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Commission Website: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention

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:

  • Monitoring

    and assisting with DIMIA's processing of Temporary Protection Visa

    (TPV) applications;

  • Monitoring

    the contract performance of the operators of the WIRPC, Australasian

    Correctional Management (ACM); and

  • Monitoring

    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

8. In

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:

  • Uncertainty.

    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.

  • Powerlessness

    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.

  • Interplay

    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.

11. Staffing

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.


15. When

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

same compound.

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


18. It

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.

19. ..

20. Children

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

23. There

were simply not adequate play areas and stimulation for children.

24. General

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.

28. Locally,

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.


29. I

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

of resources.


34. When

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.

36. Education

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.

Unaccompanied Minors

37. I

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

38. I

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.

40. Furthermore,

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

every particular.


on 24 October 2002


Updated 18 July 2004.