigned the Upper Primary class which in theory children ranged from
10 to 12 years of age. In reality, I was teaching 8 to 15 year olds. I
was also assigned a small amount of teaching hours in separation. In addition
I was to teach male adults from 3pm to 5 pm each afternoon. I was told
my priority was teaching English as a second language.
My immediate manager,
Programs Manager, was out on sick leave at this time as was the permanent
teacher. All this information was conveyed to me by the two other contract
I started work at
7am and officially finished at 5pm from Monday to Friday. I worked on
Saturday afternoons teaching male adults.
The contact teaching
hours are far larger than the average school. The norm is usually approximately
20 hours per week. I was doing 32/ 33 hours contact teaching per week.
The school facilities
and resources were poor. There were 4 classrooms in H Block. The furniture
was old and unsuitable for the children. Children often had to stack chairs
in order to reach the desk. I had two to three students sitting to a single
desk at times. There were grills on all windows so there was little natural
light. Artificial light was necessary at all times.
Books were available
in the school. Most were unsuitable as they had been donated by local
schools. They were outdated and not aimed at ESL students. Requests for
the purchase of new educational materials were continually turned down
until January 2002 when a new Programs Manager was appointed.
A school photocopier
existed until October 2001. It broke down and was replaced by one from
DIMA. This also broke down in the same month. After that, there was no
school photocopier. This was despite repeated requests to ACM from teachers
regarding the need for one. Teachers were to go to K Block which is the
administration block to photocopy. We often had no access to this machine
as teachers were not considered a priority. To my knowledge, this situation
has not altered since I left.
The lack of access
to a photocopier made teaching more difficult as children did not have
individual textbooks. Each child was issued one pencil, one exercise book
and if they were lucky an eraser and a ruler. These resources were often
in short supply and one had to wait until the following month’s
budget came through before a child received an eraser.
There is a whiteboard
in each classroom in H Block. I often did not have a whiteboard marker
to use due to the limitations of the budget. I normally purchased my own.
In H Block, there
were 4 main levels: Kindergarten, Lower Primary, Upper Primary and High
School. In my time there, the kindergarten class was taken by an unqualified
detainee. He received no training. When teachers had spare time, they
would access suitable material for him. The Lower Primary was largely
taken by an unqualified detainee as the permanent teacher ,whose class
it was, was often on stress leave. She resigned in December 2001.
I was never asked
by centre management as to the material I was teaching. This led me to
believe that ACM and DIMA were not interested in the quality of education
being delivered. The only times ACM and/or DIMA visited the school was
when delegations came to the centre. Teachers were then told to beautify
the school as best we could.
So education was
solely at the discretion of the teacher. I found that teaching English
for 4 hours per day was not appropriate for my students. I varied my programme
by adding maths, society and environment, art and crafts, music and singing
and drama. I observed other teachers to be less creative in their teaching
There was no programme,
no curriculum or syllabus in Port Hedland IRPC. As a teacher, this astounded
me. There were no handover periods between incoming and outgoing teachers.
Hence new teachers did not receive any information on their classes. There
were no student records or files. Children receiving TPVs did not get
an exit form. Teachers often did not know a child had received a TPV until
they were leaving. Hence no time even to pass on their school work to
them. Teachers were not informed of any situations regarding the children
in their care.
I consider this a
serious situation especially when children’s parents were involved
with self-harm incidents. Teachers were not informed of decisions regarding
the application process of the students. Negative decisions handed down
to the detainees often had a huge impact on the children. For teachers
not to be aware of these decisions made our job more difficult than necessary.
UMs did not at any
time attend kids school in H Block while I was there. After the National
Inquiry was announced in November 2001, a special class was established
for UMs. This took place from 1pm to 2.30pm from Monday to Friday excluding
Wednesdays. [Name removed] and I took this class in turns. Once we left
for the Christmas period, this class ceased.
Three UMs occasionally
attended my male adult class in February and March. They told me they
did not feel comfortable with either the adult class or the children’s
school. I would have liked to have devoted more time to them but there
simply were not enough hours in the day. I felt they were a particularly
vulnerable group due to the lack of family in detention.
From August 2001
until the end of February 2002, children ate breakfast outside in the
visitor’s yard. Detainees and teachers assisted with food distribution.
Children ate from dirty wooden tables with little shade. There was no
drinking water available at this location. Their breakfast diet consisted
of cereal, UHT milk, white bread, jam and processed cheese. They ate from
plastic container with plastic spoons. They did not have any knife for
putting jam on bread. There was no tap even for washing hands. Teachers
repeatedly asked management for a change in breakfast location due to
the heat and lack of shade. Breakfast was transferred to the “mess”
in February of this year. This was a marked improvement. I am however
concerned with the lack of variation in the diet. Children received one
piece of fruit at recess time. I sent this fruit back to the kitchen a
number of times as it was mouldy or overripe. There was little variation
in the fruit.
