Govt breaches its own care principles? Ombudsman investigates

Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher today announced his decision to conduct an investigation into the use of force by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Government’s immigration detention service provider, SERCO, on Christmas Island during the week of 12 March 2011.

Mr Asher delivered a guest lecture at Melbourne University Law School, where he explained his intention to look at whether the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and SERCO demonstrated due process and considered decision-making.

‘My principal concern with Christmas Island, as with all of Australia’s detention facilities, is to ensure that in using its exceptional powers, DIAC upholds the highest standards of public administration and accountability,’ Mr Asher said.

‘My investigation will therefore pay particular attention to cross-agency coordination and take into consideration matters such as training, management and oversight, information systems, quality assurance and, importantly, controls over the use of these powers.’

Mr Asher also raised his concerns about the impact of long-term detention on the ongoing mental health of immigration detainees.

‘Most critically, I am concerned about the seemingly high incidence of self-harm and the high number of apparent suicides within the immigration detention network when compared to previous periods of high numbers in immigration detention and to other detention environments such as Australian prisons and police custody facilities.

‘The vast majority of the people currently in immigration detention will be found to be owed Australia’s protection and, as a result of their detention, may be starting down the path to citizenship with a significant burden of mental health issues,’ he said.

Mr Asher is considering an investigation into the appropriateness of the physical facilities within which asylum-seekers are held and the extent to which DIAC and SERCO have developed and implemented programs to identify and manage those at risk of suicide.

‘As long as there are families with children, unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable people in immigration detention facilities on Christmas Island, and as long as there are risks to their health and well-being as a consequence of inadequate services, I consider that DIAC is in breach of the Australian Government’s own detention values.’

Mr Asher has informed the relevant Government Ministers and agency heads of his investigation. The Ombudsman Act 1976 allows the Ombudsman to issue a notice compelling a person he believes has information relevant to an investigation to answer questions or provide information or documents. It also provides people served with a notice with protection against proceedings for disclosing information to Ombudsman officers and a certain level of protection against any civil action.

‘I expect that my investigation will complement the review currently being undertaken by Ms Helen Williams and Dr Allan Hawke into the management and security of the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre,’ Mr Asher said.

The Ombudsman’s speech is available.

Media contact: Fiona Skivington 0423 845 160

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Date of release: 14 April 2011