This statement was provided by Mr Anthony Hamilton-Smith, Ex-DIMIA Manager
from Woomera to the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention
Submission No. 282
This is an edited
I, Anthony Hamilton-Smith
of [address removed], South Australia, public servant 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. [Permission later
granted for the statement to be made public].
3. I have worked
for what is now the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and
Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) since 1985 in a variety of portfolios.
4. I was the
Business Manager at the Woomera Immigration, Reception and Processing
Centre (WIRPC) from May 2000 to the end of May 2001. I was the senior
DIMIA official at the WIRPC.
5. Prior to
my position at Woomera I was an Assistant Director in the Adelaide
6. As Manager
at the WIRPC I was responsible for the management of DIMIA's business
there, this encompassed a range of functions including:
and assisting with DIMIA's processing of Temporary Protection Visa
the contract performance of the operators of the WIRPC, Australasian
Correctional Management (ACM); and
the wellbeing of all residents of the WIRPC.
7. I am presently
on recreation leave and still employed by DIMIA. I have been on leave
since finishing my position at the WIRPC. Conditions at the WIRPC
were very stressful for staff and it was not uncommon for me to work
for 24 hours without a break. I have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder as a result of the environment at the WIRPC under
which staff worked. This is a condition from which I have never suffered
Conditions at the WIRPC
my view, despite the efforts made by staff on the ground in Woomera,
the detention environment at the WIRPC is damaging for people who
are detained for long periods. It is the longer term corrosive impact
of detention on detainees and particularly children that I am especially
concerned about. The main causes of this are:
Little information was provided for people about the process and
time taken in processing visa applications. Their IAAAS solicitors
are only intermittently on site and often did not provide answers
to their clients. They often referred them back to the DIMIA Manager.
"Screened out" residents were merely told that the process was continuing.
I tried to provide information and assistance but could only do
so to a limited extent.
- Delays. When
I arrived at the WIRPC in May 2000 none of the residents there had
had a decision made in relation to their visa applications. Some
had been there since November 1999, others since January 2000.
- Harsh physical
environment and a lack of sensory stimulation (colours, smells,
textures) such as plants, grass, play equipment, colour, smell that
eg. flowers would provide.
and institutionalisation. By way of example, families could not
prepare their own meals. This was something that was very corrosive
and further engendered a sense of powerlessness, which was undermining
of families and parenting.
between internal psychological state resulting from trauma experienced
by some people in their home country, and the harsh external environment
of the WIRPC.
9. I recall
one particular family which, when they arrived appeared to be a strong
cohesive family unit. The children were always clean and well-presented
and I observed the strong bonds within the family unit. After about
10 months the mother, who was a medical specialist, approached me
and asked me to take the children to get them out of detention. She
had become unable to care for her children and wanted to give them
to me to get them out of detention.
10. There was
interplay, in my view, between the imperative of having people processed
promptly and released and sending a deterrent message to other potential
asylum seekers. I believe that the imperative of deterrence at times
came to the fore. Ultimately it impacted upon the conditions and nature
of detention and made them less humane and safe than they would otherwise
have seen. From having visited a variety of prisons through my work,
I am of the view that the facilities were far superior to those provided
at the WIRPC.
levels were generally inadequate, although the level of nursing staff
was generally adequate, however some exhibited racist attitudes. The
numbers of staff in teaching and psychological positions were inadequate.
I was aware that there was concern about this by local ACM staff,
but the matter was controlled from Sydney ..
12. Some staff,
having often come from a prison background, did approach detainees
in a way that I thought lacked sensitivity and understanding. ACM
management locally did deal with this issue by removing some staff
and introducing training programs....
13. There was
no policy of calling detainees by numbers. At first when there were
large numbers of detainees it was more convenient to use numbers because
there might have been many people with a common first name (such as
Mohammed) and there were difficulties for staff with pronunciation.