Working in the confines
of Port Hedland IRPC is a challenging experience. Children often came
to me with their concerns and problems. They did not like to go to the
counsellor in the centre. I found myself ill-equipped to deal with their
difficulties. As a result, I requested “debriefing” or “supervision”
on a number of occasions. This was always turned down.
As mentioned earlier,
I worked a little in India and Foxtrot Blocks. These are both separation
areas. Here school was held in the common room. This was not a suitable
space. There was no whiteboard and often no tables. I used the window
as a whiteboard. There were numerous interruptions from both detainees
and ACM officers. As detainees get limited time outside whilst in separation,
I sometimes took class outside. Their time outside appeared to be solely
at the discretion of the officers. If I was outside, I usually played
games and sang. Officers often made scornful comments about what I was
doing. Comments like, “Is this what teachers are paid to do nowadays?”
Children and adults in separation received on average 1 to 1.5 hours of
education from Monday to Friday.
The people in separation
seemed distressed at all times. They treated my arrival as the highlight
of their day. I always left this area upset. Detainees would plead with
me to stay longer with them.
I had a number of
difficulties with ACM officers and their treatment of detainees. The general
attitude of most was these people had done something wrong and should
be sent back to their homelands in boats. There was little sympathy or
empathy for the people. A small number of officers were the exception
Detainees were always
called my number. Teachers refused to do this. Officers often entered
classrooms without knocking or saying, “excuse me”. Sometimes
they would be looking for a detainee and would call them by number; never
by name. Other times, the officer would simply walk into the room and
see what was going on. Others stood at the internal window and stare into
the class. I found this distracting. One officer once came into my class
while I was tutoring and started writing on the whiteboard as well as
talking to me. I found this unprofessional and disrespectful.
However I felt I
was not in a position to comment on this as officers write reports to
management. This can lead to instant dismissal. I did not have a written
contract and so was wary of creating waves. After one of my colleagues
was sacked in late February, I felt I was being constantly watched by
ACM officers. Their presence in the school was constant.
On a number of occasions,
I heard ACM speak inappropriately to children. I heard officers stating,”
If you do X, you will not get a visa.” This scared children. They
were fearful of the power of ACM.
One child with a
disability said hello to a male officer in late February 2002. The officer’s
response was, “fuck off.” He said it quietly but loud enough
for me to hear.
In February 2002,
a female officer spoke rudely to me at breakfast. I complained to the
Programs Manager as I was upset. At recess, this same officer denied a
child milk. She said something to the effect of, “Oh you know what
milk is. Do you have milk in your country?” This officer also called
a child a “shithead” in the yard of H Block. This officer
then called [another officer] and gave out about the behaviour of the
children. [The second officer] immediately backed the [first] officer.
[The second officer] spoke very harshly to the children. I got the Programs
Manager who requested the female officer be relieved of her work in H
Block that day. [The second officer] did not want a report to be submitted.
The Programs Manager did however did submit a report.
Every morning I dreaded
discovering which officer was assigned to the school in H Block for the
day. It could make a large difference to one’s day. I found most
officers unable to deal professionally with children. Officers used bad
language to children, threatened children with using their power with
regards to their visa process. Officers did not show any sensitivity towards
We kept sanitary
pads in the school for women and teenage girls. Some girls mentioned their
discomfort at asking male officers for these pads. Most of these females
do not speak to males outside the family unit in their country of origin
and now they must ask male officers for sanitary pads. This illustrates
the lack of understanding of ACM.
Prior to November
2001, there were no school excursions. However after the national inquiry
was announced, there was an effort on the part of ACM to organise excursions.
We went to Cemetery Beach in Port Hedland twice. On the second occasion,
[an ACM staff member] threw a teenage girl with a disability into the
ocean. She was terrified. The manager claimed he did not know she could
I think I went to the swimming pool with children three times. I think
each child had the opportunity to go to the pool twice. Trips came under
the control of activities. I found the activities officer to be inefficient.
On one occasion I was left alone with 8/9 children at the pool without
an officer. While I had no problem with this, I knew it was a security
issue. Afterwards I brought to the attention of ACM and DIMA. Neither
In late November
or early December 2001, all teachers received a memo from [name removed],
the Programs Manager. It stated that teachers were not to approach DIMA
staff. We were not to talk to them regarding any matter in the detention
centre. We were instructed to use the ACM chain of command i.e. talk to
the Programs Manager who in turn would talk to his superior etc.
From December 2001
onwards, there was a weekly meeting between ACM and DIMA concerning UMs.
They were actively encouraged to attend school. The teachers organized
a Valentine’s Night Disco for the children in the centre. One DIMA
personnel asked me at least twice to inform him of any UMs attending.
He said this was more information for Canberra to know.
Around this time,
two DIMA personnel received photographs of children at the swimming pool.
I was present while they selected photos of children “looking happy.”
