Immigration dept broke its own rules on refugee prison transfers, says ombudsman

Rally for refugee rights at Villawood detention centre, Sydney, April 2011. Photo: Peter Boyle

The immigration department ordered 22 asylum seekers be taken to Sydney’s Silverwater jail after protests in Villawood detention centre last Easter. But the department did not keep a complete record and failed to follow its own procedures or visit the detainees within the 24 hours required.

On the advice of federal police, the Iranian and Kurdish asylum seekers were forced out of Villawood in the early hours of April 22 last year, accused of being the “ring leaders” of the spate of protests that took place over the Easter weekend.

Sixteen of the accused now face charges of riot, affray and property damage. Thirteen have been granted bail but remain locked up in the high-security Villawood compound.

A recent ombudsman investigation found big gaps in how the transfers were documented. The report said the immigration department did not follow relevant procedures for “the notification to the detainee of the transfer; record keeping; and visits to the person in detention.”

Asylum seekers were not notified of their imprisonment in writing, but verbally, and not in their first language. The Ombudsman said there was “no record of notice being given recorded on individual client files” and the asylum seekers “had not been informed about why they had been transferred” by April 29.

A department official did not visit Silverwater until six days after the asylum seekers were transferred, and there was “no evidence of the mandated weekly contact, either in person or by telephone, during the period the detainees were held”.

The department’s protocols require records of the time and date of all checks and visits, whether they were in person or over the phone, and notes of conversations with the people in detention.

But the Ombudsman said: “In respect of each of these requirements, [the immigration department] advised us that it did not have a record.” The immigration department said it acknowledged “there had been some process shortcomings”.

A solicitor from the NSW Council of Civil Liberties did visit the men in Silverwater the day after their transfer. Stephen Blanks reported appalling and distressing conditions in which the asylum seekers were held in isolation for 18 hours a day “with no access to communication, either with each other or with the outside world”.

He said there were “no toothbrushes, no showers, not even any toilet paper”. Blancks lodged the complaint that led to the Ombudsman’s investigation. His reports also detail the awful conditions in which the asylum seekers were removed to the jail: “One of them told me that when he was forcibly removed from his bed in Villawood early in the hours of Good Friday, that a [Serco] guard pushed handcuffs into his wrist, and laughed.”

The sixteen charged have now spent more time in jail or detention than a conviction for any of the offences would bring. Five have also now been found refugees. One magistrate during a bail hearing said the government’s evidence was “weak”.

But immigration minister Chris Bowen has used the cases to push for more punitive laws that would allow him to cancel or refuse protection visas to anyone convicted of an offence while in detention.

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