There were also people in the camp who were using aliases and did
not respond when their name was called. However this did not continue
for long and a system was implemented whereby a first name followed
by a person's number was used. I did not think, however, that numbers
were used to harass or demean people.
14. I was aware
of DIMIA's Immigration Detention Standards and tried to use these
as a tool to require ACM to improve standards where I though they
were lacking. However, they were not very useful in practice because
they were essentially "motherhood" statements.
I arrived the WIRPC comprised 3 main compounds - Sierra, India and
the Main Compound. There was no area designated for children. The
approach to the detention centre generally was "one size fits all".
Single men from a variety of backgrounds, families, children (in families
and unaccompanied), women (including pregnant women) were all in the
16. The accommodation
including the new compounds was designed with single men in mind.
The composition of the camp increasingly included women and children
because of the conditions of the TPV which prevented family reunion.
17. While families
and children could have separate rooms, it was not initially physically
possible to have children and families in a separate compound from
the single men. I raised this problem with the DIMIA head office but
nothing was done until 2001 when fences were put in to divide the
main compound into 3 areas, with one for families.
Safety and Exposure to
was very difficult and not generally possible to separate children
from the main population during rioting. I recall, in particular,
the riots in August 2000 which were particularly violent. People were
throwing rocks and using metal bars to damage property and attack
staff. Children were caught up in the riots and I regarded lives as
being at risk from fire and from some of the rioters. This impacted
on the children and left them terrified.
also witnessed numerous acts of self-harm and threatened self-harm
by adult detainees. Some of the children seemed to have an almost
morbid fascination with these incidents. I was aware that this caused
the children nightmares, but some already had experienced from witnessing
the beating of close family members y police and others in their home
21. When I started
at the WIRPC, there was no policy in place for dealing with child
abuse, nor were there case management guidelines for such cases. I
regarded this as inappropriate and inadequate. A child abuse policy
was in place by about November 2000, which was developed locally by
DIMIA and ACM staff. Case management guidelines were not fully developed
prior to my departure from ACM, but a good draft plan had been developed
by [an ACM staff member]. As the WIRPC was the last centre to have
been commissioned, I would have expected policies and procedures to
be in place at other centres or nationally.
22. I regarded
the responses to any allegations of child abuse as appropriate. There
was not, to my knowledge, a particular problem of child abuse in the
WIRPC while I was employed there, and any matters that arose were
dealt with by way of reporting to Family and Youth Services (FAYS)
and South Australian Police (SAPOL) as required by law.
Play and Activities
were simply not adequate play areas and stimulation for children.
levels of play and activities for children varied because at times
when there was a mood of depression in the centre, children may not
have wanted to attend, or their parents would not allow them to attend.
25. ACM staff
and other detainees did make efforts to provide activities for children
but the kids should have been able to use a grassed area as they desired.
Locally, we put down artificial grass to give children a better area
to play. However, this should have been done earlier as a priority
part of the construction, and grass should have been planted.
26. When I arrived
at the WIRPC there was no play equipment erected for children to play
on. There was some modern play equipment that had been donated by
Defence to the WIRPC and was ready to be installed. There were apparently
concerns by ACM about legal liability, but it was equipment that had
been used until recently in the Woomera township. None of the equipment
had been installed by the end of the year and the equipment was only
partly installed by the time I finished employment at the WIRPC.
27. Pony rides
had also been organised for kids while I was working at the WIRPC.
Children were led on ponies, and wore helmets. However, ACM head office
stopped this again with concerns about legal liability.
ACM and DIMIA initiated excursions to Breen Park, the local pool and
picture theatre. There were also significant logistical difficulties
in arranging excursions which were not frequent enough to provide
stimulation for children. This was partly because of the limited staff
available and because resources (such as transport) were either not
available or not made available.
was aware that there were problems in providing appropriate counselling
and psychological services to detainees, including children, while
in detention. During much of my time at the WIRPC there were shortages
of experienced child psychologists. It was not possible to provide
Torture and Trauma counselling for people in detention. Note particularly
that this was largely because the harshness of the environment simply
made it impossible to properly counsel people - the environmental
causes of their psychological problems could not be changed. More
significantly such counselling cannot be undertaken until individuals
are ready and in an appropriate environment.