They were searching for photos were the children’s faces were blurred.
After this incident,
I discouraged children from having their photograph taken. I realized
these photographs were being used for some form of propaganda.
In November or December
2001, one mother was put into a cell in K Block. She was suicidal. She
had three sons in the compound. When they were allowed to visit her, they
were searched by ACM staff. In my opinion, this added to the children’s
When the boat with
353 people went down in October 2001, the children were very upset. The
counsellor agreed to one session with the children. I do not know if this
session actually took place. If so, it was inadequate as children were
crying for many days at school.
I also witnessed
the same counsellor asking a teenage boy if she could read a letter he
had just received. The letter came in February 2002 and was a result of
the Freedom Bus to Port Hedland. He consented. The counsellor read the
letter in a public area, announced it was “stupid” and asked
the boy if she could throw it in the bin. Once again, he agreed.
When my colleague,
[name removed], was sacked in February 2002 the children were distressed.
They had not had the opportunity to say goodbye to their teacher. After
some days, I suggested they might benefit by talking to the counsellor.
Approximately twenty children requested to see the counsellor. She consented
to this but only in groups. She said to me that so many students would
take up too much of her time. After their group sessions, the general
feedback from the children was that this time was wasted as the counsellor
was just another ACM “mafia” officer. They did not appear
to have any confidence in the mental care team.
The mental care team
wear ACM uniforms. This immediately puts up a barrier for all detainees.
I found the children
to be clingy with me and other teachers. Their behaviour was often irrational.
They physically clung on to me regularly. They often asked me to stay
with them overnight in the blocks. They spoke of their anxieties with
regards to their process. They talked matter of factly about other detainees
on hunger strikes. They relished the thought of “trouble’
in the compound. A favourite topic of conversation was the riot of May
2001. They spoke of how guards wore riot gear and how they were scared
of the detainees. The children frequently tried to antagonize the officers.
Children were also
withdrawn and introspective. On one occasion, a child hid under a table
at school for over an hour. The counsellor told me she would deal with
the child. Half an hour later, I went back to the classroom. An ordinary
ACM officer was standing guard beside the table. This officer told me
the counsellor had given up and left. I eventually coaxed the child out
from under the table which was covered with a tablecloth. The counsellor
had placed the cloth over the table which made no sense to me. Why cover
the child in darkness?
ACM officers did
room searches in Port Hedland. They would collect any pencils or books
they found children to have. These would then be deposited at the school.
So instead of actively encouraging children to read or draw or write in
the family block, they would have all materials removed from them. As
a result, children resented the officers.
Headcounts are also
conducted at night which disturb the children’s sleeping. A torch
is shone in faces. A few children spoke of how this reminded them of past
experiences in the country of origin.
There was one family
where bedwetting was a problem for all three children. They ranged in
age from 10 to13 years. They had regular sessions with the psychologist
in the centre. He made no progress with this problem. Eventually he used
the bell-ringing method which I believe is out of date.
There is a Child Liaison Officer [CLO] employed by ACM. This woman was
an ordinary officer with an arm injury. Hence she was put in an office.
She had no prior experience in this field. She was ineffectual in her
work. In February 2002, there was a feeling of despair amongst the children
regarding visas. One family of five children stopped coming to school.
They stayed in their room all day with their mother. I asked both the
Programs Manager and the CLO why these children were not attending school.
They did not know. After a few days, the CLO told me the children were
sad and bored at school. The issue was not pushed any further by the CLO.
I unfortunately did not have access to these children to encourage to
In general, absences
were not considered to be of importance. Rolls for the children’s
attendance at school were often doctored by the Programs Manager.
A new Programs Manager,
[name removed], was appointed in January 2002. The situation in the school
improved with his appointment. He purchased much needed resources e.g.
colouring pencils, coloured paper, A4 exercise books for the high school
students, a small amount of resource books for the teaching staff. He
also bought individual maths workbooks for the children in March 2002.
These books were
unsuitable as we did not have the textbooks that precede the workbooks.
It was difficult to work from them.
Children in detention
for long periods of time have lost the ability to read and write in their
native tongue. I repeatedly suggested to management that they should have
instruction in their first language. This did not happen.
The teachers had
one detainee aide per class. Their job was to translate. They worked hard
for an unacceptable amount of money. Their wages were reduced in March
2002. They received no training for this work.
A volunteer music
and art teacher began to visit the centre in February 2002. This was wonderful
for the children as not only did it break the monotony of their day but
they also had the opportunity to express themselves through art and music.
It had taken many months for ACM to agree to this teacher coming in. The
matter was first raised in my presence in November 2001. The Programs
Manager said she would nothing but a headache for all.
I truly believe ACM
and DIMA are not concerned with the quality of education being provided
in Port Hedland IRPC. They never questioned my content nor did they issue
me with any instructions. In fact, they showed no interest in my work.
Updated 30 June 2003.