30. When I arrived,
there were also inadequate numbers of staff available for proper counselling.
The levels of staff improved at times, but as people were on short-term
contracts, although this later changed and there were obvious problems
with providing continuity of care.
31. I observed
that the welfare of children was significantly impacted upon by the
welfare of the parents. When parents could not cope, the children
32. There were
some incidents of children participating in hunger and fluid strikes.
This was advised to FAYS and in general counselled parents who were
supportive of getting children off the strikes. We were able to get
the children eating and drinking again. On one occasion an 11 year-old
boy who was in the care of an aunt and uncle was on a hunger strike
and becoming increasingly weak. I was asked to intervene by detainees
and the doctor and did so. I was able to get him to eat and drink
33. I did not
regard there as being a problem with the general level of medical
services available. However, the medical building itself was clearly
inadequate. I understand that has now been replaced with a new facility.
I did not observe any medical care being denied because of a lack
I arrived there was one Australian teacher, a detainee acting as principal
and some detainees who had been teachers in their home country running
classes. There was a lot of involvement of detainees in providing
education, which had significant advantages in terms of using the
skills of the detainee population and maintaining culture.
35. I regarded
a good job was done by detainees and the employed teacher involved
in providing education with the resources available, but there was
not adequate facilities for schooling such as quiet classrooms, appropriate
play areas and a library with books in a variety of languages, and/or
sufficient teaching staff familiar with the Australian curricula.
beyond the centre was explored in a tentative way whilst I was there,
but I understand that there were concerns in local community about
this which were a barrier.
regarded there as being an appropriate level of care provided to unaccompanied
minors, given the environment and resources at the WIRPC. I considered
myself to have responsibility for the care of unaccompanied minors
by virtue of the Minister's position as their guardian, and took this
responsibility seriously. However, the fundamental question remains:
"Are we as Australians providing the most humane level of care?"
Responses to Problems
raised my concerns about standards and conditions (such as the inadequate
numbers of staff and lack of appropriate play facilities) with ACM
staff in Woomera and they, in turn, raised them with their head office..
39. When I raised
these problems with my head office, I was told that these were resourcing
issues and these were not a matter for DIMIA. I was told that we were
to judge on outcomes and raise such matters in the quarterly reports.
While I did so, this approach was, in my opinion, flawed. Most obviously
it resulted in problems only being addressed after the event and causes
often not addressed.
some things, such as the long term effects of an environment devoid
of stimulation cannot be measured in terms of short-term outcomes.
Things such as self-harm and increased disturbances only materialise
over time as people become more desperate. But it was clear that such
outcomes were, in the long term, inevitable because of the failure
to address short term concerns.
41. I am of
the opinion that blame cannot be laid at the feet of the staff on
the ground working at the WIRPC, or the detainees. Rather, it is a
flawed model that causes unavoidable problems. Specifically, many
traumatized individuals, lumped together at times with those who were
gaolers in their home countries, others threatening individuals, inadequate
information, a sense of powerlessness, minute control over simple
daily activities, for example food, medication, and a lack of sensory
stimulation all contribute to a corrosive breakdown of a person's
psyche. This is overlaid with a government obsessed with control,
border security and legal liability. Daily operations are conducted
by a contracted company.
42. Not all
experiences at the WIRPC from the resident's viewpoint were negative.
I have been told by some Afghanis that the food was the best they
have ever eaten. Others joyful at winning an event in a sports carnival,
happiness when ACM staff hosted a Samoan evening for long term residents.
It was a place in which intense highs and lows occurred for many residents.
It seemed that the flying in of teams of lawyers, DIMIA staff and
release dates had a significant effect on the overall mood of the
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
on 24 October 2002
Updated 18 July 2004.